“Yeah,” said Rob Friedman, an MLB and ESPN baseball analyst known on Twitter as “Pitching Ninja.” “Pitchers definitely cheat."
They do it mostly by applying what the MLB rule book describes as a “foreign substance” to the ball. Such substances, including spit, mud, pine tar or lubricants, alter the way in which the ball travels to the plate, allowing a pitcher to manipulate the ball in an unnatural way.
Pitchers also sometimes scuff the ball with a concealed object such as an emery board or sandpaper to create the same effect. That’s also outlawed by the rule book.
But that hasn’t stopped pitchers from using these methods to gain an illicit edge. Even in an era of the game when spitballs are out of style, pitchers still routinely apply to saliva to the ball or their gloves so the ball will fly out of their hands toward the plate.
It’s common, Friedman said in a phone interview, for a pitcher to sneak a couple fingers’ worth of pine tar beneath the brim of his cap or a spot on his forearm.
Around 60 percent of big league pitchers use some type of foreign substance on the mound, Friedman estimates, referencing his conversations over the years with MLB players. All of the substances are utilized to alter a pitch’s natural spin rate, the amount of revolutions a pitch makes on its way homeward.
Tackier substances, such as pine tar or a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, help goose spin rate, which makes a fastball fly truer and a breaking ball bite harder. Substances that make the ball more slick cause pitches to slide around the strike zone and dive into the dirt.
If caught by an umpire, a pitcher would be immediately ejected from the game and subject to an automatic 10-game suspension. But some of the game’s best pitchers haven’t been shy about trying these less-than-legitimate methods to gain an advantage on hitters.
“Now when you say, ‘Cheating,’ using pine tar to help your curveball, stuff like that, those are things that are done in the game, that are accepted as part of the game,” Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan told ESPN in an interview in 1993. “So I wouldn’t sit here and tell you that ‘No, I wouldn’t do those things.’”
“I think pitching is the only position where you have to use from your nails to your hair,” fellow Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said in 2018. “And you wonder, why your hair? If you have a Jheri curl, sometimes when the ball’s not feeling right, you rub [hair-care products] on the ball and the ball moves a lot more.”
So why don’t umpires spend more time policing pitchers?
For one, the tactic has been around for so long and has endured with so few consequences that it’s practically a tradition. Ryan wrote in his autobiography, “Cheating is accepted in baseball, so I participated."
So many pitchers have used foreign substances over the years, players and coaches are wary of complaining about an opponent, lest their own team’s pitcher get found out, as well.
“When it’s really obvious,” Friedman said, “[umpires] will do something about it, but mostly it’s wink, wink, nod, nod. The umpires don’t care. The players don’t care because their pitchers are probably doing it, too.”
But some pitchers contend their use of foreign substances isn’t nefarious — it’s necessary. A common gripe among pitchers is that baseballs (especially in the warm summer months) can get slick with sweat and difficult to grip. A little pinch of pine tar on the hand or a dab of sunscreen and rosin can mean the difference between throwing strikes or a pitch slipping away and hitting a batter.
“It’s kind of a petty thing because if you ask any hitter they would rather us have control of a baseball or be able to hold onto it and not let it slip out of your hand — if that’s what you are using sticky stuff for,” Philadelphia Phillies reliever Tommy Hunter told reporters in 2015 while a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
MLB experimented with a tackier “consistent-grip” prototype ball in the independent Atlantic League over the summer. The ball has a stickier surface coating to help pitchers’ grip and a brighter white hue to help batters’ vision. Japan’s professional league uses a similar ball.
But in Major League Baseball, using a doctored ball with noble intentions in mind is still against the rules, even if it’s accepted as part of the game.