Kenny Rogers cheating with pine tar
Yesterday, Kenny Rogers was caught with a brown substance on his pitching hand, across the heel of the palm. After the first inning, according to Tony LaRussa, at least two of the five Cardinal hitters told him they’d seen the ball doing strange things, and LaRussa complained to the umpires, who talked to Rogers, Tigers manager Leyland, umpire supervisor Palermo, and when Rogers went back out for the second, his hand was clean.
I spent the last couple of years writing “The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball” (pre-order now! $11!), so you can imagine my glee.
After the game, Rogers claimed that it was a clump of dirt he hadn’t noticed. This is a transparent lie. We would have to believe that he’s the only pitcher not concerned and meticulous about the condition of his pitching hand, and that he also didn’t notice at any time during the inning that there was dirt getting on the ball when he turned it in his hand to grip it.
Asked how he could have not noticed it, Rogers said “”It was dirt and rosin put together. That’s what happens when you rub it up. â€¦ I just went and wiped if off. I didn’t think it was an issue. After the first inning, it was fine. I felt I was pretty comfortable after that.””
It’s pine tar. You’ve seen pine tar, it’s the sticky brown stuff hitters use on their bats, which you’ve also seen smeared on their helmets, batting gloves, and uniforms. Steve Palermo, the umpire supervisor, said the umps saw dirt, but that there was no inspection.
This is not the first time pine tar use by a pitcher in a playoff game has been controversial, either. Just in 1988, Dodger pitcher Jay Howell was caught with pine tar on his glove in the 8th inning of NLCS Game 3 on October 8th, facing the Mets, and was ejected after facing only one batter. The National League suspended him for three days.
Pine tar’s illegal. This is why you can’t admit you had pine tar on your hand. So the question “was he cheating?” is clearly yes. There have been many pitchers tossed out of games for having pine tar on their person.
But use of pine tar by pitchers is more of a long-tolerated practice, as long as they’re using it to get a better grip on the ball. When Brendan Donnelly was ejected in 2005 for using pine tar, he said
â€œI don’t have anything to apologize for. Pine tar is used the same way resin is used. People think you’re loading up the ball, but it keeps your fingers dry. I’m not trying to cheat or doctor the ball. Just to get a grip. Nothing more, nothing less.â€
Todd Jones, who is now Rogers’ teammate, wrote after Donnely’s ejection that he’d used pine tar every time he pitched at Coors Field because it the ball was so slippery there.
The hitters’ view is surprisingly lenient. In my book, Craig Counsell said in an interview that
â€œTheyâ€™ll come up with anything if they think they can get a better grip on the baseball. Youâ€™ll see the bill of their hat is black, the rest of the hatâ€™s red, and youâ€™re saying to yourself â€˜thatâ€™s not sweat.â€™ If something is done just to get a better grip on the baseball, thatâ€™s no big deal to me. But if theyâ€™re loading the ball up with saliva or whatever, and their pitches donâ€™t do what normal pitches do, then you start to wonder.â€
If Rogers was only using it to get a better grip in what were clearly difficult conditions to pitch in, this might be nit-picky. But LaRussa said his hitters complained of unusual movement. How would that have worked?
Any foreign substance on the ball affects its flight. A strategic scratch or artifically smooth surface (say, by coating the leather with Vaseline) can make the ball move a great deal. If you scuff a ball on the side and throw a normal fastball, the ball will move away from the scuffed side as it approaches the batter. This is the complaint of the Cardinal hitters: that Rogers was putting enough pine tar on the ball that it was moving more than it should have given a natural delivery.
Moreover, the word is that he’s been doing something to the pitches all year while at home. Thankfully, Nate Silver wrote a nice article analyzing the possibility at SI.
His conclusion is that Rogers has enjoyed a slight, but noticeable, advantage while at home that isn’t enough to say he’s doing anything, but is certainly enough to make you suspicious.
I’ll argue the con side: if Rogers is doctoring balls, he can do it using clear substances, and he can better conceal them, or if he’s scuffing or trying to create more air resistance on one side by loading it with tar, there are a lot better, sneakier ways to go about this (there’s a huge section on this in the book, by the way). Running around with a big smear of pine tar on his hand is just asking to be caught.
The most likely explanation here is that Rogers was using pine tar to get a better grip on the ball in the poor conditions, and went without (or went to something else) after the umpires told him to clean it off. That’s not a huge deal, and certainly not enough to make his performance less impressive.
(Also, if you find this kind of thing interesting – what the difference between minor rule-breaking and full-on cheating is, the history of ball doctoring and how to do it, you should buy the book, The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball” because it’s all about this stuff)