Pitchers using sticky substances: What's become collective understanding and what's ephemera?

June 14, 2021

A problem with being Super Online is that when certain issues cross over to the mainstream and trigger fresh waves of “discourse,” it can feel disorienting. In my internet-rotted brain, the controversy about MLB pitchers using sticky stuff to grip the ball was litigated in the middle of the 2010s and ebbed away, so the return of the argument, inflected with newer, Statcast-inflected understandings of the effects of better grip, feels like a sneaker wave.

Back in 2013, Clay Buchholz was accused of using illegal substances while on the mound, and the initial quotes set the story’s path. Take special note of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s comment:

"There aren't too many pitchers who don't try to get a grip somehow," Saltalamacchia said. "That's why there's rosin out there. I don't see anything to be alarmed about. It's not like he's taking a file and cutting the ball, doing something to make the ball move.”

What did Buchholz have to say for himself?

"There's a rosin bag behind the mound and it's there for everybody to use every inning after our warm-up," Buchholz said. "Put rosin on my arm throughout the game. Sweat, water, whatever. ... Sometimes I put a little thing of water on my hip just to get moisture on your hands. Cause sometimes the balls that they throw to you feel like cue balls off a pool table. Got to find a way to get grip. But yeah, I mean, definitely no foreign objects or substances on my arm."

Not a big deal. Pitchers try to get a grip on the ball using the rosin bag, so what’s wrong with getting a good grip with rosin from your forearm? Subsequent stories rehashed that doctoring balls was common going back decades, and (in my memory, at least) everything crested with Jeff Passan’s story suggesting every MLB team had pitchers using sunscreen and rosin to get a better grip on the baseballs.

Passan’s piece presaged the current conversation by including a quote about how pitchers need a better grip for batters’ safety, with the strong subtext (occasionally breaking through into explicit text) that this form of doctoring the ball was categorically different from traditional spitballs. For example, Gaylord Perry favored Vaseline, which is a slippery substance, the opposite of trying to get a better grip. Furthermore, the modern pitchers weren’t physically altering the ball the way Whitey Ford eventually admitted he did, adding scuffs via a rasp on his wedding ring.

The next year, 2014, Michael Pineda of the Yankees was spotted with a bunch of gunk on his hand. Buster Olney summed up the reaction well, explaining that Pineda’s opponents were unlikely to complain for fear of being accused, themselves — another line of reasoning playing out today. That interpretation was essentially confirmed by reliever Chris Capuano, who also justified pitchers’ efforts to improve their grip by contrasting to how a previous generation of pitchers had sought slippery substances to throw pitches with confusing movement, whereas modern pitchers are using sticky substances to make sure they’re throwing the ball where they intend to throw it.

By 2015, the whole thing felt like ancient news, as characterized in this story about then-Red Sox manager John Farrell calling for more universally-approved grip-enhancing substances.

But, of course, only a small fraction of the baseball-fan public consumed even that much information related to the controversy at that time, and an even smaller fraction engaged with others about it. This thing that I learned about and thought about and talked with other people about more than half a decade ago is legitimately new to a huge chunk of baseball fans, because they aren’t psychos who inhale content content content like they’re Ozzie Smith picking so many ground balls.

The other night, I finished Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This. It’s the kind of novel that resists useful subjective appraisal because, like this essay Lockwood published in 2019 that appears to be the book’s precursor, so much of the experience reading it depends on one’s familiarity with a specific band of social media culture. I happen to have immediately recognized about 75% of the explicit references — from Harambe to “I’m really not sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator” to caucasianblink.gif — and couldn’t stop thinking about A) all the references from different internet cultures that were left out, like the guy watching “Cars 2” while eating baked beans, or the entirety of what I’ll call Babylon Bee Facebook, and B) what anyone who has avoided Internet Brain Rot could possibly take away from it.

To that second point, it might work on the level of opening a window into a specific kind of Very Online-ness, but I suspect that for people like my mother, who assiduously avoids the internet except to send emails to her family, it may as well be read aloud in Simlish.

All that’s to say I’m having a hard time imagining how the sticky substances conversation is playing for folks who conceive of baseball as Baseball, the National Pastime, the same game played by Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth, who would have no reason to remember Clay Buchholz at all, in contrast to, say, the people who can speak extemporaneously for twenty minutes about why Tony Phillips was the most underappreciated player of his generation and understand the nuances of why hitters don’t bunt every time against the overshift.

More to the point, did the Clay Buchholz drama ever actually happen, as far as the vast majority of the baseball fan public is concerned? Did Michael Pineda’s gunky hand ever actually happen? Is it a blessing or curse to remember things if you’re in no position to prevent them from being repeated?

(Photo: "Oaks receiving the much-needed rosin bag" by Minda Haas Kuhlmann. Twitter: @minda33. Instagram: @minda.haas. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)