The truth about Clay Buchholz, spitballs and how pitchers get a grip
Thanks to accusations from Toronto broadcasters and former pitchers Dirk Hayhurst and Jack Morris, Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz has reignited an ageless debate about what constitutes "cheating" in baseball. Buchholz's defense about whether he is putting an illegal substance on his fingers to improve his grip only inflamed the debate.
It's unclear exactly what Buchholz is doing, so for now let's put aside accusations (and gullibility) and stick to the facts. At MLB Network I was able to review in close detail plenty of video of Buchholz from the past two years, including his start in question in Toronto on Wednesday [watch here]. This is what I found to be true:
• Buchholz's left forearm glistens this year with some kind of substance that is not rosin or perspiration. As the righthander admitted, he does keep water on his uniform and in his hair and does pat the rosin bag on his left forearm -- all apparently legal. But rosin is white and has a matte finish. Something wet and mostly clear glistens from Buchholz's left wrist to his elbow, the moisture of which darkens the edge of his left undershirt sleeve.
• This is not perspiration on his left forearm. His right forearm is dry. There is no darkening on the edge of his right undershirt sleeve.
• He regularly rakes his right index and middle fingers across his left forearm, being careful to keep his other fingers raised.
• Buchholz's two-seam fastball (thrown with the index and middle fingers on the seams) is much improved with more movement this year; I wrote about this key improvement in his game weeks ago.
Buchholz's answers to questions from reporters about the accusations from Hayhurst and Morris only confuse the issue. "Are they talking about the stains on my shirt?" he said. "There probably are stains on my shirt, because I've been wearing the same shirt for the last three years."
It was Buchholz who brought up the stains on his shirt. I'm not sure even what it means. (The Red Sox don't launder it?) But I looked at video from last year and found that there are no stains on his left sleeve. There is no glistening on his left forearm. Buchholz is doing something this year with his left forearm that he was not doing last year.
Know this: Most pitchers, not all, use something to improve their grip. There are many "homemade recipes" to go about getting the right kind of tackiness on your index and middle fingers to make the ball spin faster. Rosin by itself doesn't cut it. You need some moisture and tackiness mixed with rosin and water or saliva. I have seen and heard pitchers use pine tar (usually kept on the cap or uniform), sunblock lotion, an aerosol sticky spray and various other lotions as the binding agent with rosin and water or saliva.
It has become fairly common in the past five to 10 years for pitchers swipe or rub the forearm of their non-throwing arm between pitches. Notice that none of the uniformed Blue Jays complained about Buchholz. The complaints came from retired pitchers. The "secret society" among the knowing reminds me of the story when the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner called manager Lou Piniella during a game to get him to have the umpires check the opposing pitcher for scuffing the baseball. "But George," Piniella said, "our guy is cheating, too!"
The irony is that nobody wrote a better "how-to" explanation of using foreign substances than Hayhurst. In his book Out of My League, Hayhurst wrote about what's inside those backpacks pitchers carry to the bullpen. He wrote when describing the unpacking of the bag: "Then the real supplies came out: various goops and stick 'ems that some morally sensitive fans would call the use of cheating, while we in the business simply called having an edge." Those substances, Hayhurst wrote, include something called "Firm Grip . . . a knockoff of pine tar," shaving cream ("specifically the gel stuff") and sunscreen.
"When rubbed into the skin and mixed with sweat and rosin," Hayhurst wrote, "this stuff actually forms an SPF-40 caliber Fixodent, which a crafty pitcher can mix on the fly. A touch to the wrist slightly below the mitt for some [sun] screen, a wipe of the back of the neck for some sweat, a pat of the rosin bag for the third component, and you'll have enough tack to make the ball hang from your fingertips."
Is it legal? By definition, no. Rule 8.02 bars the use of any "foreign substance" on the baseball. But pitchers have come to rationalize the use of these substances not as throwing a doctored pitch or "spitball," but as the more benign sounding tactic of "improving my grip." As pitching continues to dominate the game, it is based mostly on pitchers adopting the cutter/sinker combination to get late movement on both sides of the plate. Grip has become important to establish high spin rates on such higher-velocity pitches.
The search for homemade recipes to improve grip has become common in baseball. The case of Buchholz in Toronto became uncommon for several reasons: he was called out by former pitchers, the lack of discretion in the extent of coverage of whatever is on his left forearm and the fact that in the year after he posted a 4.56 ERA without a stain on his sleeve he has an MLB-best 1.01 ERA and is throwing the baseball better than anybody in the major leagues.
Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds leads the National League in walks and has posted an impressive .441 on-base percentage. But his strikeout rate is a career high and his extra-base hit percentage is a career-low. So is Votto having a great season or not? That's for you to decide. As for Votto himself, he is not going to get caught up in his home runs or runs batted in totals, which stand at a modest four dingers and 11 RBIs.
"I've decided to really just simplify things," Votto said. "There are two things I care about: walks and getting the barrel on the baseball. I figure that over 700 plate appearances over the course of the season, if I'm fortunate enough to get those 700, everything else will take care of itself as long as I just pay attention to those two things."
What about RBIs, I asked him?
"Walks and the barrel of the bat," he repeated.
Votto is one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball, and nothing gets him out of his game plan. For instance, I told Votto this week that I was impressed with how well he hits when he swings at the first strike he sees. In counts of 0-0, 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0, Votto is batting .520 (13-for-25) with half of his eight extra-base hits. The numbers might suggest that Votto should swing more in those hitters counts, but Votto wants only a certain kind of strike when he gets into no-strike counts.
"I'm looking for something that I can hit for extra bases," Votto said. "It has to be a pitch I can drive."
So you can complain if you want Votto to "expand his zone" with runners on base or "swing from the heels" more often, but that's not the way Votto is wired as a hitter. Only very rarely, for instance, does he turn on a baseball. Over the past two seasons Votto has 66 extra-base hits. Only eight of them were pulled. Tony Gwynn used to say that one of the most important elements to successful hitting was to "know your swing." Votto knows his swing and his approach as well as any hitter in the game.
Matt Harvey gets the ball on Sunday against Tim Hudson of the Braves, having already outpitched Roy Halladay and Stephen Strasburg this year. This start will be fun to watch because Harvey is one of the best pitchers in the game at putting away hitters and the Braves are one of the worst teams in baseball at hitting with two strikes.
It will be interesting to watch, too, because the Mets let Harvey throw 121 pitches in his last start, only the 16th of his major league career. Over the past four years, only two other pitchers were left in a game long enough to throw more than 120 pitches within their first 16 major league games: the Rangers' Yu Darvish, who had thrown many high-pitch games in Japan, and then-Cub Thomas Diamond, who did so at age 27 three years ago and since has been released twice and is out of baseball.
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Harvey is a strong, thick pitcher who posted high-pitch games in college at North Carolina and profiles as a Justin Verlander-type who doesn't figure to be bound by the same kind of pitch count restrictions as the average pitcher. An extra day of rest also should help Harvey on Sunday, as well as having thrown only 90 pitches in his start before the 121-pitch effort. One game at 121 pitches is not a big deal. It might become a concern only if Harvey were hitting those pitch count numbers on a regular basis. Many coaches look at pitch counts in three-start increments to gauge stress on a pitcher. So far, the most pitches Harvey has thrown in a three-start increment is a manageable 316.