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Michael Pineda and The Obviousness Factor

Apr 24, 2014, 2:42 PM EDT

michael pineda pine tar

There’s a fun element of parenting that I like to call “The Obviousness Factor.” It goes something like this: Sometimes you see your kid doing something kind of off but not exactly wrong. For instance, we will see a daughter quietly goofing around with the dog when she should be doing her homework or gently annoying her sister when she could be doing something constructive like cleaning up her room or writing a novel that will make us enough money to retire.

And, up to a point, that’s not really a big deal. You know: Kids will be kids.

But then there’s a point where it DOES become a big deal. And that’s the obviousness factor. This would be the time when the daughter is goofing around with the dog after being told repeatedly to do her homework or annoying her sister after we’ve already had the “OK, you two don’t talk to each other for the next 285 days” talk.

In theory, the first set of transgressions are precisely the same as the second set. But the second set of transgressions are absurdly obvious. And so, as a parent, they are treated differently. As a Dad, I’ll let the first one go pretty easily. I’ll put a stop to the second. That might be lousy and inconsistent parenting but, hey, we do the best we can.

All of which leads to Michael Pineda baseball rule: It’s OK to put pine tar on your hands when it’s cold out there but, for crying out loud, don’t make it SO BLEEPING OBVIOUS.

That, of course, is not the rule as written. Baseball Rule 8:02 states that a pitcher shall not apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball. That’s where it ends. It is likely that the pine tar Pineda used was made here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. but I don’t think that’s what they mean by “foreign.” The rule is as plain and unambiguous as any rule in baseball — no foreign substance. Period. You can’t rub the ball on glove, person or clothing. You can’t deface the ball in any manner. You can’t spit on the ball or apply anything else. No foreign substance of any kind. Done.

MORE: Michael Pineda suspended 10 games for possessing foreign substance

Only … no … not really done. Because somewhere along the way players came to this general consensus that it really wouldn’t be too bad if pitchers put a little pine tar on their hands on cold days. Nobody I’ve talked to around the game seems entirely sure if pine tar actually alters the way a baseball moves. But it does seem to help the pitcher grip the baseball in cold weather. And while that’s an advantage for the pitcher, it’s also generally beneficial to the hitter. Nobody wants a pitcher up there with a blazing fastball and an unsteady grip on the ball. Nobody wants the ball slipping out of the hands of Michael Pineda.

It seems certain — based on photograph evidence and sheer logic — that Pineda had pine tar on his hands the first time he faced the Red Sox back on April 10. This became something of a Twitter cause. And the Red Sox, to a man, did not seem to care. The pitchers didn’t care because, hey, maybe they would like a little pine tar on cold night. The hitters didn’t care because, hey, it was cold, Pineda throws rockets, yeah, if he wants to subtly use a little pine tar so he can grip the ball better, hey, everyone on the Red Sox seemed pretty OK with that.

He pitched six strong innings, struck out seven, was pretty dominant, and the Red Sox were STILL OK with a little pine tar on the hand. People around baseball obviously see the stark rule as more of a guideline, kind of like a speed limit. You do 58 in 55 zone and nobody is going to complain too much — except that is the countless cars who want you to get over so they can pass you.

But Wednesday, against the Red Sox, Pineda went to the mound in a second inning with enough pine tar to cover all of George Brett’s bats on his neck. It was so blatant that Red Sox manager John Farrell just couldn’t ignore it. He didn’t. He pointed it out, the umpires threw Pineda out of the game, the Yankees talked about how embarrassed they were about it all, and so on.

Thing is, I have many, many complaints about the way baseball is run and umpired. But here I have to say, I think they handled these two cases exactly as they should. Is it inconsistent? Sure. Is it kind of illogical? Sure. Is it by the book? Absolutely not.

But, in a way, this comes back to my complaint about instant replay in sports. The older I get, the more I believe that games should not be officiated by the book. They should be officiated by the rules and a heaping handful of common sense. I tend to worry that we’re losing the common sense part.

My pal Calcaterra used the Pineda story to make the point that the inconsistency of the Pineda ruling — punishing him only when it’s obvious — is completely inconsistent with the way we have viewed, say, PED use. I think there’s a strong point in there (in how we might want to reconsider the Infamy to PED Users stance that has become all to prominent) but I also think he might have missed something.

The obviousness factor was (and remains) a HUGE part of the PED story. People only started caring about PED usage in baseball when muscle-bound men began hitting an absurd number of home runs. There is little doubt that some baseball players used steroids before, say, 1994. It didn’t just happen one night. Steroid use was prominent in the NFL and track and field and swimming and other sports in the 1970s and 1980s, and you cannot tell me that baseball players just sat out because of the love of the game, especially as the money in the game began to skyrocket. We’ll never know unless someone comes out and admits it, but baseball players were popping greenies like M&Ms, they were smoking pot and drinking to excess and doing any number of illegal drugs. And cheating in various ways whenever they could get away with it. You can’t tell me they drew some sort of line at steroids.

But, from what I can tell, people don’t really care if anyone used steroids in 1970s and 1980s baseball. Why? Nobody hit 70 home runs, that’s why. Nobody broke Hank Aaron’s record, that’s why. You didn’t have unknown players cracking 40 home runs like it was easier than the test sample questions, that’s why.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest the home run surge of the Bud Selig Power Hour was barely due to steroid use at all — that it was much more about juicier baseballs and shorter fences and shrunken strike zones and harder bats that have handles thinner than iPads. But there was an OBVIOUSNESS that was impossible to miss about those new burly baseball players with their bigger heads and thicker necks and cartoonish numbers. And so steroid abuse became a theme of the game in a way it never really did in football, where steroids are certainly used more.

It was that obviousness, I think, that tore away any reasonable conversation about whether or not steroids or HGH should have a place in the game as a way to keep players on the field or to help them recover from injury.

If pitchers started throwing nine inning, 18-strikeout shutouts game after game because they were using pine tar, if pine tar pitchers started throwing 10-mph faster than before, or going 30-2 with 0.50 ERAs and 450 strikeouts, yes, I think there would be a pretty big outcry about it. But for now, it seems that all pine tar does is help a pitcher grip a baseball when it’s cold outside. Maybe baseball will put in a rule allowing a moderate amount of pine tar when the weather falls below a certain temperature — sort of the way they let pitchers lick on their hands in colder weather. Maybe they won’t.

Either way, that’s how the game has been officiated for a a while now because pitchers, hitters and umpires all seem to agree that a little pine tar on the hand is not that big a deal. Now, a gob of pine tar on the neck? Yeah. That’s too obvious. That’s flaunting the rule. I can understand how that inconsistency would drive some people crazy. But as a parent, I follow the logic entirely.

  1. phoenixrising23 - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:56 PM

    Fair article and fair points. My only issue is that this isn’t cheating in the same way that PED use is cheating. I’ll say right now, I know when wrong is wrong. Pineda was wrong to be so dang obvious. I’m certainly all for establishing rules and abiding by them, but when everyone who has played, pitchers, position players, and managers alike, seem to be going against this rule and are public about their use and favor of said usage (Showalter, Farrell, Leiter, Cone, Wainwright, Carpenter, Boone, Flaherty, et al), then I think it’s appropriate to have a conversation about allowance of these substances or an agreement on a substance in order to allow pitchers the chance to grip the ball in cold weather. I grew up on the east coast for half my life and playing baseball in February-April is miserable. I can only imagine the level of misery and danger it is when you’re throwing 95 mph fastballs without grips. But again, this is about being obvious…Pineda was way too obvious and quite frankly, stupid. For his obviousness and lack of subtlety, he should be suspended.

  2. Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    There is a lot of evidence to suggest the home run surge of the Bud Selig Power Hour was barely due to steroid use at all — that it was much more about juicier baseballs and shorter fences and shrunken strike zones and harder bats that have handles thinner than iPads.

    Don’t forget expansion in the 90’s. Four new teams in less than a decade, that was bound to dilute the talent at the fringe level.

    • raysfan1 - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:54 PM

      Also body armor.

      • apkyletexas - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:30 PM

        Also, a batter striking out 200 times in a season became OK in the late 90’s as long as you could hit 30+ home runs, mostly due to all the stat nerds migrating to the baseball front offices.

        In the 70’s and 80’s, no one was hardly ever being given enough chances to strike out that many times. Look at the list of most strikeouts by batters in a season. Seventeen of the top 20 seasons are by players who are currently in the game. Only three of the top 50 seasons are by two players who did not play at some point between 1996-2013: Bobby Bonds and Mike Schmidt. Every other batter on the top-50 strikeout season list played at some point after 1996, and nearly all of them played well into the 2000’s.

        Guys are making big money with low batting averages and huge strikeout numbers as long as they hit a bomb once every 4-5 games. Hitting homeruns became highly specialized for certain hitters while nearly every other aspect of their game was ignored – no wonder you get guys hitting more of them farther. That’s all the big sluggers have been asked to do to make millions per year since 1996.

    • Michael - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:14 PM

      And don’t forget the MOST obvious reason: Weight rooms and personal trainers.

      There’s this constant omission of that huge difference in modern ballplayers that implies the author thinks it goes hand-in-hand with steroids.

      I know it’s often an honest omission, but the frequency at which sportswriters ignore the revolution of the weight room is kind of annoying. Homers are still hit at a much higher rate than in the “pre-steroid era,” despite the now-acceptable-to-sportswriters-and-politicians level of PED testing and punishment. If it ain’t PEDs, it’s gotta be something else…

      • Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:20 PM

        So that’s why you’re putting pine tar on the ball? :)

      • anxovies - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:50 PM

        We still have weight rooms and trainers, there are a lot of new pitchers in the game now because of the injuries to established pitchers, the talent is still watered down by 30 teams in the league, the bat handles are still thin and I haven’t heard that they de-juiced the baseball, but nobody is challenging Ruth, McGwire or Bonds. The things that have changed are increased drug testing and players who are getting stiff penalties when caught, and a general shift in the toleration of cheaters by their teammates. If PEDs were not the cause of the surge in HR production of the 1990s and 2000s, then why aren’t those thin handles and personal trainers still producing HRs at a record rate?

      • Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:03 PM

        When you initially expand the league the talent level is diluted but then teams make up for it by increasing the candidate pool. It takes a few years but they catch up. In other words the dilution is a temporary effect. Population increases over time, more talent becomes available and over time quality increases. You don’t honestly think that when the leagues were only 8 teams each seventy odd years ago the quality level was super-duper high now do you?

        Many more things have changed as well. I think technology is helping pitchers more than they do the hitters. There’s ton of video available to study your opponents, and starters seem to get more prep time to do their homework. The spike in injuries for pitchers is also an indicator that we’re getting more and more power arms since a lot of these new arms are all about heat. The K rate has been rising these last few years.

        That’s masking another effect: the Contact Rate for homeruns. Per fangraphs in 2012 the rate of balls that players managed to make contact with and hit for homeruns was actually the same as in 1998. The absolute # of HRs hit was fairly similar. If PEDs indeed were such a huge effect and they’ve been mitigated by testing we would have seen a trend for a drop since 2005. We actually haven’t as a whole. In fact from 2005 to 2006 we saw an increase in home runs for the entire league, not a decrease.

        It’s only been since 2010 that we’ve started seeing a real drop from 5000 HRs a year to somewhere around 4600 HRs as an average. And this period is consistent with the sharp rise in strikeouts. The actual HR contact rate though has remained consistent since the mid 90s. The only real contact rate outliers are 1999-2001. If PEDs are the primary instigator of HRs and were used prevalently from the mid 90s to the mid 00s shouldn’t the contact rate for HRs have been high for only that period? we only see a spike in the 99-01 years and the rest of them including the present are well within the mean.

        We’ll never know how much of an effect PEDs have had in the production of players until we do extensive studies on the subject. Until we have hard data, to argue that PEDs were like Popeye’s Spinach and are the sole reason for the high HR output in those years is too simplistic and lacking a solid data foundation.

    • gloccamorra - Apr 24, 2014 at 7:18 PM

      Fringe level? From 1998 through about 2002, there were triple A pitchers holding down the # 5 rotation spot, on some teams, even the #4 starter belonged in AAA. Add the need for 50-60 pitchers in four minor league systems, and the pitching pool was stretched thin.

      The response was a premium on signing pitchers over position players, and we’re seeing that with all the power pitchers dominating the game (and running up TJ surgery numbers. The lack of quality hitters will turn the next half decade as 6’5″ guys with strong arms will be placed in outfields and corner infields instead of on the mound, and a return to durable control pitchers. These things go in cycles.

  3. mvp43 - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:00 PM

    Well, why doesn’t the catcher just apply the pine tar before he throws it back to the pitcher? no rule broken.

    • infieldhit - Apr 24, 2014 at 5:16 PM

      Someone on one of the network shows said that catchers do just that, using their equipment.

  4. Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    That’s flaunting the rule.

    Flaunting? You guys keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. The word you’re looking for is flouting.

    • hep3 - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:00 PM

      flaunt verb \ˈflȯnt, ˈflänt\
      : to show (something) in a very open way so that other people will notice
      : to show a lack of respect for (something, such as a rule)

      flout verb \ˈflau̇t\
      : to break or ignore (a law, rule, etc.) without hiding what you are doing or showing fear or shame

      Now I am really confused.

      • Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:35 PM

        Ah well, I got my definition of flaunt from here:

        flaunt (flɔnt)

        v.t.
        1. to parade or display ostentatiously.
        2. to ignore or treat with disdain; flout: expelled for flaunting regulations.
        v.i.
        3. to parade or display oneself conspicuously, defiantly, or boldly.
        4. to wave conspicuously in the air.
        [1560–70; of obscure orig.; compare Norwegian dial. flanta to show off]
        flaunt′er, n.
        flaunt′ing•ly, adv.
        usage: Usage guides object strongly to flaunt in the sense “to ignore or treat with disdain,” advising that the proper word for this meaning is flout. Though this use of flaunt has appeared in the speech and edited writing of well-educated, literate people, many speakers and writers avoid it.

      • Francisco (FC) - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:39 PM

        And here:

        flaunt
        verb show off, display, boast, parade, exhibit, flourish, brandish, vaunt, showboat, make a (great) show of, sport (informal), disport, make an exhibition of, flash about openly flaunting their wealth
        Usage: Flaunt is sometimes wrongly used where flout is meant: they must be prevented from flouting (not flaunting) the law.

        Basically flaunt is more like showing off and being pretentious be it wealth, knowledge, skill, etc. flout is more in line with the intent here about openly disregarding rules. At least that’s how I came about it. Maybe when need Old Gator to chime in.

    • moogro - Apr 24, 2014 at 5:12 PM

      Francisco is correct. The unfortunate trend has been for dictionaries to use a shotgun approach with multiple definitions and synonyms, with one of them bound to be bending to match use of misuse populations. Which diminishes their value as a reference.

      • mogogo1 - Apr 25, 2014 at 10:27 AM

        Rather than tell people they’re using the wrong word, we just amend the definitions.

    • gloccamorra - Apr 24, 2014 at 7:22 PM

      They’re flaunting their flouting of the rules. The Pineda case is so glaringly obvious, there must be a psycho-analysis somewhere online concluding he was TRYING to get caught, a veritable cry for help!

  5. beermakers - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:07 PM

    Yes when you throw fast and don’t have as much control it is dangerous, but its also going to walk more batters,

    So when you’re throwing strikes, instead of having awful control, it matters, whether its base runners, or the pitch count, it can make a difference. because the way he pitched before “he found his control,” he could have been around 90 pitches after the 3rd inning pretty easily.

  6. beermakers - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    When players are suspended in baseball in this situation, do they lose game checks as well?

    I know guys that test positive for PEDs do not get paid.

    What about it a situation like this, because 2 starts isn’t all that big of a deal but if he’s missing checks for all those games, this suspension is tougher than “missing 2 starts”.

    • NYTolstoy - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:45 PM

      Yea I think he doesn’t get paid

    • raysfan1 - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:56 PM

      Correct–he loses10/162 of his income for a 10 game suspension.

  7. elmo - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:24 PM

    I don’t agree with this. Whatever it was that Kenny Rogers did in the 2006 World Series was pretty freakin’ obvious, and that didn’t lead to anything. Also, I don’t see how doing it to “get a better grip” is mutually exclusive with doing it to gain competitive advantage. Stands to reason that if you can grip the ball better, you can probably throw it better. I don’t see this as a great moral issue, but all the equivocation and rationalization is kind of annoying. Either change the rule, or enforce it consistently.

    • beermakers - Apr 24, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      They do enforce it consistently if you have someone on the mound you want checked, you tell umpire he goes out and looks.

      • elmo - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:43 PM

        Ok I’ll give that a shot, but the last time I told an umpire what he ought to do, he pretended like he couldn’t hear me.

        (Seriously though, I get your point. Probably the rule should just be modified.)

  8. anxovies - Apr 24, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    I don’t think that George Brett was suspended or fined for the pine tar bat. There is apparently a double standard for pitchers and hitters.

  9. recoveringcubsfan - Apr 24, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    I’m glad Posnanski pointed out that Craig’s piece had a point in it…somewhere…though it was as usual a silly, strawman-like thing. I’d actually like to see a Calcaterra Parallel Universe Baseball Game just once. I imagine it would involve absolutely no rules being obeyed, yet the rulebook would still exist; somehow replay would also still exist, even though players would police themselves while also somehow not getting angry about unwritten rules and stuff. Everyone, including the fans, would be on steroids, but that would be OK. Pine tar and sunscreen would be applied to the baseballs before the game began, but just to be sure pitchers could doctor the ball as needed, vats of both substances would be on the mound instead of the rosin bag. And there would be no complaining, because as Craig’s visage on the scoreboard would remind people every 11.3 seconds, there’s no proof that rules or integrity make the game better, just as there’s no proof that using steroids (or “flaunting” the rules, if you prefer) makes players any better. And even if it does, and even if pine tar on the baseball is also wrong, hey, everyone does it. So? Watch your ‘roided-up baseball and stop wanting nice things! You don’t see any of the players complaining, do you??

  10. jdillydawg - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:06 PM

    Great article, and well thought out.

    I have a tough time believing Yankees management wasn’t aware of this. Pineda’s response to the question, “You know it’s illegal to use it, so why did you use it” was almost one of disbelief. “Well, it was cold.” Which leads me to believe that someone else was telling him it was ok.

    And did I take from your article that you are anti-instant replay? If so, it’s glad to know I’m not the only one! Scourge of the game. Scourge of society.

  11. offseasonblues - Apr 24, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    The obviousness factor is the ultimate unwritten rule :)

    I think there’s a difference between breaking a rule on the field with a risk of being caught on the field, and breaking a rule by doing something off the field with no risk of being caught on the field. So I do draw a distinction between doctoring the ball or corking a bat, and using banned substances.

    But this is an interesting take, and explains pretty well one of the reasons we may hate Barry Bonds and forgive Andy Pettitte.

    • wjarvis - Apr 24, 2014 at 7:22 PM

      Yes breaking a rule on the field means that you can be caught on the field, but it also means you are getting more direct performance enhancement. At least you have to workout hard to get any benefit from most PED’s, with pine tar you just put some on your fingers and voila immediately a better grip on the ball.

  12. captaincanoe - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:51 PM

    He does not look to smart. And fix your damn hat. You’re not 12 years old.

  13. sfm073 - Apr 25, 2014 at 12:06 AM

    I don’t agree that they only use it on

  14. macjacmccoy - Apr 25, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    People want to talk about contact rates, hrs, and how steroids dont make you more likely to hit hrs. It baffles me how people can believe this. Being stronger makes it easier to hit home runs. Having a quicker swing makes it easier for you to make contact. Mass+Velocity=Force. Meaning the bigger you are and the faster you move the more force you can apply. Steroids increases strength and muscle mass including fast twitch muscles. That is just a fact.

    How come guys like Ben Revere who make contact often and has a high batting average has never hit a home run? While guys like Ryan Howard who strike out a lot has a low batting average and contact rate still hits a lot of home runs? Ben Revere is a much better hitter then Ryan Howard. Anyone who argues otherwise clearly hasn’t watched the 2 play. So what gives a guy like Howard whose’s clearly and inferior batter the ability to hit so many more hrs then a guy like Ben Revere? I’ll tell you how he does it by being stronger.

    Someone please explain to me how Revere’s home run rate wouldnt drastically incline if he packed on 20 pounds, added about 100 pounds to his bench press, and 150-200lbs to his squat lift (something that every steroid user will tell you will happen if you workout regularly after only 1 cycle). Yes you dont bench press or squat a baseball but bench pressing uses your shoulders back triceps and chest while squats use your glutes and thighs. I just used the gains you would normally see in those two workout techniques so you could in vision the amount of strength you would gain in those muscles.

    I know people love to rip on athletes who say you cant intelligently talk on the game if you werent around it at a high level. Which I agree in some situations is kind of silly, but in others not so much. Steroids being one of them. You cant just read about it online and think you know how it works. If you havent used them or been around someone who has then you really dont have a clue how it effects someone athletically .

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