Crisco; Bardol; Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another 2-3 inches drop on your curveball. True though that sage wisdom from the legendary Eddie Harris may be, the preference these days trends away vegetable shortening and feminine itch products.
Pitchers are always seeking any little advantage to improve performance and it’s an open secret that the use of various sticky substances is rampant throughout Major League Baseball. Trevor Bauer, who waged a public war against the Astros and former UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole for their use of pine tar-adjacent goo, has openly tested the results of doctored balls and was probably using something to juice his spin rates during his Cy Young campaign.
“My guess on total MLB players using some sort of grip enhancement … 99.9 percent,” an unnamed coach told The Athletic’s Eno Sarris.
Pine tar is a tried and true substance that has been around for quite some time, though the most famous example of its illegality is probably George Brett‘s nullified home run from 1983. Then there’s Pelican Grip Dip, a blend of pine tar and rosin meant to be used on “the taper of your bat, in the pocket of your glove, or anywhere else additional tack is needed [emphasis mine].”
“Some teams ‘cook’ their own mixtures,” another coach told Sarris. “I’ve heard about some guys putting Pepsi on a stove top and heating it until it had to be cut off. When slightly heated this can be mixed with other mixtures and you create some unbelievable stick.”
Playing the role of mad baseball scientist got longtime Angels clubhouse attendant Brian Harkins fired last March after MLB learned he was distributing an illegal blend of rosin and pine tar. And not just to Angels pitchers, but to a list of clientele that included Cy Young winners and other big names. Those came out Thursday in Orange County Superior Court as part of a lawsuit Harkins filed against his former employer.
“Hey Bubba [Harkins’ nickname], it’s Gerrit Cole,” read a text to Harkins submitted as evidence. “I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation [winky face emoji]. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold …”
In addition to Cole, Harkins identified Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Félix Hernández, Corey Kluber, Joba Chamberlain, Adam Wainwright and Tyler Chatwood among the pitchers had asked for his proprietary blend. This particularly pomade apparently became popular when Harkins first provided it for former closer Troy Percival more than 20 years ago.
Because this is a Cubs blog, let’s pay a little attention to the last name on that list. Chatwood was drafted by the Angels in 2008 and debuted with them in 2011 before being traded to the Rockies, so he was obviously familiar with Harkins and his special stuff. Not that it appears to have helped him very much, at least if the numbers from his first two seasons are any indication.
But what if Chatwood only started using it after he’d struggled for a bit and realized he needed something to help him hang on in the bigs? That was, after all, a primary catalyst for steroid use. This is purely speculative and it’s hard to find even anecdotal evidence because spin rate data is only available as far back as 2016, but Chatwood’s performance improved drastically in his third season. Of course, that could simply be a matter of experience.
It’s at least mildly interesting, though, that the Cubs cited Chatwood’s spin rates, particularly on his breaking balls, as a big reason for offering him an above-market deal prior to 2018. Their thinking was that a literal change in atmosphere would help his stuff to play up, but that never really played out. His spin rates on every single pitch actually went down from the previous season in what ended up being a disastrous campaign.
Is it possible that the substance he used, if he was indeed using anything, didn’t work quite as well in Chicago’s humidity as it had in Denver’s drier mountain air? Or did it work too well, causing pitches to fly out of the zone and nearly doubling his walk rate? There’s certainly more than one culprit here and it’s impossible to blame any one facet, but it’s an interesting topic on which to pontificate.
As you might imagine, Chatwood’s spin numbers rose markedly during his 2019 bounceback and then dropped ever so slightly during the abbreviated campaign that also saw him miss time due to injury. While it’d be fun to chalk this up to him figuring out a new mixture of sorts, it’s really just a matter of his role. After serving mainly as a starter during that first season in Chicago, Chatwood pitched overwhelmingly in relief during his second season. He then made just five starts last year.
Shorter stints lead to greater effort, which in turn leads to higher spin rates. Still, the idea of pitchers doctoring the ball and getting better results remains a salient topic of discussion. Sarris advocates for legalizing the usage of sticky substances and going with a uniform option that eliminates the highly selective enforcement of the current standards. That makes all the sense in the world, so MLB probably won’t do it.
Look, I don’t really care about this one way or the other. It’s been going on forever and teams encourage the practice, even advising players to choose a glove that matches the color of their preferred substance or vice-versa. That said, eliminating or better regulating it would be one small step in MLB giving a little bit of an advantage back to hitters.
Pace of play, baby!