End the charade, some pitchers say, and let scuff up baseballs and use foreign substances

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake pitcher John Lamb delivers a pitch during a game last month.

Salt Lake Bees pitcher John Lamb takes umbrage at the absurdity of the moment almost four years later.

Pitching for Omaha on a humid July day in New Orleans, an umpire ejected Lamb in a one-run game for supposedly throwing at a batter. As Lamb recalls, he’d given up a home run then sailed a curveball behind the batter as he struggled to grip the ball.

Lamb’s memory of the moment was refreshed this month when Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer sparked a discussion with social media posts that called into question the spin rates of Houston Astros pitchers and whether they’ve been aided by the use of foreign substances.

Lost in Bauer’s initial comments was his larger argument calling for MLB to pick one substance, make it allowable and have it available at the back of the mound, similar to a rosin bag. Pitchers for decades have found ways to enhance their grip and/or manipulate the ball to increase movement, but the topic gets murky because it cuts across issues of player safety, the unwritten rules of the game and competitive advantage.

“I don’t see where you’re cheating, to me,” Lamb said. “If it gets to a safety factor of us holding the ball and releasing it consistently — if we don’t do that, we’re putting our own bodies in jeopardy, let alone the hitter who doesn’t want to be given the chuck-and-duck philosophy of watch your lips when you’re hitting — it’s a fine line.”

Lamb, a left-hander in his ninth season of professional baseball, also points out if a pitcher alters his delivery or arm slot to over-compensate for lack of grip, he places himself at risk of injury. In extreme conditions, a dab of sunscreen or pine tar on a glove, the forearm or wrist can make a big difference for a pitcher’s command while adding torque to a pitch to increase the spin and movement.

“I just try to just judge the way I’m throwing the ball without anything [on it],” Lamb said. “I know there are guys that have shared with me ‘Why don’t you use the sunscreen and the rosin? You might see more break on your pitches.’ That’s definitely sparked interest in my mind just from a simple competitive level, not to say an advantage. It’s something I just haven’t dipped my toes into yet — if I ever will.”

Catchers sometimes smear pine tar on their equipment so they can add tackiness to the ball for the pitcher’s benefit. The highlight of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina losing track of a baseball last season went viral as the ball ended up stuck to his chest protector.

Bees pitcher and former BYU standout Taylor Cole, who made his major-league debut last August with the Toronto Blue Jays, described the foreign substance debate as one players all know about.

“I’m not saying that if you’re not cheating you ain’t trying,” Cole said. “That’s not necessarily [the case]. Obviously we’ve got to have our own moral compass, what’s right and what’s wrong. But there are certain things in sports where it’s more second nature than anything else. It’s against the rules, but it’s almost part of the game, and guys just know it. You’ve kind of got to be involved in it on a daily basis to know.”

One change that would alleviate some of the problems? Cole suggests making the baseballs uniform at the top levels of professional baseball. Baseballs currently used in the minors are noticeably easier to grip, and Cole has talked with several pitchers who think the Triple-A level should use the MLB baseball to help pitchers adjust before they take the mound in front of 30,000 spectators.

The MLB ball, though, isn’t without its own issues. Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted data this spring making the case that Major League Baseball has altered baseballs to increase home runs the past few seasons.

Bees pitching coach Erik Bennett began his professional career in 1989 and continued pitching in the minors, majors and independent leagues until 2001. His go-to move to combat the “chalky” feeling of a baseball was rosin, chewing bubble gum and licking his fingers to get the mixture of rosin and the sugar from the gum.

“There was all kinds of guys that experiment with everything,” Bennett said. “It could be pine tar or a special mix that your clubhouse guy makes or sunblock and rosin. There’s all kind of stuff that guys tinkered with.”

He points to pitchers of past generations who were known to manipulate the ball and throw a spitball as evidence these sorts of things always have been involved in pitching. Allowing pitchers to use a foreign substance by rule, as Bauer suggests, wouldn’t be a big departure in Bennett’s eyes.

“I don’t think it would change much. It would just be more in the open,” Bennett said. “It’s already out there. It would just be more in the open. Guys wouldn’t have to worry about it as much.”