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Have you watched an MLB game recently and noticed an umpire stop a pitcher in his tracks and ask to look at his hat and glove? No, he is not asking for an autograph. He is looking to see if the pitcher is using any foreign substances to gain a better grip on the ball.
One of the most popular foreign substances that baseball players use is called pine tar.
Pine tar is illegal for pitchers to use in baseball because it is a foreign substance that gives the pitcher a competitive advantage against the hitter. Pine tar is legal for hitters to use (within reason) because it does not give them a competitive advantage.
In this article, we look at when the use of pine tar is both legal and illegal as well as the advantages it gives pitchers and hitters.
What is Pine Tar?
Before we dive into why baseball players use pine tar and the legalities of its use, we must discuss what pine tar is.
Pine tar is a sticky substance that is produced from the distillation of pine wood in high temperatures. It is often used by hitters in baseball to give them a better grip on the bat.
Pine tar comes in liquid form and is often applied by the use of a rag. Some hitters just use a dish rag while others use a special rag made specifically for pine tar application.
It can also come in the form of a stick making it easier for players to apply. They simply just open the cap of the stick and apply the pine tar – similar to chapstick.
There are even some companies now that make pine tar in a spray can although this is the least popular form of the product.
Why is Pine Tar Illegal for Pitchers to Use in Baseball?
If anyone has ever told you that pine tar altogether is illegal, they are mistaken. Pine tar is perfectly legal for hitters to use – as long as they stay within the parameters which will be discussed later. However, the same cannot be said for pitching.
The use of pine tar when pitching is classified as the use of a foreign substance which is illegal in the MLB and most other leagues. Pine tar gives the pitcher the ability to do things with the baseball that he wouldn’t be able to do without it.
As stated earlier, pine tar is a sticky substance that gives the user a better grip on whatever they touch.
Using it when throwing a baseball doesn’t just give the pitcher a better grip to keep the ball from slipping out of his hands. It allows him to make the ball spin in ways that he would not be able to without the use of pine tar.
That extra tack on his fingers allows his fingers to stay on the ball just a tad longer than normal which makes the ball spin more. The more the ball spins, the more velocity and more deception it creates for the hitter.
This is true both for fastballs and breaking balls. When a fastball has a higher spin rate, it tends to appear as if it is rising on the hitter. When a breaking ball has a higher spin rate, it has a sharper break.
Here is an interesting video of a journalist testing out different foreign substances and the advantages they give pitchers.
What is the MLB Doing About Pine Tar and Other Foreign Substances?
It is obvious that pine tar gives the pitcher a competitive advantage over the hitter. That is why it has always been outlawed for pitchers to use in the MLB.
However, just because it was illegal does not mean pitchers were not using it. Many pitchers were using pine tar and other foreign substances under the radar to give them an advantage over the hitter.
To crack down on the use of pine tar and other foreign substances among pitchers, the MLB implemented more frequent foreign substance checks of pitchers between innings and harsher consequences for those who are caught using it.
At random points of the game, an umpire may check a pitcher’s glove, hat, belt, fingers, and other parts of his uniform to make sure that he is compliant with the league’s foreign substance policy.
These random checks may be initiated by the umpire who may or may not have suspicion of foreign substance use. They typically happen between innings.
The opposing manager may also encourage the umpire to check the pitcher if he or his players grow suspicious of the use of a foreign substance by the pitcher.
Pitchers who are discovered to have used a foreign substance are immediately ejected from the game and suspended. Believe it or not, if a position player is found to have used a foreign substance on the ball, he is immediately ejected along with the pitcher.
Here is a video of umpires checking pitchers for foreign substances. As you can see in this video, many pitchers are not too fond of the random checks. Some of these interactions between players and umpires are pretty funny.
When is it Illegal for a Hitter to Use Pine Tar in Baseball?
Hitters don’t get a free pass when it comes to the use of pine tar. Using too much pine tar can cause the hitter to face some consequences as well.
Hitters may apply pine tar to their bat as long as it does not extend beyond the 18 inch mark from the knob of the bat. If a hitter breaks this rule, he is ruled out and the bat is removed from the game.
Using pine tar to strengthen the hitter’s grip of the bat is legal because it does not give the hitter a competitive advantage against the pitcher.
Pine tar is mostly used on wood bats because, unlike aluminum bats, they do not come with a grip on the handle, and the wood can be a bit slippery.
When the pine tar extends beyond the 18 inch mark, it is considered to be part of the barrel, the part of the bat that makes contact with the ball. This gives the hitter a competitive advantage as it would allow the ball to stick to the bat just a bit longer, possibly making it travel farther.
Also, by applying pine tar to the barrel of the bat, the ball would likely become doctored by the pine tar creating an unfair advantage for fielders and pitchers.
Like the pitching rules, umpires can initiate an evaluation of the bat as they so choose, and opposing managers can do the same.
These checks do not happen as often as they do for pitchers because the home plate umpire generally sees every bat that is used because of his proximity to the hitter.
The George Brett Pine Tar Incident
One of the most famous incidents in baseball history regarding pine tar occurred in 1983.
After hitting a go-ahead home run with two outs in the top of the ninth inning against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, George Brett’s home run was eventually ruled an out after it was found that the pine tar on his bat exceeded the 18 inch mark.
Yankees’ manager Billy Martin asked the home plate umpire to check Brett’s bat, and after a long discussion and investigation, the home plate umpire ruled him out.
Brett immediately sprinted toward the umpire from the dugout to argue with the home plate umpire and had to be restrained by two other umpires and several teammates. By calling him out, the Royals lost the game.
Here is another video from 2013 of Brett, who was the hitting coach for the Royals at the time, addressing the issue on the anniversary of the event.
Why Do Hitters Put Pine Tar on Their Helmets?
Hitters put pine tar on their helmets in order to prevent putting too much pine tar on their bat. Most hitters agree that too much pine tar can be a detriment to their swing, so putting it on their helmet allows them to touch it every so often to gain a slightly better grip on their batting gloves.
What Other Foreign Substances Are Sometimes Used by Pitchers?
Other than pine tar, pitchers sometimes use a mixture of sunscreen and rosin to create more tack on their fingers. Possibly the strongest foreign substance on the market is spider tack, a sticky substance created by a powerlifter to give him a better grip on his weights.
Is Rosin Illegal for Pitchers to Use in Baseball?
Rosin is not illegal for pitchers to use during a game. It is not viewed as a foreign substance that gives them a competitive advantage. It is mostly used to decrease the amount of sweat on a pitcher’s hand.