Circumstantial evidence damning for Lester

In a turn of events that has me remembering back to Game 2 of the 2006 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester was spotted last night with a foreign substance on his glove. The substance was spotted and tweeted about by Cardinals minor leaguer Tyler Melling who has since spoken with the organization and deleted the tweet (probably ordered to under threat of release).

Since then, about the only defenses for Lester being mounted are an MLB statement indicating that they have no evidence of any wrong doing (which considering the lack of research they’ve done is unsurprising) and that Melling, a high A ball pitcher who didn’t have a very good season, is a horrible baseball player and as a result isn’t worth listening to.

One Boston writer proclaimed that Major League Baseball had refuted Melling’s claims with their statement this morning, which isn’t what happened. Major League Baseball’s statement said that they couldn’t draw any conclusions from the video and that nobody on the field last night complained about it. That’s not refutation, that’s just saying there wasn’t enough information in plain sight to decide one way or the other.

But is there more to this story? There definitely appears to be.

Over at El Maquino this morning, he went back and looked at video of Lester’s previous starts this season. What he found was that that substance had been there in every one of Lester’s playoff starts. He went back further and first found it in a May 15 start against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The combination of a dome and foreign substances had me thinking back to a discussion by Dirk Hayhurst of the latest trick for pitchers to gain grip on baseballs. Turns out a combination of sunscreen and resin make a pretty tacky substance that help a pitcher get grip on the baseball. An article by Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports discussed this trick in depth after Lester’s Red Sox teammate Clay Buchholtz was accused of using that exact same trick in a start against the Toronto Blue Jays. His use of sunscreen in that start prompted questions considering Toronto plays in a dome.

The trick is that spray on sunscreen, most commonly BullFrog, is totally legal and will remain to be. So is rosin, which is supplied in a bag behind the pitcher’s mound. The combination provides the pitcher with some tack on his fingers which allows him to better grip the baseball. More grip equals more spin. More spin equals more movement. More movement equals a ball that is much harder for a hitter to hit. It’s pretty simple physics.

After I tweeted a link to the Passan article, one of my friends who is a hardcore Rays fan mentioned that he spotted a can of BullFrog sunscreen in the Boston dugout during their ALDS matchup in a game in St. Petersburg. Tropicana Field, where the Rays play, is a dome. Why would they need sunscreen there? Probably the same reason Buchholtz needed it in Toronto.

This instance really exposes two things to the outside world. Baseball’s Cold War mentality and a lack of principle when viewing the game by fans.

Tricks like this for a pitcher are pretty safe for them to use to improve their performance because teams won’t call them out on it. Most pitchers do it to some extent, probably even Cardinals pitchers. Julian Tavares, who pitched for the Cardinals in 2004 and 2005 (and Boston in 06-08) was known to do this. And I don’t think Steve Kline kept his hat as dirty as he did only because he liked it that way.

The concept is “if you don’t call out our guys, we won’t call out your guys, and everyone lives happily ever after.” The problem comes when this is noticed by the world outside the dugouts, which this has been.

And of course rather than confront the evidence, Boston writers would much rather attack Cardinals pitchers without evidence.

Furthermore, this situation further exposes a pretty interesting change in principle. Most fans will dismiss the concept of a pitcher using a foreign substance to increase his grip because “everyone does it.” Many writers have already begun to camp out there in response to this very situation. But it’s interesting how that same principle doesn’t apply to PED users. During the steroid era everyone was doing it, but it was still illegal. And we still want to crucify the most visible of users.

I guess not enough people had a Dad who taught them that everyone doing it doesn’t make it right.

We can’t go back and change the outcome of Game 1. It’s fair to say that it might have been a little closer had Lester not had whatever foreign substance it was in his glove, but the Cardinals lost Game 1 on the field, not at the plate. But hopefully the next time Lester takes the mound in this series the umpires will take it upon themselves to check and make sure everything is on the up-and-up. If they are as concerned about “getting it right” as they seemed to be Wednesday night as they overturned a bad call at second base, they should be just as concerned about maintaining a fair playing field.

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