On one of the biggest stages in baseball, in front of a national TV audience, Yusei Kikuchi spun the best start of his young career last night. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and ultimately allowed just four baserunners and one run across almost eight innings of work. But his success didn’t come without some measure of controversy. Maybe you’ve seen the screenshot floating around Twitter since last night, the one obviously showing some sort of substance on the underside of Kikuchi’s cap. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a screenshot taken directly from the MLB.tv broadcast:
Was Kikuchi using pine tar to gain a competitive advantage against the Yankees? The answer to that question is nuanced and deserves some amount of explanation.
By the letter of the law, “a pitcher shall not … apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball (Rule 6.02 (c)(4)). It’s rarely seen, but pitchers have been ejected and suspended for violating this rule in the recent past. So why wasn’t Kikuchi removed from the game? Because baseball’s unwritten rules generally view using some sort of sticky substance as acceptable. Not only that, but many pitchers actively use foreign substances—pine tar, sunscreen, or other sticky substances—to gain a better grip and therefore better control of their pitches. It’s a two-way street. Batters are okay with a bit of doctoring as long as it enables pitchers to better control the projectiles they’re hurling at 90 mph towards them, and enough pitchers use it that no real competitive advantage is gained.
Besides the widespread acceptance of using pine tar, I’m not so sure Kikuchi actually benefitted from whatever substance he used last night. If you remember, Trevor Bauer and the Astros pitching staff had a little dustup on social media last year. Bauer argued that adding grip substances is an easy way to increase spin rate (we’ll ignore some of the other insinuations he made with that connection). Bauer isn’t wrong though, adding a substance has been shown to increase spin rate by around 300 RPMs—he even “tested” it out in a game last year.
That’s the odd thing about this uproar surrounding Kikuchi. If we look at the data, he didn’t really show any increase in spin rate at all last night.
The data from Statcast actually shows that his pitches were averaging their lowest spin of the season, ignoring his one inning start on April 26. Maybe he’s been using pine tar all season long, but then we’re just back to the argument that everyone else in baseball is doing it, so no harm, no foul.
Since it’s common enough that everyone seems to look the other way, what was Kikuchi doing to garner so much attention last night? According to SNY reporter Andy Martino, “pitchers should be sneakier about their rule-breaking.” Beyond the oddity of qualifying rule-breaking to a certain point, Martino goes on to call out Kikuchi for “blatant disrespect” because the pine tar he was using was too obvious. It’s easy to interpret Kikuchi’s actions as a newcomer still learning how things are done in America. But to go so far as to say his actions were disrespectful seems to be taking it too far. Yes, he’s new to the league, and a foreigner on top of that, but bringing up complex dynamics like “respecting the game” in this case seems to intentionally ignore the fact that it’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s generally overlooked by everyone else in the game.
If baseball wants to begin to enforce the as written rule book, then Kikuchi probably should have been ejected from last night’s game. But baseball’s cultural acceptance of using some sort of grip substance seems to have keep the rules lawyers at bay. Which is why this focus on Kikuchi’s cap and whatever substance he put there is much ado about nothing. It doesn’t really matter if he was being too obvious about it since plenty of other pitchers use the brim of their cap to hide whatever substance they’re using. It certainly doesn’t matter if he was “disrespecting the game” since it’s such a commonly accepted practice. So, was he cheating last night? Yes, but also, who cares.