When a pitcher throws a baseball, he gets his velocity from arm speed. Arm speed is enhanced by the use of his body. The legs, butt, hips and trunk generate the force to the arm and the arm delivers the baseball.
But what about the hands?
Pitchers with large hands are able to throw harder than pitchers with smaller hands and they don’t need as much arm speed to do so. If you watch a pitcher with a somewhat strange motion, little leg drive and pedestrian noticeable arm speed and they’re putting up a radar gun reading of 95 mph, there’s a great chance that they have larger than normal hands and long fingers. Jose Valverde of the Tigers regularly pops the gun at 94 mph+ without the powerful motion of a Tom Seaver or the clear leverage of Randy Johnson. He must have enormous hands to do it.
How does pine tar come into the equation to help a pitcher?
Pitchers sweat and their hands grow moist. No amount of wiping and resin is going to eliminate the underlying moisture that might compromise their grip on the ball. Pine tar is an inherently sticky substance that batters use to reinforce their grip on the bat, but it works for pitchers as well. The problem for pitchers is that it’s illegal.
Arm speed creates velocity, but the seams on the ball are where a pitcher makes the ball move. The more secure a pitcher’s fingers are on the seams, the greater rotation he’s going to get when he releases the ball. Because of this the movement is increased.
The seams are what’s responsible for the rise in a rising fastball; the cut in a cutter; the slide in a slider; and the break in a curveball. If a pitcher doesn’t have the seams, no amount of arm/wrist break is going to give him the movement he’ll get from the seams.
Pine tar increases the adhesion of finger to ball and with that, the spin.
As we saw this week with Joel Peralta of the Rays and in the past with Jay Howell when he was pitching for the Dodgers in 1988—both called out by manager Davey Johnson—pitchers place pine tar in their glove or somewhere on their body to use at their leisure. Other pitchers have been accused of doing it as well as we saw with Tigers’ pitcher Kenny Rogers in the 2006 post-season. It’s not a remote occurrence and while certain pitchers are brazen enough to stick it in their gloves where it can be easily found, others are more canny about it and place it surreptitiously on their neck; in their dip can; in some secret place that is easily hidden but accessible when they need it.
Any hitter can catch up to any fastball if it’s straight. If a pitch is moving, it’s harder to hit. Pine tar helps the movement on a pitch.
It’s a customary practice. Johnson found out about Peralta doing it and used that information to his advantage. But it happens all the time. Peralta just got caught.