May 3, 2013
The Flimsy Case Against Clay Buchholz
As you’ve probably heard, pitcher-turned-commentator Jack Morris has accused Red Sox hurler Clay Buchholz of throwing pitches with illegal substances on his hand during his start on Wednesday against Toronto. Buchholz, his manager, and his catchers have taken turns explaining that that’s a ridiculous proposition.
I’m strongly inclined to defend Buchholz, given what amounts to pretty weak evidence for a strong accusation. Morris himself has said “I can’t prove anything,” but still “know[s] he was” throwing a doctored baseball.
The evidence consists of what Morris identified as a suspicious substance on Buchholz’s left forearm—identified by the Red Sox as rosin, a completely legal substance on the mound—and Morris’s apparent unfamiliarity with the tailing fastball. Here’s how Morris describes the discovery:
Morris seems very confident that he can identify a tampered pitch based solely on how it moves. Now, I don’t know exactly sure which pitch Morris means, but there’s a good guess as to one example, which was flagged by ESPN’s David Schoenfield. It’s a sinker on a 2–2 count to Jose Bautista that perfectly paints the outside corner. As Morris indicated, it “darts swiftly down and away.” View it in GIF form below:
Turns out, that’s a pretty ordinary sinker as far as movement is concerned—just extraordinarily well-located, and perhaps a little better than a typical Buchholz sinker. That pitch to Bautista had 8.6 inches of “tail,” or horizontal spin deflection, and 5.5 inches of “rise.” Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey throws a sinker, too. For his career, it averages 0.6 inches more movement both horizontally and vertically than Buchholz’s pitch to Bautista. Is Morris ready to indict Dickey for tampering with the baseball?
Pitchers can do lots of things with baseballs thrown at 95 mph without having to cheat. There’s nothing in the spin charts from Buchholz’s start in Toronto that indicates anything unusual about his pitches, and that’s probably why the Blue Jays didn’t say anything about it after the game. Morris should have followed suit.
If you need any more assurances that Buchholz’s pitches behaved quite normally in his last start, check the game logs for yourself on his Brooks Baseball player card.