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Is Buchholz cheating? Jack Morris thinks so

5/3/2013



 

I love a good cheating accusation. I mean -- peanuts, hot dogs, hating the Yankees, pitching inside and cheating: Aren't they all a fundamental part of the game we love?

Blue Jays broadcaster Jack Morris thinks Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz is throwing a spitball, telling ESPNBoston's Gordon Edes:

"What do you think? Look at the pitches. Fastball at 94 that goes like that," Morris said, his hand darting swiftly down and away. "On a fastball?

"He's not the first guy to ever do it? You can get away with it. Gaylord [Perry] made a nice career out of it."

Blue Jays radio analyst Dirk Hayhurst, who pitched briefly in the majors, also said that Buchholz "absolutely" was cheating during Wednesday's start. First off, Morris has been around the block a few times, so I don't think we can simply dismiss the allegations as sour grapes from the Blue Jays' perspective. Does Morris strike you as the type who would crazily throw something like this out there? What does he have to gain by doing so?

Here are some highlights of Buchholz pitching from Wednesday's game. That's some mean stuff there. In particular, check out the fastball to Jose Bautista at the 1:00 mark. Ty Cobb couldn't hit that pitch.

You know what the pitch reminds of? Mike Scott in the 1986 playoffs, when the Astros right-hander blew away the Mets in two starts. If you're not familiar with Scott, he won the Cy Young Award that year using a high-powered fastball and lethal split-fingered pitch. A splitter that the Mets suggested was actually a scuffball. Check out the pitch to Gary Carter at the 1:07 mark. Don't show that video to Keith Hernandez.

Looks kind of like the Buchholz pitch, doesn't it?

Buchholz, who is 6-0 with a 1.01 ERA, says he's the same pitcher he's always been. Which obviously isn't the case. He's striking out 27.8 percent of the batters he's faced, well above the 16.1 percent rate of last season and his 18 percent career rate. So, let's check into some of the detailed movement on his pitches.

Horizontal break on fastball, 2013: minus-4.7 inches

Vertical break on fastball, 2013: 9.9 inches

Horizontal break on fastball, 2012: minus-4.8 inches

Vertical break on fastball, 2012: 9.1 inches

Those are average totals, of course, suggesting he's getting a little more downward movement on his fastball, but overall, the movement is similar to last season. But his ball was really moving on Wednesday night, averaging minus-5.5 inches of horizontal break. His 16 fastballs thrown with two strikes averaged minus-6.5 inches of horizontal break (although 7.1 inches of vertical break). Some of that variance comes with the different types of fastballs thrown -- two-seamers versus four-seamers -- but that pitch to Bautista was 96 mph, as hard as any pitch Buchholz threw all night. Four-seam fastballs are thrown harder but are also usually straighter than two-seamers.

By the way, there's nothing unusual about Buchholz's average movement on his pitches. He ranks 33rd in average vertical break on his fastball among 110 starters (Clayton Kershaw is No. 1). Still, that pitch to Bautista seemed almost unnatural.

Aside from whatever Buchholz is doing, or not doing, cheating is part of the fabric of the game's history. Baseball players will always look for that extra edge. Sometimes, they go a little too far, of course, and start making a mockery of the game (we mean you, Barry Bonds). Or in the 1950s, when the spitball was apparently so prevalent that commissioner Ford Frick actually lobbied to have the pitch re-legalized. Whitey Ford was the most famous practitioner; according to "The Baseball Codes" by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, Ford used a concoction of turpentine, baby oil and rosin that he stored on the dugout bench during games.

Pitchers from Don Sutton to Scott to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine have been accused of throwing spitballs or scuffing the ball. Perry, of course, went through his famous pre-pitch routine in which he may or may not have been applying a foreign substance to the ball. (Once, when asked by a writer what pitch her daddy threw, his young daughter said, "It's a hard slider.")

Turbow writes that Ozzie Guillen said, "Everyone cheats. If you don't get caught, you're a smart player. If you get caught, you're a cheater. It's been part of the game for a long time."

Indeed it has. Morris has simply stirred up an age-old controversy. I have no idea if Buchholz is doing anything illegal. But I'm glad we have something fun to argue about.