It's still early in the baseball season, as every stathead (including myself) will tell you over and over and over until it's not early anymore, but so far one of the very best starting pitchers in baseball has been Boston's Clay Buchholz. He leads the league with both a 6-0 record and a 1.01 ERA. Buchholz has always had the stuff to strike batters out, but until this season he had never quite put it all together in the way that scouts thought he might. Put it this way: Through last season Buchholz had struck out a pedestrian 6.7 batters per nine innings. This season he's at 9.5.
There are a few things that point to Buchholz maybe not being quite this good, but until Thursday cheating by throwing a spitball wasn't one of them. And yet that was the topic du jour. Dirk Hayhurst, a Blue Jays announcer (who later mentioned it again over twitter), suggested that Buchholz had thrown a spitball during his demolition of the Jays in Toronto Wednesday. That accusation was supported by former pitcher (and Blue Jays broadcaster) Jack Morris. Said Morris, "I found out because the guys on the video camera showed it to me right after the game. I didn't see it during the game. They showed it to me and said, 'What do you think of this?' and I said, 'Well, he's throwing a spitter. Cause that's what it is.'"
When someone throws a spitter, they do it to get extra movement on their pitches. So, if they're doing it properly (and if not, really, who cares?) it should cause more or different movement on their pitches. There are two ways to investigate. The first is to see what the data says about at the action on Buchholz's pitches. The second is to watch the game again and see if there is anything suspicious. I did both.
After re-watching Buchholz's seven innings I can say that I didn't see anything that looked illegal (and no, I don't consider Hayhurt's tweet which showed Buchholz touching his arm to be evidence of anything illegal). However, just because I didn't see Buchholz do anything doesn't mean he didn't do anything. He very well might have, though I'd contend in that context it's as likely Buchholz was cheating as it was that Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle was cheating. And judging from the results this season Buerhle has far more cause to cheat than Buchholz.
Be that as it may, the second way to check is to look at the PITCH f/x data. PITCH f/x is so sophisticated now that it charts the precise movement of each pitch.
A quick note about spitballs: Spitballs are essentially fastballs with increased movement due to a knuckleball effect. Basically, the slippery substance applied to the ball, whatever it may be, causes the pitcher's fingers to slip off the ball in a controlled way (when you're doing it correctly). This makes it move in odd ways, almost like a much faster mini-knuckleball. Pitchers don't typically apply spitball technology to curveballs or change-ups or the like; those are pitches where losing your grip, even ever so slightly, wouldn't provide any benefit and indeed would likely prove a detriment. In any case, if Buchholz was cheating it would likely show up in his fastball data. So that's where I looked.
At first, I compared the movement on Buchholz's fastball this season to the movement on his fastball last season. Last season, 2012, his fastball moved on average 4.25 inches laterally in towards right-handed batters and 10.18 inches vertically. On average so far this season, his fastball has moved on average 3.43 inches laterally in towards right-handed batters and 11.04 inches vertically. That is a difference of -0.82 inches laterally --about an inch less of movement horizontally and about the same amount vertically. For context, Buchholz had a similar movement change horizontally and a far greater (3.70 inches) movement change vertically when comparing his 2011 with his 2012 seasons.
If you like pretty colored charts you can thank Brooks Baseball for this one, which shows the average horizontal movement on Clay Buchholz's pitches over his career (black is the fastball).
There's been generalized improvement over the seasons, but there doesn't appear to be much of a difference between Buchholz now and Buchholz 2012 in the horizontal movement any of his pitches. The same can be said vertically.
So looking at those numbers, there isn't anything that stands out as markedly different from his previous years. It should be noted that as pitchers move along in their careers their velocity tends to drop and often the movement on their pitches changes as well, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. But a pitchers' year-to-year PITCH f/x data is never static.
So if the difference between seasons doesn't appear suspicious, how about the difference between Buchholz's start in Toronto on Wednesday and his previous starts? Maybe he just started cheating -- though why he would do that, I have no idea, considering he came into the game with an ERA of 1.19. Still, I compared Buchholz's pitches on Wednesday to his pitches in his other five starts this season.
Without boring you with numbers any more than I already have, Buchholz's best horizontal fastball movement came in his first game in New York. His second best day in that department was in Toronto (again, this is out of only six games). Vertically, Buchholz had his worst day, getting the least movement on his pitches by an inch and a half. That doesn't say he wasn't cheating, but it does say that if he was, he wasn't cheating well.
Something else that backs up that particular statement is that in the seven innings Buchholz threw against Toronto, the Blue Jays only swung and missed at his fastball once. That's once out of 30 fastballs he threw. He also threw 20 cut fastballs (or cutters), but Jays hitters didn't miss those either, coming up empty only once on that pitch as well.
So Buchholz only got two swings and misses on pitches that Hayhurst and Morris are accusing him of cheating with. According to PITCH f/x, his movement wasn't abnormal, and in fact was subpar for his season as a whole, a fact born out by the contact made by Blue Jays hitters when they swung.
For his part, Buchholz had some logically sound reasons for doing the things that Hayhurst and Morris saw as cheating. The Boston Globe's Peter Abraham asked Buchholz about the accusations.
"Before every start, I pat rosin on my arm, go up and get stretched," Buchholz said. "They said I had something in my hair? It's the bottle of water I pour over me between each inning. They don't want you licking your fingers on the mound so it's a way to have moisture. I wipe it off every time I touch my hair."
"Every pitcher puts rosin on," Buchholz explained. "That's why it's there. It is what it is."
Asked if he was annoyed at Hayhurst he said, "I don't have any ill feelings against anybody. That's the way it works. I didn't do anything wrong."
There was also mentioned of a discolored sleeve on his undershirt. "I've been wearing the same red shirt under my uniform for three years," Buchholz said. "So it probably has a lot of stains on it. The water is dripping off my hair onto my uniform and I'm sweating. It makes the red color turn to a darker red.
None of this proves conclusively that Buchholz didn't cheat. About all we can say is that it doesn't appear from the data or the video that he was cheating, and if he was, he wasn't doing a very good job of it. As the Jays can attest, it would have been about the only thing he did that wasn't very good on Wednesday.