Alex Sanabia spit on the baseball. Just hocked a stringy, viscous loogie all over it. You can't get more blatantly illegal than that. Still: this isn't cheating.
Cameras caught Sanabia rubbing down the ball after giving up a home run to Dom Brown in the second inning of last night's 5-1 Marlins win. Sanabia wasn't what you'd call dominant: seven hits and three strikouts over six-and-a-third. But replay doesn't lie, and the rulebook doesn't mince words:
The pitcher shall not —
(a) (1) Bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while in the 18 foot circle surrounding the pitching rubber. EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his hand.
PENALTY: For violation of this part of this rule the umpires shall immediately call a ball. However, if the pitch is made and a batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a hit batsman or otherwise, and no other runner is put out before advancing at least one base, the play shall proceed without reference to the violation. Repeated offenders shall be subject to a fine by the league president.
(2) expectorate on the ball, either hand or his glove;
(3) rub the ball on his glove, person or clothing;
(4) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;
(5) deface the ball in any manner; or
(6) deliver a ball altered in a manner prescribed by Rule 8.02(a)(2) through (5) or what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball or “emery” ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub the ball between his bare hands.
PENALTY: For violation of any part of Rules 8.02(a)(2) through (6)
(a) the pitcher shall be ejected immediately from the game and shall be suspended automatically.
But real "spitballers" don't use spit. Earlier this season, Clay Buchholz was accused of using sunscreen. In the 2006 World Series, Kenny Rogers's questionable balls were stained with a dark substance, probably pine tar. (MLB tweaked its rules on doctoring baseballs as a response to Rogers.) Even Gaylord Perry, who wrote a book called Me and the Spitter, favored vaseline.
Spitballers load up a ball, and they keep the load on the ball. That little bit of baggage messes with the rotation, and causes the ball to move unnaturally. They don't vigorously rub a substance into the cowhide, as Sanabia did. Especially not when it's spit, which almost surely dried out by the time he delivered the next pitch. While Sanabia absolutely violated the letter of the law, it's hard to imagine he was doing anything other than trying to get a better grip.
Punishments for doctoring baseballs are rare, getting rarer. Before Joel Peralta received an eight-game ban last year for having pine tar on his glove, no one had been suspended since 2005. And all of the suspensions over the last few decades have come for things like pine tar, glue, and sandpaper—substances that don't have a good excuse, like good old-fashioned human spit does.
MLB's actions now will be interesting. No complaint was lodged during the game, and it's a stretch of physics to claim Sanabia gained any advantage from spitting on the ball. On the other hand, he was captured in full HD doing something very clearly against the rules, and the outcry is becoming too loud to ignore. A guess? Six games, the equivalent of one start.