When the controversy of the “did he or didn’t he” spitball came up today, I immediately consulted the expert on spitballs, Mat Kovach. His work on the illegal pitch is amazing and he’s one of few people I know who understand the lost art of loading the ball up. I asked him for his take on Mariano Rivera’s YouTube moment:
“Alright, talk of the ever elusive spitball! Oh wait, an optical illusion that makes it look like Mariano Rivera spit on the ball? Drat!
“When I first saw the video, I had to laugh. Nobody would load their spitball by actually spitting on it. Running the video frame by frame showed that Rivera was spitting off to the side of the mound and if you follow the spit, you can see it pass the ball as the transition to the Angels dugout is occurring. I don’t care how long you look at it; you won’t see the boat .. umm … spit hit the ball.
“There any many ways to load up a spitball, or the scuffball, but I’ll focus on the spitter. None of them include standing on the mound in front of the world and depositing an enormous amount of spit on it. Based on research of many former spitballers, including Bob Shaw and his Hall of Fame student Gaylord Perry, it is a very simple, secret process. Even during the days of legal spitters, people rarely saw a pitcher load one up. You need to look for it; you aren’t going to see it by accident.
“A pitcher will have a source of something slippery: spit, Vaseline, KY Jelly, baby powder, etc., but let’s just call it spit. He might get spit from his mouth, hide it on his hat, between his legs, on his waist. Heck he might just sweat enough!
“Typically the pitcher will first transfer the spit to the glove. Move the ball into their glove getting some on baseball in the horseshoe part between the seams. Then, they’ll rub that in, either in the glove or by removing the glove and rubbing the ball in both hands. Pitchers are always rubbing the ball, so the key here is the transfer. They’ll make sure to get some spit on their index and middle fingertips.
“With the ball and fingertips loaded, they will make a move to the rosin bag, bounce it around and not touch their fingertips. Touch the rubber and look for the sign. Maybe signal to the catcher to indicate what is coming, or he just might surprise the catcher.
“When the pitcher grips the ball, he’ll touch his fingertips to the load spot on the ball, making sure the rest of the fingers are raised up off the ball. A typical fastball wind up is used, but instead of throwing the ball and allowing it to just roll off the fingers, the ball will be squeezed out like it is a watermelon seed when he does his normal pronation of the wrist. (This is the hardest part of the pitch, getting the wrist action and squeeze timed right.)
“Yes, there are variations to loading it up, but the basic principle is the same. Spit to ball. Rub ball. Spit on fingers. Rosin bag. Fingertip grip. Squeeze it out. This is the most common why that absolutely is not use in the game today. Really. Never Happens.
“Then the ‘evil’ spitball will look like a fastball, albeit about 4-5 MPH slower. The real trick is in squeezing the ball and the slippery points which greatly reduces the spin. With the slower speed and lack of spin, the ball will be effected by gravity more; appearing to drop like a rock. Joe Posnaski wrote in The Soul of Baseball that Tony Oliva and Buck O’Neil had a conversation saying there was no such thing as a split-finger fastball, there are just spitballs. That is what a batter will see when a good spitball is thrown, a split-finger fastball. The spitter is just a little bit less taxing on the elbow.
“Why yes, I think the spitball should be legal. Help save the pitcher!
“Mariano Rivera’s grip and motion just would not work for a spitball. He grips his pitches tightly with both fingers, keeps his wrist fairly straight and controls the movement by adjusting how the ball rolls off his middle finger. His follow through doesn’t have the snap or pop that spitballers have.
“So no, Mo didn’t load up a spitball. But does that mean either championship series is void of spitballs? (insert Steroids Era joke here)”