Did Jon Lester Cheat?

Baseball in GloveThere are claims that Boston pitcher Jon Lester cheated in the Series opener against St. Louis in Boston on Wednesday night. These claims are based upon an observable blob of something – I think I’d rather not know precisely what – in his glove. The substance in his glove does not necessarily equate to cheating. It’s what Lester did or did not do with the substance that counts.

A major league pitch moves through the air at speeds of 90 mph or more. As the ball moves forward, it is subject to aerodynamic forces known as the Magnus Force – a variation of the Bernoulli effect. In the case of the Magnus Force, it is the spinning of the ball and the raised surface of the stitches that create a whirlpool of rotating air around the ball. The moving air exerts pressure – think Bernoulli effect – and the ball moves in the direction of least resistance. A perfect curve ball curves right at the plate because of the Magnus Force. 

All baseballs have the horseshoe shaped seams comprised of 216 stitches. All pitchers orient those stitches in one of several positions to achieve the type of pitch they want. A batter uses the pitcher’s stance and pitching motion to help identify the type of pitch being thrown. A batter can also identify the type of pitch from the orientation of the stitches as the ball flies toward him – if he can process the information before the seconds-long, sixty feet six inch journey to Home Plate is complete.

Positioning the stitches and using them to control the pitch and influence the behavior of the ball is not against the rules. Adding a foreign substance to the ball to influence the motion of the ball is against the rules and has been ever since a batter was killed by a wild pitch back in 1920. The rationale for this is that, unlike positioning the stitches to influence the motion of the ball, altering the surface of the ball in any way results in an uncontrolled pitch – the kind of pitch that no batter in his right mind wants to face.

Bottom Line: If Jon Lester applied the observed substance to the ball or altered the surface of the ball in any way, he broke the rules. He cheated. Now you might think that being accused of cheating would have Lester and his team hopping mad and protesting wildly. The truth of the matter is that surreptitiously altering the surface of the ball is sort of a time-worn tradition. Not a noble tradition, to be sure, but one that is viewed as much a part of the game of baseball as adjusting yourself or spitting tobacco juice.

Another thing that’s viewed as part of the game? The payback that will occur if Lester pitches again in the Series. St. Louis is not about to meekly accept their loss if they believe they were robbed. They’re sure to make that clear when they face Boston again – no matter who’s pitching – especially when they face Lester if the Series goes to Game 5.

Related posts:
Did Jon Lester Cheat?
Cayley’s Four Forces of Flight
More in my book, too.
The Physics of Baseball by Robert Adair


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