Miami Marlins starter Alex Sanabia spit on a ball and caused a great controversy, but as of yesterday's writing, there was not much more information on the ordeal. All we knew is that, based on the clip following Domonic Brown's home run, Sanabia spit on the baseball and rubbed up the ball, clearly violating a rule in baseball.
Did the umpires catch something like that? Initial reports said no, then I heard that the umps did see something regarding Sanabia's baseball and his mouth. It turns out, according to this MLB.com article, that crew chief Joe West reported that the umps did not catch anything directly after the event, but they did see something later in the game.
Crew chief Joe West, who was the first-base umpire Monday, was asked about the incident on Tuesday. West noted that he didn't see Sanabia spit on the ball, and therefore it was used in the game. But later in the game, West did order Sanabia to discard another ball for improperly going to his mouth.
The ball having been used in the game certainly makes a difference in people's minds, as people will consider it more of a violation if Sanabia attempted the spitball and actually got away with throwing a pitch. But as Barry Petchesky of Deadspin notes, it does not mean that Sanabia got a real advantage out of the pitch.
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.
This was confirmed to some degree by Pitch F/X data displayed by Dan Rozenson in this Baseball Prospectus Unfiltered piece. Indeed, when I looked at Sanabia's start in the game recap, I did not see any difference in his game as compared to his entire season.
This was all in support of Alex Sanabia, who earns his third win of the season after another mediocre start. He did strike out three batters and induced another 10 whiffs. Once again, Sanabia got swings and misses of 11.3 percent of his pitches and was only able to strike out three batters, continuing to baffle Marlins fans. He scattered seven hits but was twice bailed out in part by two double plays turned by Hechavarria, Dietrich, and Nick Green.
It is easy to see Sanabia perform relatively well compared to his other starts, know that he spit on a ball, and put two and two together to come up with a conclusion. But aside from the runs count, he did not really pitch any differently than he usually does. He got swings and misses on 11.3 percent of his pitches that night versus a 10.3 percent rate during the season. The large number of swings and misses as a whole has been baffling, but the performance from Monday is internally consistent with most of his season's work, even down to the minuscule strikeout numbers. He was better at controlling the ball in the game, posting a 2.0 balls-to-called-strikes ratio overall, but it did not assist him in getting any more strikeouts than usual.
It is still very likely that Sanabia will face punishment for his spitting transgression, but it is unlikely that the saga will go any longer than that. Given his actions, it is unlikely he gained any benefit from the pitch, and the publicity of the action all but assures a suspension followed by a normal return to the rotation by Sanabia, if the Marlins have not tired of his poor play.