The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Keep your pants on! MLB has time to get new rules under control but must act now.

Max Scherzer reacts as he is being checked for foreign substances during Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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However this was supposed to work, this isn’t it: baseball as burlesque, with pitchers standing in the middle of diamonds, unbuckling their belts and taking down their pants. Sticky stuff? The sport is now in a sticky spot.

This wasn’t just about Max Scherzer on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, though that’s a perfect place to start. That’s where Phillies Manager Joe Girardi watched the three-time Cy Young Award winner get checked by umpires for foreign substances twice — as is now required by rule — and decided that wasn’t enough.

That’s where the umpiring crew essentially had to talk Scherzer out of pulling down his pants in public, so frustrated was the Washington Nationals’ ace not just with Girardi’s strategy, but with Major League Baseball’s decision to go from zero to a billion mph in policing an area that, for years, it barely policed at all.

“These are Manfred rules,” Scherzer said. “Go ask him what he wants to do with this.”

Manfred is, of course, Commissioner Rob, and it is his office that has investigated the use — as it turned out, rampant use — of a variety of foreign substances pitchers have relied on to better grip the baseball. Data collected by Major League Baseball over the first two months of the season showed that pitchers deployed more substances with more frequency than MLB expected, and the result had been to exacerbate trends that have been prevalent for some 15 seasons: Pitchers have an advantage over hitters, and a game that thrives on balance between the two had grown increasingly out of whack. So this week, MLB began mandating that umpires check all pitchers — in some cases, to comic effect.

Max Scherzer passes every test the Phillies and MLB’s ‘sticky stuff’ inspections throw at him

Baseball, for right now, is happy with how this is going — 199 pitchers checked over the course of two days, the vast majority of which have gone smoothly. But for right now, this is also MLB’s look: starting pitchers checked twice — and more, if an opposing manager has “probable cause,” which Girardi said he did because he had never seen Scherzer touch his hair so much, which Scherzer said he had to do because that’s the only place he could get any sweat on his fingers, which he needed to grip the baseball because he wasn’t using any other sticky stuff, because those are the rules.

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer on June 22 reacted to the three inspections for foreign substances he received from umpires during a ballgame. (Video: Washington Nationals)

Was this strictly about foreign substances on the baseball, the sport’s buzziest topic? Maybe. But maybe it was also Girardi engaging in a little gamesmanship.

“What are we, idiots?” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday during his weekly appearance with “The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 the Fan. “Of course he was. It’s embarrassing for Girardi. It’s embarrassing for the Phillies. It’s embarrassing for baseball. Yes, he was playing games. Hey, that’s his right. Gamesmanship, it had nothing to do with substances. He had no probable cause to ask for it.”

Think that’s the end of it? Hardly.

“Oh, we’re going to continue to have more events like this happen,” Scherzer said.

That much is clear. On the very same night, veteran reliever Sergio Romo, now with the Oakland Athletics, nearly went full Chippendales when the umpires asked to check his glove and hat — dropping his drawers for the world to see.

“It’s just kind of a funny look in general,” Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said all the way from San Diego, where he was pitching against the Padres — but hyper-aware of what happened in Philadelphia.

“Scherzer, he’s one of the best pitchers of our generation,” Kershaw said, bringing up Scherzer’s situation unprompted. “To see him get checked … and mess up his rhythm — I think he ended up getting out of it — you better find something if you’re going to call him out like that. Maybe there should be like a punishment if a manager checks a guy and there isn’t anything.”

I like that idea. Right now, if a manager challenges a call on the field and replay upholds the call, that manager loses the right to challenge other calls. Why not make Girardi or any other manager be so certain that Scherzer is using something prohibited that if he asks the pitcher to be searched and nothing’s there, he loses the right to undress the opponent’s pitchers for the rest of the night?

Kershaw, with three Cy Youngs of his own, was asked if Girardi’s tactics — asking the umps to check a pitcher in the middle of an inning, particularly with runners on base — could become a strategy. Baseball is so tied up in rhythm — over a season, sure, but on a given night and even in a given at-bat — that disrupting it could be a tactic. It’s such an obvious notion that, in its memo to clubs last week, MLB said, “Please note that a manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request [to inspect a pitcher] in bad faith,” specifically mentioning a manager can be ejected if so.

“It’s a good technique,” Kershaw said. “It throws you off.”

Pitchers who violate ‘sticky stuff’ rules will face 10-game suspensions, MLB says

This was two days into MLB’s efforts to rein in a problem it had allowed to, excuse me, spin out of control. But here’s the thing: Baseball went from essentially ignoring something that’s written into its rule book — in multiple places, mind you — to creating what amounts to a Keystone Kops situation.

Over the past month, as the widespread use of sticky substances — Spider Tack and Pelican Bat Wax and other products with which the public was unfamiliar before this season — became more publicly reported, Scherzer has been adamant not only that pitchers need some help in gripping the ball but that hitters actually want them to grip it better. Exhibit A: a high, riding fastball to Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm that approached Bohm’s face because, Scherzer said, it slipped. This was a night Scherzer used just rosin and sweat to grip the baseball. That’s the pitch, he said, with which he wants a little bit more confidence in what it’s going to do.

“That pitch specifically is the pitch I fear the most,” he said. “ … I don’t ever want to put a fastball in somebody’s face, but we almost had that tonight. The ball slipped out of my hand.”

Look, we’re two days into this, and the sideshows — even if they’re rare — can’t be the new normal. The good news is that it’s within baseball’s abilities to come up with some sort of compromise. That’s what this is about anyway: trying to allow pitchers to grip the baseball properly but not make it spin so much that it moves in ungodly ways. As Rizzo, in his calmer moments, said on the radio, “As we get used to this thing and we work the kinks out, I think we’ll get better.”

Plus, there’s data — small-sample data but data still — to suggest that the changes are working. On June 3 — the date when word leaked that MLB would begin enforcement in earnest — big league batters were hitting a collective .236 with a .312 on-base percentage and .395 slugging percentage — at or approaching historic lows. Since then, those numbers are .245/.316/.414. Spin rates are down. Maybe by the end of the summer, numbers will show that offense is truly up.

Kershaw’s suggestion is a good one, providing some sort of consequences for managers who guess wrong. Scherzer, who’s constantly thinking about all aspects of the game, pointed out that MLB already employs monitors in clubhouses to ensure players and club employees are wearing their masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Couldn’t those same monitors serve another purpose by checking pitchers between innings — rather than having them undress on the field.

“Let those guys examine what their hands look like, what substances are they using, how is this manifesting itself and continue to monitor the situation across the game and how guys pitch and what they want to obviously use on their hands,” Scherzer said.

What thoughts. What theater. Another slate of games awaits today and tomorrow, onward over the course of the summer. Baseball is out to find a solution to a problem that got out of hand. The one it is employing now could use tweaking.