A couple of things are clear two days into Major League Baseball’s revamped enforcement of a sticky stuff crackdown.
First and foremost, no one, no matter his position, is immune to suspicion. Just ask ace Max Scherzer, who is headed to Cooperstown.
Second, if MLB anticipated a smooth integration of its new rules into the flow of its games, that appears unlikely. Just ask anyone who saw the game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals on Tuesday.
During his five-inning outing against Philadelphia, Scherzer was inspected three times for the use of foreign substances on the baseball. The first two inspections, which occurred after the first and third innings, appeared to be part of the new normal, as starting pitchers have been told to expect two inspections per outing.
The third inspection, which was ordered by Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi, sparked a firestorm.
“These are Manfred rules,” Scherzer said near the end of a lengthy postgame teleconference, referring to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. “Go ahead and ask him. I’ve said all I have to say.”
The trouble began in the fourth inning, when Scherzer delivered a high-and-tight fastball that sent Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm diving into the dirt. According to the three-time Cy Young Award winner, Scherzer’s errant pitch was not a message. It was just a 95 mph fastball that he couldn’t handle.
“If you watch the Bohm at-bat, I almost hit him with a 95 mph fastball because the ball slipped out of my hand,” Scherzer explained. “I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin all night. I couldn’t even get sweat out of the back of my head because it wasn’t a particularly warm night. So the only part of me that was sweaty was my hair, so I had to take off my hat to get any moisture on my hand to mix with the rosin. That’s the most perplexing part for me, because I’m just trying to get a hold of the ball.”
Scherzer struck out Bohm with another fastball two pitches later. He then removed his hat and ran his hand through his sweat-drenched hair. He replaced and adjusted his cap. Girardi became animated and pointed at Scherzer, prompting the umpires, led by home plate umpire Tim Timmons, to confer on the field. They then approached Scherzer, who was staring at them and laughing ironically, and asked for a mid-inning inspection.
“I’ve known Max since 2010,” Girardi explained. “Obviously, he’ll go down in history as a Hall of Famer. I’ve never seen him wipe his brow like he was tonight. It piqued my interest. He repeated it four or five times. It seemed suspicious. I had no intention of offending anyone. I simply have to do what is best for my club.”
Scherzer responded by tossing his cap and glove to the ground and then unbuckling his belt, as if to say, “Look at whatever you want.” As Scherzer yelled and motioned to the Philadelphia dugout, the umpires poked around. Girardi responded with a yell of his own. Washington manager Dave Martinez stepped in to support his pitcher.
“Let’s just say there was no sticky stuff,” Martinez said.
Scherzer stayed in the game, finishing off the fourth and then the fifth inning, despite the fact that his pitch count had risen to 106 and his spot in the batting order was due up to lead off the sixth. Scherzer stalked off the mound, his gaze fixed on the Philadelphia dugout, knowing he was likely done for the night.
Then, as Scherzer mocked the Phillies’ dugout by holding up his glove and hat as if to say, “I’m clean,” several members of the Nationals’ coaching staff began yelling at the Phillies’ dugout. Girardi reappeared and appeared to beckon to someone on the Nationals’ side before being ejected from the game by Timmons.
“I wasn’t going to challenge the club,” Girardi explained. “Some coaches yelled at me, coaches I knew, and it bothered me. I’m not fooling around here. I respect the people over there, and I admire what Max has accomplished in his career. But, once again, I must do what is best for my team.”
Meanwhile, in case you missed it, the Nationals won 3-2. Scherzer won his 181st career game, improving his record to 6-4 with a 2.19 ERA. The Nationals won their third game in a row, pulling into a virtual tie for second place in the NL East with the Phillies and Braves.
But did anyone pay attention to any of this? Martinez, for one, was, as he tried valiantly to keep his postgame remarks focused on his team’s collective grit and saying that it was Girardi who “had to answer the tough questions.”
They were, indeed, difficult questions. There was this passage in the memo MLB circulated about the enforcement processes related to its crackdown on the sticky stuff:
“Only if the manager (or a member of his team) observes behaviour on the field consistent with the use of a foreign substance may an opposing manager request that the umpire inspect the pitcher or a position player. If a field manager requests that the umpires check the opposing pitcher for foreign substances, the umpires will inquire as to what is causing the request and how they believe the pitcher is applying foreign substances to the baseball. All checks that are prompted by a field manager’s request will take place between at-bats. If a request is made during an at-bat, the umpires will perform the check for foreign substances after the current at-bat has ended. Please keep in mind that if a manager makes the request in bad faith (e.g., a request intended to disrupt the pitcher in a critical game situation, a routine request that is not based on observable evidence, etc.), he will face discipline.”
So was Girardi’s request in “bad faith”?
“I’d have to be a complete moron to use something tonight, when everyone’s antenna is so far up,” Scherzer said. “That’s all there is to it. Whatever. Turn the page and keep going.”
Scherzer was making his first appearance since being activated from the disabled list due to groyne inflammation. He pitched five innings, allowing only two hits, one of which was a monster home run by former teammate Bryce Harper, and three walks. Despite having “zero feel for the ball,” he struck out eight batters.
What was intriguing about Girardi’s challenge was that Scherzer’s spin rates during the game were unusually low despite his always fierce velocity being even higher than usual – spin rate being the advanced tracking metric that has gained so much attention in recent seasons.
Scherzer’s 21 sliders averaged 2,154 revolutions per minute (rpm) against the Phillies, his lowest total since Sept. 16, 2016. Scherzer averaged 2,348 rpm on 52 four-seam fastballs, his lowest since Aug. 5 of last season, according to Baseball Savant. Scherzer has averaged 2,328 rpm on sliders and 2,470 rpm on four-seam fastballs in 2021.
However, while the method was unique, the results were not. They were in line with what everyone had come to expect from Scherzer over the previous 14 major league seasons.
“If everyone is on the same playing field, you have to find a way to get past it,” Scherzer said. “This is something that everyone is dealing with. You can’t make any excuses when you’re on the mound.”
Scherzer was not the only pitcher in the league who was dissatisfied with the way he was checked by umpires on Tuesday night. Sergio Romo, a reliever for the Oakland Athletics, was visibly agitated when he was inspected at the end of the seventh inning of Oakland’s game against the Texas Rangers, undoing his belt when approached by an umpire.
After being inspected by umpires at the end of an inning, Sergio Romo undoes his belt and expresses his displeasure.
In response to Girardi’s request to have Scherzer tested, Los Angeles Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw stated that he believes managers should be punished if the pitcher is found to be clean.
“If you’re going to call him out like that, you better find something,” Kershaw said. “If a manager checks a guy and finds something, perhaps there should be some sort of punishment. Aside from that, it is what it is. It doesn’t matter.”
Girardi’s request, according to Kershaw, disrupted Scherzer’s rhythm.
“It’s an effective technique,” he said. “You get going and into a rhythm, and then you have a guy on base, and he checks you — it throws you off because it’s something you’re not used to.
“Maybe they lose a challenge, or maybe they can’t do it if they have one — I’m not sure. However, I believe there should be some consequences for managers who act on such a whim. Because if you call someone out… and you don’t find anything, I think that reflects poorly on his, the manager’s, performance.”
As the feedback from these new processes comes into baseball’s central offices in New York, Scherzer believes something will have to give, even if it means getting rid of the sticky stuff.
“Hopefully, the players throughout the league understand that what we’re doing right now is not the solution,” Scherzer said. “I understand there’s an issue with Spider Tack, and we need to get it out of the game. But I also believe there is a better way to handle this.
“We are currently monitoring for [COVID-19] masks in our clubhouses. I’ve stated that one of my solutions is to have those monitors check pitchers between innings instead of worrying about our masks.”
Despite his concerns about MLB regulations, the drama of his outing on Tuesday, and the significance of the win for his club, Scherzer seemed fixated on the moment his 95 mph heater sent the 6-foot-5 Bohm sprawling in the batter’s box.
“That pitch in particular is the pitch that I am most afraid of,” Scherzer said. “I’m not going to throw that pitch. I’d never throw a ball near someone’s head.”