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Max Scherzer, Joe Girardi Fiasco Underscores Absurdity of MLB's Sticky Stuff Rules

Zachary D. RymerJune 24, 2021

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It took all of two days for Major League Baseball's new ban on foreign substances to go from potential embarrassment to actual embarrassment.

The ban had a smooth rollout Monday, with New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom notably serving as the first pitcher to be inspected for Spider Tack and other outlawed sticky stuff. Things hit a snag Tuesday, however, because Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi didn't think two checks was enough for Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer.  

The three-time Cy Young Award winner—who lives up to his Mad Max moniker even on the best of days—was none too happy as umpires carried out mandatory inspections after the first and third innings of the Nationals' eventual 3-2 win. Accordingly, he was even less happy when Girardi insisted on a third inspection in the middle of the fourth inning:

NBC Sports Philadelphia @NBCSPhilly

The pitcher substances controversy isn't going away anytime soon!<br><br>Joe Girardi asked the umpires to inspect Max Scherzer in the middle of the fourth inning and the Nats were NOT happy. <a href="https://t.co/M1B5OsM2of">pic.twitter.com/M1B5OsM2of</a>

Like the first two checks, the umpiring crew's third inspection of the 36-year-old right-hander didn't uncover any wrongdoing. Though Scherzer had been taking his cap off to run his right hand through his hair, all that was there was sweat.

Of course, more drama ensued anyway. Scherzer gave Girardi an intense staredown as he walked off the mound at the end of the fourth, and the Phillies' second-year skipper was eventually ejected after leaving his dugout to yell at coaches in the opposing dugout: 

FOX Sports: MLB @MLBONFOX

After being checked for sticky substance 3 times tonight, Max Scherzer stared down Phillies Manager Joe Girardi while walking to the dugout. Girardi then left his dugout and had some words for Scherzer, which led to Girardi being ejected.<a href="https://t.co/3laApv2YdR">pic.twitter.com/3laApv2YdR</a>

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Welcome to the new normal in Major League Baseball. It's equal parts baffling, outrageous, tragic, comic and, ultimately, unsustainable.


MLB Must Close the Girardi Loophole

For all of the criticisms that can be lobbed at MLB's sudden crackdown on sticky stuff, at least the actual inspections are designed to be minimally invasive.

As was the case with the first two checks on Scherzer, the mandatory substance checks are meant to take place between innings or after pitching changes. This way, they don't interrupt the action. And even if they're still annoying, pitchers at least know to anticipate them.

But as was the case for years even before MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred deemed the use of foreign substances an "unfair competitive advantage," managers can still implore umpires to check an opposing pitcher if said pitcher is doing something suspicious. As Girardi explained, this is the right he was exercising:  

John Clark @JClarkNBCS

Joe Girardi on asking umps to inspect Max Scherzer<br><br>“I’ve seen Max pitch a long time. I’ve never seen Max wipe his head like he did tonight. I was suspicious. I’m trying to win games here. I’m not playing games”<br><br> <a href="https://t.co/jaNda4rbGw">pic.twitter.com/jaNda4rbGw</a>

However, Girardi also had little to lose in asking the umpires to take another look at Washington's ace. If Scherzer had something, then he would be promptly kicked out of the game. And if not, oh well. Maybe the third interruption would get him out of a rhythm in which he'd allowed only a solo home run to Bryce Harper to that point.

That Girardi was engaging in a bit of gamesmanship was the general consensus on social media and, certainly unsurprisingly, within the Nationals organization. General manager Mike Rizzo was still fuming during a radio appearance on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday morning.

"What are we idiots? Of course he was," he said, referring to the idea of gamesmanship on Girardi's part. "It's embarrassing for Girardi. It's embarrassing for the Phillies. It's embarrassing for baseball."

Mind you, this is not to suggest that Girardi had absolutely nothing on the line. As Hannah Keyser of Yahoo Sports noted, MLB's memo on the foreign-substance ban actually does include possible punishment for managers who don't act in good faith:

Hannah Keyser @HannahRKeyser

From MLB's memo to teams last week:<br><br>"Please note that a manager will be subject to discipline if he 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.)"

But unless Statcast is suddenly capable of measuring a manager's faith level like it can, say, exit velocity and spin rate, this is ultimately a subjective call. And in situations like this, managers are always going to have plausible deniability.  

Instead, MLB might want to take a cue from Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who modestly proposed that there should be automatic penalties for managers who come up empty on optional inspections, per Ethan Cadeaux of NBC Sports Washington:

"Maybe if they lose a challenge, or maybe if they have a challenge they can't do it. I don't know. But I do think there should be repercussions for managers doing that on a whim like that because if you call somebody out -- anybody, but somebody of Max Scherzer's caliber -- and you don't find anything, I think that looks pretty bad on his part, the manager's part."

A lost challenge is one idea. Another would be subjecting the offending manager to the same punishment as pitchers who do get caught with a foreign substance: an automatic ejection and a 10-game suspension.


The One Silver Lining of Tuesday's Silliness

On the plus side, now we know that umpires aren't about to start giving pitchers the ol' heave-ho on account of sweat and rosin.

The question of whether they would first emerged when MLB granted an exception for rosin under its new foreign-substances rule but with the stipulation that pitchers "may not intentionally combine rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness or they risk ejection and suspension."

Because neither umpires nor anyone else can prevent pitchers from sweating, whether sweat in and of itself would count as an "other substance" was perhaps absurd.

But as Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez noted on Twitter, sweat and rosin together make for a powerful gripping agent. And in one for the "Of Course He Did" file, outspoken Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer even offered a demonstration:

Trevor Bauer (トレバー・バウアー) @BauerOutage

If you said trick question, good job. This was created by mixing sweat and rosin together. No other substance was used. No sunscreen. No pine tar. No firm grip. No spider tack. Just sweat and rosin. So, question! As you can hear and see, the ball is quite sticky. But I used legal <a href="https://t.co/g8t7O9DkiB">https://t.co/g8t7O9DkiB</a>

Scherzer himself, meanwhile, admitted that a mixture of sweat and rosin is what he was going for Tuesday. Per Bradford Doolittle of ESPN: 

"The whole night, I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin. I couldn't even get sweat from the back of my head, because it really wasn't a warm night. So the only part that was sweaty on me was actually my hair, so I had to take off my hat to get any kind of moisture on my hand, to try and mix with the rosin. For me, that's the confusing part, because I'm just trying to get a grip of the ball."

Had the umpiring crew determined that Scherzer was breaking the new rules by mixing sweat and rosin, a clear precedent would have been set that such an action was now a no-no for pitchers.

Suffice it to say that it's a good thing the crew determined otherwise and let Scherzer continue. Because even if there's an argument that a sweat/rosin mixture is technically illegal, to actually take that stance would require holding both pitchers and umpires to an impossible standard on a game-by-game, inning-by-inning and pitch-by-pitch basis.


This Is Not Sustainable

To be clear, the problem with MLB's foreign-substance crackdown is not its intent.

When Manfred referred to the use of sticky stuff as an "unfair competitive advantage," he had plenty of anecdotal evidence to back him up. He was likewise backed by loads of statistical evidence, including an ever-rising spin rate, an increasing percentage of swings and misses on high-spin pitches and, of course, this season's historically low .238 batting average.

But even if pitchers should have known their days of getting away with using sticky stuff were numbered, the timing of MLB's crackdown couldn't have been worse. By implementing a ban in the middle of the season instead of, say, during the winter or before spring training, the league willfully cultivated a situation that was never not going to be awkward as players, coaches and umpires adjusted on the fly to a new environment.

What's more, this is quite literally a waste of everyone's time.

Maybe the odd pitcher will get popped for sticky stuff here and there, but it figures that most inspections will yield nothing. And any inspections that managers insist on will cause in-game delays, which is the last thing Manfred should want. Pace of play is his passion project, after all, and the average game already lasts well north of three hours.

Though it's doubtful that anything will happen before the 2021 season is over, the best way forward still involves the league office compromising with pitchers on what should be allowed for the sake of getting a better grip on the ball.

For instance, pine tar or the formerly oh-so-popular mix of sunscreen and rosin. Or better yet, the mythical proprietary substance that, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Jesse Rogers of ESPN, the league had been working on before it decided that grip-enhancers are bad, actually.

The worst way forward looks a lot like what everyone is seeing now. It's just baseball with added doses of agitated pitchers and conniving managers, which are things that nobody asked for.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.

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