TORONTO — Did you catch Max Scherzer’s reactions to his first experiences with the new foreign-substance checks, including one initiated at the request of Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi?
Give the Washington Nationals superstar an Emmy. And if this is your first time seeing this, you’re welcome.
Also not impressed, Oakland Athletics reliever Sergio Romo.
In contrast, Ross Stripling and the Toronto Blue Jays’ first turns through Major League Baseball’s mandatory inspections of all pitchers as part of new enforcement efforts to curb the use of so-called sticky stuff by pitchers, were far more chill.
Stripling was met by home-plate umpire Laz Diaz and first-base umpire Mike Estabrook as he headed toward the dugout following his first inning of work in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the host Miami Marlins, quietly offered up his hat and glove and pulled his belt forward.
There were a couple of smiles as acting manager John Schneider joined the group for a peek at the process, and that was that.
“Kind of lucky to have an off-day (Monday) where we get to see the likes of (Yu) Darvish and (Jacob) deGrom get checked and kind of what it looked like, so I knew what to expect coming out of that first inning,” Stripling said of the experience. “I mean, before I was even over to the umpire I had my hat and my glove off and just like basically shoved it in his face. They kept it light-hearted. None of them really said anything specific, like, we don’t want to do this or sorry, we’re doing this or we are going to do this or anything like that. It was just like, ‘All right, looks good Strip,’ and that was it.
“They kept it light-hearted and quick and easy, but you get a feel for what they’re looking at. They’re looking in the hat, the glove, they can touch your hands, look at your hands, feel your hands, feel your belt. Some guys made some jokes that if you took a still picture, it looked the umpires were trying to look down my pants, which is kind of funny. I might make a meme or two out of that.”
The reactions to MLB’s measures by Scherzer and Romo demonstrate the undercurrent of frustration at the stringent mid-stream application by MLB of rules long ignored.
What began as pitchers’ search for more tack — sunscreen and rosin was the mix of choice for a long time — increasingly became more high-tech as the understanding of spin and its correlation with quality pitches led to the search for stickier substances to better manipulate the baseball.
In announcing the new crackdown, commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement stricter enforcement was needed to “level the playing field.”
“It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else — an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field,” he said. “This is not about any individual player or club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed. We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game.”
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There are reasonable questions about how fair it is to force pitchers to adapt nearly three months into a season when the use of foreign substances had been tacitly accepted for years.
Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, for instance, recently attributed his elbow injury to gripping the ball tighter without sticky stuff.
The counterargument is that the rosin bag is on the mound for a reason and that rules long on the books are simply being enforced. But adjusting during the off-season in conjunction with the players association seems like a sounder approach, but that’s tougher to accomplish when relations between the parties are troublingly strained.
For his part, Stripling said he’s “made adjustments,” due to the new inspections but added, “it’s not a big change. I’m not worried about it moving forward.”
The six innings of two-hit, one-run, seven-strikeout ball he threw Tuesday suggest that, as the right-hander extended an impressive rebound since adjusting his mechanics after the Boston Red Sox roughed him up May 19.
Over his last six starts, he’s allowed only nine earned runs on 21 hits and nine walks with 36 strikeouts in 35.1 innings. His OPS against is only .530 and he has allowed only four homers after giving up three alone to the Red Sox during that fateful start in Dunedin last month.
It’s without a doubt his best stretch since joining the Blue Jays, and comparable to the way he performed during his all-star season of 2018 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I think it’s just the confidence,” said Stripling. “Back in 2018, I was having success and you snowball more confidence as you have good outings and you build off those. And I was having a hard time over the last year-plus in building confidence because I wasn’t having success. Now you rattle off a couple good outings and you start feeling like you belong here, can get guys out here and have all that stuff that you might start lacking mentally when you’re struggling.”
That the foreign-substance checks didn’t throw Stripling off is important, as the stability he’s given the rotation over the past month has been a pivotal development for the Blue Jays.
“The awkward one is when the closer comes in with the lead in the ninth inning and before you get going, you’re getting everything checked,” said Schneider. “That’s the only one that kind of stands out, like it’s a little bit weird. But we’ll see how it goes. It’s probably going to be hopefully a little bit of feel by the umpires if a guy gives up a five-spot, they’re not going to check him after that inning or whatever it may be. First time for us, first time for everyone. Basically, it was a little bit weird, but you kind of make adjustments, you roll with it.”
Stripling had a similar outlook.
“It is what it is,” he said of the new enforcement. “The fact that we’re basically two days through the games and no one’s been caught, I think that goes to show you what pitchers are doing. They’re taking it serious and they’re either going to be really sneaky with it or they’re not going to risk it. Me personally, I didn’t risk it, and I’m not going to moving forward. But it’s starting to get a feel for what it looks like at least. We’ll see how it shakes out over the next couple of weeks as umpires either keep being that diligent, more diligent, less diligent, whatever. We’ll see.”