In a conversation I had with my dad this past week, he brought up MLB’s sticky-stuff crackdown.
The chat began like this: "Didn’t somebody pull their pants down?"
Actually, Dad, a few people did, most notably the Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the A’s Sergio Romo. Many others were forced to unbuckle their belts. Mercifully, in those cases, the trousers mostly stayed up.
Which leads us to the latest round of MLB’s ongoing series of unintended consequences, the collateral damage from the implementation of a new rule. But was all this pants-dropping theater truly that damaging?
Plenty argued that the umpire’s TSA-style search of pitchers — hat, glove, belt — actually provided some entertainment value, a buzzphrase that gets thrown around a lot with baseball these days. Scherzer’s gradual meltdown over the routine checks, then going nuclear over Joe Girardi’s managerial challenge — followed by Girardi’s ejection — generated nationwide, crossover-news appeal.
While that certainly wasn’t MLB’s intent — commissioner Rob Manfred told The Athletic, "My view is the first two days have gone very well" — the high-profile incident did a sufficient job of driving the rule home. And the blowups represented only a tiny percentage of the overall enforcement operation.
More importantly, MLB’s plan seems to be working. Taking away the Spider Tack, Pelican Grip, etc. was supposed to not only reinstate a long-time rule already on the books but give offenses a chance to breathe after being suffocated by these substance-enhanced pitchers. Without delving too deep into the weeds, that’s what appears to be happening during this relatively short sample size.
MLB told teams in spring training that Rule 6.02 (c) pertaining to the doctoring of baseballs would be under renewed scrutiny at the start of the season. Then, after a six-week research period, it slowly let word leak that active enforcement soon would be underway. The official start date wasn’t until June 21.
Still, given the weeks of advance notice, a reasonable line of demarcation for pitchers weaning themselves off the sticky stuff is more like June 1, even though some data-gatherers have gone back even earlier, to mid-May. But if we keep it to this month, which is nearly four weeks old, the numbers are revealing.
Overall, through Friday, the MLB averages for a few offensive statistics: .238 BA, .713 OPS, 8.92 K/game, 4.41 runs/game.
But if you narrow the time frame since June 1, they read as follows: .245 BA, .730 OPS, 8.75 K/game, 4.60 runs/game.
There could be other factors at play as well. Offenses typically perk up as the weather gets warmer. This jump is fairly significant, however. And based on the public reactions from the pitchers, ranging from mound hysterics to sober analysis, the impact is real.
The assumption is they’ll eventually adjust — and MLB should give them a hand in making the baseballs easier to grip, either through the manufacturing process or establishing a legal formula, say a 21st century upgrade to the rosin bag.
In the meantime, not everyone has approached this adapt-or-die situation the same way. The face of this whole crackdown, Gerrit Cole, has endured the lion’s share of scrutiny during the past month, and maybe for that reason, he’s taken a more measured outlook.
After subduing the Royals for seven innings (two runs, six strikeouts) this past week, Cole acknowledged that he does have to pitch differently now and feels less secure about dominating hitters at the top of the strike zone with a somewhat less fearsome four-seam fastball.
The reason? Without his sticky substance of choice, something that Cole sort of indirectly cops to, the spin rate for his four-seamer plunged by 253 rpms in Tuesday’s start. His slider plummeted 246 rpms, making him more vulnerable at the bottom of the zone, too. As a result, Cole admitted to trying to pitch to weak contact rather than overpowering batters with strikeouts. The new approach is something he said was taught during his early development with the Pirates.
"If I had a dollar for how many times the Pirates told me to pitch to contact, I may not have as much money now, but I’d still have quite a bit of money," said Cole, who signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees. "That was what was hammered into us growing up. A lot of those fundamentals never left my game."
As much as the Yankees probably don’t feel great about their ace being a few hundred rpms less intimidating going forward, Cole is maintaining a reasonable perspective.
At the other end of that spectrum is the Red Sox’s Garrett Richards, who signed a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $10 million during the offseason. He basically admitted that he’s powerless without the sticky stuff and wasn’t shy about suggesting that his career is in jeopardy.
"It's changed pretty much everything for me," Richards told reporters. "I feel like I need to be a different pitcher than I've been the last 9 1/2 years."
That’s going to be true for most pitchers who relied on super-charged spin rates, which now have vanished since they've been deprived of their illegal-substance fuel. But Richards, like the rest of the league, had months to figure this out. It wasn’t sprung on them overnight. Maybe Manfred & Co. let this go on unchecked for too long — similar to his predecessor, Bud Selig, and steroids — but the pitchers got fair warning this time.
MLB kept telling people it was serious, and after years of ignoring similar league overtures about numerous other issues, pitchers again chose to call baseball's bluff. But Manfred wasn’t bluffing, and this past week of mandatory on-field checks (along with the pants-dropping) showed just how far MLB is willing to go.
Zero stars for this switch
OK, so the All-Star Game is an exhibition, and uniforms are, well, only uniforms, I guess. But the 10-year-old me (and maybe the older version too) always looked forward to seeing players wearing their individual team uniforms during the All-Star Game, a cool aesthetic to all of the game’s elite performers mingling together on one field for one night. A Yankee playing beside a Red Sox. A Dodger celebrating with a Giant. And of course, the ballpark — being AL or NL — determining who gets to wear the home whites.
But MLB summarily ended all that with the unveiling of standard in-game uniforms for this year’s July 13 event at Coors Field. Aside from the fact that the new uniforms are not all that enjoyable to look at, it’s disappointing to see a fun tradition stripped from the Midsummer Classic, presumably just to add another jersey to the merchandise sale rotation.
Baseball markets its traditions more than any other sport, and yet we’re seeing them put up for auction at a rapidly increasing pace. Too bad this one couldn’t have been kept off the block for a little while longer.