It would stand to reason that of all the people on planet Earth, Domingo German would be one of the foremost experts on baseball’s war against too-sticky hands.
But though German plans to use “way, way less” rosin when he takes the mound Monday night — fresh off a 10-game suspension for what crew chief James Hoye called “the worst hand we’ve ever felt during a game” — there was a sort of befuddled resignation to that modification. He’s been warned, he’s been ejected, he’s been suspended, and sure, his hands probably were laughably sticky, but to this day, German still has no idea how far is too far.
“I haven’t gotten a better explanation,” he said Sunday through an interpreter.
He also was under the impression that a second ejection would net a 50-game suspension, though there’s no indication of that being a possibility. In fact, there’s nothing on the books about what happens if a pitcher gets ejected twice for sticky stuff, because the rule is new and that type of enforcement is unprecedented.
To which we say: Really, MLB? This is the best you can do?
For a sport that uses every metric you’ve heard of, MLB’s woefully unscientific approach to sticky stuff is absurd, especially when there are viable ways to address the issue.
Currently, they prefer a subjective examination done at the discretion of the umpires, meaning that there is no way to assure uniformity from pitcher to pitcher and team to team. It's resulted in two suspensions this season: One for German and another for Max Scherzer, who went as far as to swear on his “kids’ lives” that he wasn’t using anything but sweat and rosin. And you know what? There's reason to believe him. Sweat and rosin can be really, really sticky.
The whole thing is complicated by the fact that there’s no actual rule against sticky palms. Rosin is permitted unless it’s used to “intentionally discolor or damage the ball,” and beyond that, pitchers are simply barred from using other foreign substances such as spit, mud or wax. Excessive sweat presumably falls in the “spit” category, but good luck figuring out how to perfectly enforce that during the next 95-degree day in the Bronx.
This non-objective approach is a problem. What happens when an ace or a shutdown closer gets suspended in September or October? Entire seasons could be affected behind such airtight measurements as “this was the stickiest it has been since I’ve been inspecting hands” (umpire Dan Bellino, on the offending hand that got Scherzer ejected).
There’s also an optics issue. While German is no stranger to disgrace, Scherzer has a sterling reputation. His suspension means that a first-ballot Hall of Famer now must deal with the faint whiff of “cheater.” (Granted, only the most onerous among us would go that far.)
There are ways to combat this, but it looks as if the easiest fix — the pre-tacked ball that’s used in Japan and Korea — goes against what MLB is attempting to do with its new rules. That ball currently is being used in Double-A, leading to a lot more ball movement and more strikeouts, according to Baseball America. Spin rate is up and offense is down, and that’s not good news for a sport that introduced a pitch clock, limited pickoff throws and increased the size of bases — presumably to create more offense.
So what about something else?
Recently, The Athletic spoke to astrophysicist Meredith Wills, who’s spent years testing major-league baseballs. One potential solution was elegant in its simplicity: Use a standardized object that’s lighter than a baseball, and if it doesn’t fall from a pitcher’s hand when he turns his palm toward the ground, the hand is too sticky.
If that’s not exact enough, baseball can invest some of its billions in developing a machine that can test balls on the spot. There already are things out there that measure tackiness. They just need to be adapted for this use, and in this case, the extra work is worth it.
For his part, Bellino insisted that whatever was on Scherzer’s hand on that day in mid-April didn’t feel like rosin. It was sticky, he said, not tacky.
“We take [removing a pitcher] very seriously," he said. "With the training we’ve been given by Major League Baseball to check to make sure that it’s not a legal substance, this was clearly something that went too far over the line.”
Bellino was trying to provide clarity that MLB has failed to give. But it doesn’t have to be this way when there are viable options for standardization.
What’s not viable is a slapdash and nebulous evaluation process that leaves pitchers looking for a line that doesn’t exist. Baseball should be better than that.