Major League Baseball has a sticky stuff enforcement problem

Max Scherzer's ejection highlighted the inconsistencies in MLB's regulation of pitchers' use of grip-enhancing substances

Think back to two years ago, when you first snickered at the idea of a sticky balls controversy in Major League Baseball. Without rehashing the specifics and without making any assumption about intent, the broad strokes of the issue were: Applying foreign substances to baseballs has always been prohibited; however, pitchers generally require some sort of additional tackiness to get a good grip. The rules relating to sticky stuff had gone unenforced for decades, allowing a creeping increase in usage that became tactically beneficial with a better understanding of how spin rates impact pitches.

In a way, there were two problems: a culture of permissiveness that had created an aesthetic concern in the game (pitchers dominating hitters) and some pitchers going to particular extremes to give themselves a competitive advantage (i.e. SpiderTack).

The crackdown — which had more to do with the lack of offense in recent years than anything else — had to eradicate what MLB considers “performance-enhancing” levels of stickiness achieved through illegal substances without compromising pitchers’ ability to reliably grip baseballs. That’s why rosin is legal, why the mudding process was painstakingly standardized last season and why MLB continues to experiment in the minors with a pre-tacked ball.

The trends in spin rate and the recurrence of memos reminding teams about the crackdown since then indicate that the process of checking pitchers works — but imperfectly.

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, New York Mets ace Max Scherzer was ejected, with a 10-game suspension to follow, for having hands that were “too sticky,” according to the umpires’ postgame interview with a pool reporter. Umpires have been told to conduct more, more thorough and more random checks this season.

After the second inning, the umpire who checked Scherzer determined that his hand was “slightly sticky,” but Scherzer offered to wash it off. When Scherzer came back out for the third inning, he was checked again. This time, his hand was clean, but the umpire expressed concern about stickiness on the glove, so Scherzer changed his glove. When he came back out for the fourth inning, the umpire again checked Scherzer, and this time, his hand was “far stickier than anything that we've felt certainly today and anything this year,” prompting the ejection.

Scherzer insisted — on the field and after the game to reporters — that it was just rosin and sweat. The umpires explained that the checks they make regularly provide a baseline understanding for the feel of rosin — last year, MLB standardized the rosin bags, which are inspected before each game — on pitchers’ hands.

But it wouldn’t really matter.

The original rules about ball doctoring include rosin on the list of ways a player can “intentionally discolor or damage” the ball. Even more saliently, on March 16 of this year, the league sent a memo to teams specifying that rosin use could rise to the level of illegality:

“Please keep in mind that player use of rosin always must be consistent with the requirements and expectations of the Official Baseball Rules. When used excessively or otherwise misapplied (i.e., to gloves or other parts of the uniform), rosin may be determined by the umpires to be a prohibited foreign substance, the use of which may subject a player to ejection and discipline. See OBR 3.01 and OBR 6.02(d). Moreover, players may not intentionally combine rosin with other substances (e.g., sunscreen) to create additional tackiness.”

The critical issue, then, is not the substance; it’s the stickiness.

This seems, frankly, pretty murky. Stickiness is not objective and cannot be measured. Knowledge of stickiness is nontransferable; it cannot be described in a way that necessarily creates a uniform understanding. In the moment, it might be easy to determine if one thing is stickier than something else, but level of stickiness is not a memory that can be double-checked after the fact.

That subjectivity is baked into this whole endeavor of policing pitchers’ use of grip enhancements. A lot of officiating is imperfect, but this seems inherently a little absurd in a way that becomes relevant only when a pitcher gets popped. I believe the frequent, concerted checks are doing something to discourage the behavior, but when a pitcher does get ejected, there seems to be no way to drill down to satisfying specifics.

(Because the issue was Scherzer’s hand, not the ball or the glove, no physical evidence will be sent to the commissioner’s office for further examination.)

That absurdity is rarely highlighted, however, because only three pitchers have been ejected for having sticky hands since the crackdown was announced. Curiously, all three instances have come after umpire Phil Cuzzi conducted a check.

I’m not going to run the math on probabilities to prove that it’s simply not possible that this is because, over the course of thousands of games, Cuzzi has encountered the only three instances of pitchers abusing sticky stuff. Perhaps Cuzzi is a tyrant or has a personal vendetta, but I’m not going to accuse him of that, and you don’t have to think he’s at fault for this to be an obvious issue with MLB’s enforcement.

As part of this initiative, umpires went through sticky stuff training. They practiced distinguishing between SpiderTack and rosin, rosin mixed with sunscreen and rosin mixed with water, etc. Effort was made to standardize their subjective sensory experiences. But they were evidently not standardized enough.

We know pitchers have been using an untoward amount of something sticky — rosin or otherwise — even in the era of on-field checks. That means umpires other than Cuzzi have likely come across a pitcher with hands that were, objectively speaking, “too sticky,” but perhaps they didn’t feel confident enough in their subjective determination to call for an ejection. And that’s a big problem when you consider that a culture of permissiveness is how we got into this predicament in the first place.

This is especially true if rosin can be the culprit. If a pitcher is using a legal substance and getting checked regularly without issue, then an umpire objecting to something that might’ve been permissible in a different game is an obvious threat to fairness.

Maybe Scherzer had too much rosin on his hands or had inadvertently created a super-rosin concoction or was willfully and nefariously cheating. But if the policing of sticky stuff isn’t actually standardized — and this instance highlights the ways in which it might not be — then MLB can’t claim to be leveling the playing field. Rules around competitive integrity work only if you can prove that punishment is enforced evenly.

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