Matt Calkins: Pitcher inspections are annoying and awkward, but MLB needs them for now
July 2, 2021 Updated Fri., July 2, 2021 at 4:19 p.m.
They are awkward, they are annoying, and to some, straight-up intrusive.
They have resulted in players staring down managers and pulling down their pants.
Last Sunday, one caused Seattle Mariners reliever Hector Santiago to be ejected – the first casualty of the new policy.
They are MLB’s pitcher inspections – a circuslike practice that is necessary for the game.
That’s right – necessary. At least for now.
Over the past week, hurlers such as Max Scherzer, Sergio Romo, Blake Snell, Shohei Ohtani and Santiago – among several others – have been inspected by umpires for sticky substances. The “enhanced enforcement,” as MLB calls it, stems from historically low offensive output that the league brass feels is hurting the game. The thought is that umpires have been too lax in checking pitchers for illegal substances – such as pine tar or sunscreen mixed with rosin – that allow them to have near unhittable control over the baseballs they’re throwing. The result has been nightly scenes in which umps play detective on the bump in search of contraband.
Some pitchers are clearly irked. The first notable scene came from Scherzer, the Cy Young-winning Nationals pitcher who slammed his glove and hat to the ground last Tuesday after a third, yes third inspection against the Phillies, then shot eye daggers at Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi, who called for the examination. A couple hours later, A’s reliever Sergio Romo unbuckled his belt and dropped his pants when umpires came to search him, ostensibly to mock the process.
But it wasn’t until Sunday, when Santiago was tossed for a sticky substance, that these investigations led to an ejection. Santiago maintains he was only using rosin – a legal substance – and that he will be cleared once the glove (taken off in a plastic bag) is examined by MLB.
It would be easy to conclude that these searches are a detriment to the game, or at the very least a bad look. But the fact is, in the short time since these enhanced enforcements were implemented, spin rates decreased and offense increased.
“The inspections have gone forward, the games haven’t gotten longer,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told The New York Times last week. “And the data seems to suggest that we’re moving the game in the right direction, that we found a problem that needed to be addressed and it’s being addressed.”
No doubt there was a problem. Before 2018, for instance, there had never been a season in which there were more strikeouts than hits. In 2021, MLB is on pace to see 5,000 more strikeouts than there are hits. That’s not a formula for keeping fans’ eyes on the screen or butts in the seat. It’s a formula for sending fans on a Netflix binge.
At one point this season, MLB’s offensive numbers were the worst they had been in 50 years. Mariners fans felt the pangs of that hitting anemia, as Seattle is batting just .217 this season – the second worst average in baseball.
MLB thinks the evolution of gripping agents is, at least in part, responsible. And though many of those agents have long been illegal, umpires have rarely looked into it.
Think of it like James Harden’s step-back three-pointer. You and I know it’s a travel, the refs know it’s a travel, but they aren’t calling it – much to his benefit. The same has been true of pitchers and sticky substances. Something has to change.
It’s not like pitchers have to make a scene when inspected, either. Ohtani and Jacob deGrom – both MVP candidates – were complete gentlemen about it when umps examined them last week. Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly, meanwhile, asked the umpires to inspect his goggles, too, “because they’re sick,” he said.
MLB has been suffering from an offensive shortage for a few years now. Much of this is due to pitchers’ increased velocity and overall ability, but if there is a built-in advantage, it’s gotta stop. Folks such as Scherzer – who might be as clean as they come – have to understand that. It may seem like a slight intrusion, it may seem as though pitchers are unfairly presumed guilty, but it’s obligatory for the time being.
So keep the inspections coming. Pitchers will eventually take hint, and batters will start to get their hits.
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