MLB Orders Umpires to Get More Touchy-Feely With Pitchers

Despite the crackdown on foreign substances, pitch spin rates are back up. So MLB has asked umps to check pitchers' bodies and clothes more closely.

Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura (19) is checked for sticky substances by the umpire following the sixth inning during the Detroit Tigers versus the Boston Red Sox game on Wednesday August 4, 2021 at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
How intimate can umpires get with players on the field?
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not every day that workers get memos from their bosses asking them to get more intimate with their coworkers, but this is where we are in MLB. Pitch spin rates are back on the rise in professional baseball, so the league is asking its umpires to once again seek out “sticky stuff,” now with more-frequent and more effort-filled uniform and body checks.

“MLB vice president Michael Hill sent a memo to all 30 teams Thursday, informing them that it will encourage umpires to refocus on the use of sticky substances this season,” wrote Jayson Stark in The Athletic. According to the memo, “Umpires’ inspections of pitchers’ hands and fingers, which began last season, will increase in ‘frequency and scope,’ [and] are expected to be far more thorough than the often-perfunctory checks that umpires performed last year.”

There will also be “randomized checks of fingers (including removal of rings worn on either hand of pitchers), hands, hats, gloves, belts/waistlines and pants,” and pitchers could be checked by umps “before or after innings in which they pitch, and managers may make inspection requests of a pitcher or position player either before or after an at-bat,” Stark added. “Most significantly, umpires would be empowered to be more aggressive about inspecting pitchers than in the past.”

MLB Tightening Up Policy on Sticky Substances to Stop Pitchers Cheating
It seems pitchers found ways to circumvent the checks umpires were administering late in the 2021 season

So it sounds like we’re bound to get more instances of umpires massaging pitchers’ fingers for longer spells as opposed to the quick pats on each hand we started to see as the season wore on — though they might balk at staring deeply into pitchers’ eyes so as to avoid another profanity-laced tirade like the one we saw Madison Bumgarner throw last May.

“MLB is [also] reacting to data that shows spin rates have ticked up steadily since the league’s much-ballyhooed June 2021 crackdown on Spider Tack and other high-potency sticky stuff,” wrote Stark. “That data seems to indicate pitchers have found substitutes for Spider Tack that are less detectable and easier to mask or wipe away.”

Stark speculated in his column that some umpires and opposing players noticed pitchers wiping their hands off on their uniforms as they approached umpires for their checks. Umpires also fell into predictable rhythms with their checks, executing them after the same innings time and again, which may have led to increased spin rates during innings when pitchers were certain they would not be checked. The umpires have been asked to change their cadences, and if they suspect a player has worked to conceal their use of a foreign substance, they may eject them from the game.

When the umpire searches on pitchers first began in 2021, it led to a series of episodes where pitchers expressed great displeasure, seemingly over breaks in the action, which threw off their concentration, and implications of cheating. Perhaps the most famous of these was when umpires approached then-Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer multiple times during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Incensed, Scherzer dropped his hat to ground and motioned as though he was going to completely remove his pants while on the mound.

Given this history, how MLB players will react to even more-stringent enforcement of the rules against a pitcher’s use of foreign substances — the breaking of which has been going on for decades in part because it has its benefits, including pitchers with better control of the ball and, thus, fewer hit batsmen — is a worthwhile question. That’s why The Athletic asked it.

In an additional article on the topic, some players said their MLB colleagues will always find a way to cheat the system. Others said the spin-rate upticks could be attributed to various factors, including daily weather, so perhaps the additional measures won’t make any difference on pitcher performance.

“I’m all for somebody being able to feel like they can hold the ball and control it,” Blue Jays hitter Whit Merrifield told the publication. “But as soon as that turns into an advantage a guy normally wouldn’t have, it becomes a problem. But it’s such a hard line to draw.”

It’s probably about as hard a line to draw as the one between when an umpire is legitimately trying to catch a pitcher in the act of cheating and when they’re just trying to wind them up. For guidance on where that line is located, ask Madison Bumgarner. He seems to know exactly where it is.

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