As MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances begins Monday, all eyes will be trained on pitchers and umpires trying to navigate a midseason sea change, and on the effects the sudden end of a longstanding practice may have on the game. That means all eyes will also be trained on pitchers in moments when they aren't accustomed to being the center of attention.
With the gentlemen’s agreement off — and sticky stuff moving from a competitive advantage everyone could have to one that nobody is supposed to have — many pitchers will face a big quandary between pitches, whether they realize it yet or not: What do they do with their hands?
Before MLB cast a panicked eye over sticky stuff, league officials were pacing around their offices about … well, pacing. As big velocity has come to rule the sport, so have big periods of downtime between offerings. Pace of play concerns have already led the league to limit mound visits, and could eventually spur the implementation of a pitch clock.
If the No. 1 thing a fan fresh out of a time machine would notice about the contemporary game is all the strikeouts, and No. 2 is all the home runs, then No. 3 is probably all the moments where the pitcher definitely has the ball, and is definitely doing something, just not actually pitching.
Whether the time between pitches is really that big a problem is a discussion for another day, but one thing that was definitely happening in that time in recent seasons was the application of the now-prohibited sticky stuff.
In other words, what pitchers do between getting the ball from their catcher and hurling it back is no longer just dawdling, but a matter of great intrigue and consequence.
Case in point: Jacob deGrom. The world-beating New York Mets ace was the most notable recent target of a genre of tweets where rival fans post grainy video of their TV screens showing aces going through a series of potentially sticky motions with their hands between pitches.
On Monday afternoon, deGrom also stands to be the first pitcher inspected under the new enforcement, as he’s slated to start the first game of the Mets' doubleheader. It’s beside the point whether anyone was using sticky stuff before — it was an effectively allowed and available tactic to all those interested — but for the record, there’s no evidence deGrom actually was using it and his spin rates have been notably consistent even after news of the crackdown sent many other pitchers’ tumbling.
When the tweet showing deGrom tapping at his belt and the thumb of his glove started going around, Tomas Nido and a cavalcade of other Mets teammates rode to deGrom’s defense. But starting Monday, this sort of scrutiny will move from the realm of Reddit and biased amateur sleuths to team-employed video review personnel who could watch for tacky touches the way they watch for missed calls at first base. Like an absurd facsimile of the steroid era speculation about any player who added muscle over the winter, but with immediate, actionable stakes.
As the crackdown commences, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported Sunday that several teams will have their managers on high alert to call out opposing pitchers, in addition to the regular between-innings checks. Add to that the unknowns of umpires trying to detect illicit goo via the naked eye and untrained index finger, and it’s possible an ingrained fidget with a cheat-y look about it could get even an innocent pitcher ejected and suspended.
And when you start to think about it, a lot of what pitchers usually do with their hands could suddenly look sketchy.
There’s tapping the thumb or outer fingers of the glove.
Those locations, which minor leaguers told Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser were suggested hiding places, don’t call attention to smudges or dark spots.
There’s the more brazen bill of the cap method.
And there’s the forearm, which is most likely to be home to the more moderate sunscreen and rosin solution that many pitchers are baffled to be losing in a game played outside in the summer.
A lot of pitchers, prior to the past couple weeks, probably were grabbing some grip-boosting sticky stuff! But those habits may not vanish even when the pine tar or Spider Tack is removed from the equation, and there’s some risk of paranoia setting in. A skeptical fan recently tweeted about Braves reliever A.J. Minter touching his cap as he prepared to get the sign, and sure, maybe he’s got a particularly advanced method of hiding his sticky stuff on the underside of the bill, but there’s no actual evidence of that.
He might just habitually touch his cap as part of his setup!
Now, perhaps teams will allow the enforcement to roll out and straighten out the kinks without pushing the envelope to gain an advantage, but … these are the same people who escalated from readily available pine tar to scientific brews of sticky stuff.
So there’s at least some chance that Monday is not just the dawn of the era of less sticky baseballs, but also the beginning of an age of paranoia, of unnatural movements and careful performance even in the moments between actually performing. Or maybe we will just learn more about the mannerisms of our favorite pitchers. If nothing else, those pesky gaps between pitches just got more interesting.
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