Max Scherzer’s nightmare situation almost occurred in the fourth inning Tuesday night, when a 95.3-mph fastball slipped out of his hand and sailed up and in on Alec Bohm. Using only rosin during his start — the lone grip agent MLB allows pitchers to employ anymore after a clampdown on foreign substances — Scherzer struggled to find his grip.
He licked his fingers. But Scherzer quickly quashed that plan to enhance his grip on the baseball because he was “eating rosin,” and rosin “tastes gross.” So he adjusted, opting to use sweat. But on a cool night in Philadelphia, the only part of his body that was sweaty enough was the hair under his hat, and that’s how the controversy began.
In all the years Joe Girardi has seen Scherzer pitch, the Phillies manager said in a postgame Zoom conference he’s never seen Scherzer wipe his head as he did Tuesday night. That prompted Girardi to call on the umpires to check Scherzer for a third time within the first four innings, specifically requesting they check the Nationals ace’s hair for any foreign substances.
Scherzer had tolerated his first two MLB-mandated checks between innings, even if he wore a scowl while the umpires peered at his hands, glove and hat. This time, with one out in the fourth, Scherzer’s annoyance bubbled over. He dropped his hat and glove to the ground, then unbuckled his belt.
“I have nothing on me,” Scherzer said postgame. “Check whatever you want. I’ll take off all my clothes if you want to see me. I’ve got nothing on me.”
Before he could unbutton his pants, though, umpire Alfonso Marquez told Scherzer to refrain from doing so.
“Hey, don’t get ejected over this,” Marquez said, via a pool reporter. “Let us just do our job and then we’ll be fine.”
The umpire checked. He ruffled Scherzer’s hair for good measure.
“Nothing but sweat,” Marquez deemed.
But the sequence illustrated the early friction with MLB’s new enforcement on foreign substance use, which saw several pitchers run afoul Tuesday night before tensions cooled Wednesday. Scherzer’s checks escalated into Girardi taking the field between innings, yelling at Washington’s dugout and getting ejected.
Most pitchers laughed off the checks, such as the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who became the first pitcher Monday to undergo the now-routine check. Three days into the enforcement, that’s been the usual response — a sometimes grudging acceptance of what the umpires must do.
Other checks, though, haven’t gone as smoothly, with Scherzer a prime example. And Athletics reliever Sergio Romo did what Scherzer held back from: He not only dropped his hat, glove and belt on the field for his check, but he dropped his trousers, too. In full view of the crowd.
“Hopefully the players understand that what we’re doing right now,” Scherzer said, “this is not the answer.”
The league imposed these checks to cut out the use of foreign substances by pitchers, from the seemingly innocuous — and long-ignored — combination of rosin and sunscreen to the extremely sticky Spider Tack. The sticky stuff has helped pitchers increase their velocity and spin rates, and the rise in those facets corresponded with a major downturn in offensive productivity.
Those substances have long been banned by MLB, but the league announced that, beginning Monday, strict enforcement would be underway. That enforcement includes random checks, and any player breaking the rules will be ejected and suspended for 10 games.
Pitchers have argued the use of sticky substances is a necessity to control the ball, reducing the number of batters hit. MLB countered, saying in a release that through May 31, there have never been more hit batters in any season over the past 100 years.
But the issues with enforcement made themselves plain in Tuesday’s game between Washington and Philadelphia, particularly when Girardi asked the umpires to check Scherzer’s hair. He thought there might be a sticky substance there, because of how much Scherzer was touching his hair.
Instead, Scherzer argued he couldn’t get a grip on the baseball unless he got sweat on his hands, and his hair was the sweatiest part of his body. After nearly hitting Bohm up high with his fastball, Scherzer wetted his hands once more to mix in with the rosin, hoping to regain control. He went on to strike Bohm out, prompting Girardi’s check.
“I would have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight, when everyone’s antennas are so far high, they’ll look for anything,” Scherzer said. “… The only part that was sweaty on me was my hair, so I had to take off my hat to be able to try to get some type of moisture on my hand to mix with the rosin. For me, that’s the confusing part. I’m just trying to get a grip of the ball.”
After a night to sleep on what happened, manager Dave Martinez noted Wednesday how the baseballs seemed more clean than usual, as if they were directly out of the packaging, which perhaps factored into Scherzer’s difficulty finding a grip.
And while Martinez said he hasn’t talked to the league directly about Tuesday night’s incident, the manager said he’s spoken with MLB previously about “All kinds of things,” and he trusts the league is “on top of everything,” in terms of potential changes.
One such change Martinez would welcome is umpire-only checks, cutting out any manager-imposed questioning. To Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who started Tuesday in San Diego but offered his thoughts on what happened in Philadelphia, opposing managers can find an advantage by disrupting a pitcher’s rhythm.
Similar to a challenge on a play, Kershaw said if a manager challenges a pitcher for foreign substance use and an umpire finds nothing, that manager should lose a challenge.
“There should be a punishment if they don’t catch anything on the guy,” Kershaw said, per Yahoo Sports. “Scherzer is one of the best pitchers of our generation. To see him get checked, I think it was a first and third situation or guys on base, and mess up his rhythm — I think he ended up getting out of it — but you better find something if you’re going to call him out like that.”
After Scherzer passed his third check during his first start back from a groin injury, he rebounded to finish off five strong innings in Washington’s 3-2 win. He allowed one run on two hits while striking out eight.
“That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer, that’s why he dominates each and every year,” Trea Turner said. “No matter what somebody is going to try to do to him, he’s going to continue to do his thing and be good for us.”
Scherzer hopes an incident such as Tuesday’s could bring about change in how MLB handles the checks. He mentioned the monitors in the clubhouse, watching to ensure teams are following coronavirus protocols. Scherzer thinks they could be used to check pitchers between innings, minimizing the sort of on-field displays that occurred for Scherzer and Romo.
But whatever the solution, the initial practice of enforcing a ban on foreign substances hit something more akin to a crater than a pothole.
“These are Manfred rules; go ask him what he wants to do with this,” Scherzer said. “I’ve said enough. Go ask Alec Bohm how he feels about 95 at his face. I don’t need to say anything more about this.”