Major League Baseball’s long-rumored enforcement of the prohibition on foreign substance use took effect during an eight-game schedule on Monday. With a full slate of games on Tuesday, last night marked the first time all thirty teams were subject to increased monitoring. The process wasn’t without controversy, including an ugly back-and-forth between the Nationals and Phillies when Philadelphia manager Joe Girardi asked umpires to examine Washington starter Max Scherzer for a third time on the night after noticing him touch his hair. (The inspection, like the first two, revealed no illicit substances). After expressing some frustration with Girardi, Scherzer called out commissioner Rob Manfred, saying “These are Manfred rules — go ask him what he wants to do with this. I’ve said enough.”
Manfred spoke with Britt Ghiroli of the Athletic and Tyler Kepner of the New York Times in separate interviews this afternoon, addressing last night’s developments and the future of foreign substance enforcement. Despite the Phillies-Nationals incident, Manfred opined that the overall enforcement process has “gone very well” (via Ghiroli). He pointed out that no MLB pitcher has been ejected and suggested the between-innings screenings, by and large, haven’t slowed down the pace of games. While Manfred conceded that last night’s scene in Philadelphia was “less than ideal,” he suggested the “vast majority” of inspections would proceed without incident.
In the wake of Girardi’s ultimately fruitless suspicions regarding Scherzer, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw suggested there be repercussions (perhaps the forfeiture of a replay challenge) for a manager who asks umpires to check an opposing pitcher who isn’t ultimately found to be wielding any illicit substances. Manfred didn’t seem receptive to such a plan, at least at this time.
“Managers have always had the right to challenge or ask the umpires to inspect somebody for the use of foreign substances,” he told Ghiroli. “I have great respect for two aspects of managers: a) their understanding for what’s going on the field and b) the good judgment they have in terms of not creating spectacles on the field. … As of right now, I’m comfortable with the rule the way it is. We did make a point, we appreciated the possibility of gamesmanship, and if in fact it becomes a problem we will deal with it.”
Manfred also pushed back against Scherzer’s characterization of foreign substance enforcement as a one-way, league-driven change. “It would be incorrect, blatantly incorrect, to assume that the players and the union did not a) provide input into what we are doing and b) have additional opportunities to provide input that they did not take advantage of,” Manfred told Ghiroli. The commissioner pointed to the memo about a potential crackdown the league sent to clubs in Spring Training, as well as the number of reports of imminent enforcement in the few weeks preceding MLB’s announcement, as evidence that those on the players’ side were kept in the loop throughout the process. (Ghiroli heard from a league source last week who claimed the MLB Players Association had been given opportunity to weigh in on the enforcement effort but chose not to do so).
The commissioner also suggested the league was seeing some desired results. He alluded to the dip in leaguewide spin rates that followed shortly after MLB expressed its intention to crack down on sticky stuff. He also pointed to recent upticks in leaguewide offensive numbers when speaking with Kepner. (The commissioner didn’t address the potential effects of weather, however. Offense tends to climb as the weather warms every season. It’s certainly plausible the crackdown on foreign substances has contributed to increased offense in recent weeks, but it’s not the only potential variable).
However one feels about the necessity of the league’s efforts, Manfred’s assertion that the “vast majority” of inspections would proceed without incident seems a bit simplistic. Technically, of course, it’s true; incidents like last night’s Scherzer-Girardi debacle will be much less common than cases of pitchers passing examinations without issue. But instances where the process doesn’t proceed smoothly are certainly going to draw plenty of attention, just as last night’s did.
Perhaps that’s a necessary evil, but MLB certainly doesn’t want that kind of situation to become commonplace. (For what it’s worth, Astros manager Dusty Baker- while not directly addressing Manfred’s comments- predicted we’re “going to see a whole bunch of stuff” like last night’s drama when speaking with Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Nevertheless, Manfred suggested mandatory inspections will continue indefinitely, with the league continuing to check pitchers regularly until he is convinced the foreign substance problem has been stamped out and would not “reassert itself” (via Kepner).
One potential solution that has been speculated upon would involve the creation of a tackier baseball. Manfred said the league is looking into the creation of a substance that could legally be applied to the ball to improve grip (presumably one that doesn’t dramatically enhance pitchers’ spin rates) but suggested it was unlikely to be ready in 2021. “We’re looking into it with a view that at some point, we would have a substance that we could use on all baseballs,” Manfred told Kepner. “I think it’s much more likely that would happen in a future year.”
Manfred’s conversations with Ghiroli and Kepner are both well worth full perusals for those interested in the foreign substance saga.