Both Blue Jays pitchers Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling have passed the league’s new umpire inspections with flying colours.
For each of his previous 170 career starts in the big leagues, Robbie Ray was able to walk straight from the mound to the dugout between innings, wrap his left arm in a towel to keep it warm, check his notes on the opposing batters, and do whatever he needed to do to get ready for the next inning. But not on Wednesday, as Ray got his first look at the new reality-facing pitchers across baseball.
Ray had just gotten through a scoreless bottom half of the first inning against the Marlins in Miami. Then it was his time to face the discerning inspection of the umpires. Crew chief Laz Diaz and home plate umpire Mike Estabrook looked at Ray’s hat and glove. They had him flip over his belt. Only after the umpires were satisfied that Ray had no “sticky substance,” no Spider Tack or pine tar that would allow him to get a better grip on the ball, was he allowed to head to the Blue Jays dugout.
Major League Baseball began checking if pitches were using these foreign substances that were an open secret for years on Monday. Usually, the process goes smoothly, as it did for Ray and Tuesday’s starter Ross Stripling; they joke around, laughing at what seems like an absurd spectacle, but knowing getting caught carries with it some serious repercussions, namely a 10-game suspension. Sometimes it doesn’t go quite as well, like when Max Scherzer completely took off his belt on Tuesday and threw his arms in the air in frustration when Phillies manager Joe Girardi requested the umpires check him for the third time in the game.
The checks are quick, usually only lasting a few seconds. No pitcher has been caught using anything illegal in the three days since the policy was implemented. The use of these substances was always illegal, baseball just had no method to enforce it. Only if an opposing manager asked for an inspection was one carried out, and they were mostly wary of doing that in case the tables were turned on their own pitchers.
Declining offence forced the league office to act
With rising velocities, pitchers are able to manipulate the ball like never before, and batting averages plummeting at the same time strikeout rates skyrocketed, the league was forced to act. Pitchers who were using these substances for years had to adjust, seemingly overnight. So far, at least, it seems to be working.
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Since June 3, when four minor league pitchers became the first to be suspended for illegal substances, batting averages across the league have jumped by eight points, from .236 (which would’ve been the lowest ever) to .244. Strikeout rates have seen a slight decrease, from 24.2 percent before June 3 to 23.4 percent since. Some pitchers have seen a dramatic drop in their spin rates, the newest trendy stat across the league. Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole saw his spin rates on his fastball and slider go down by more than 200 rpm in his start on Tuesday against the Royals.
The Blue Jays had Monday off, so they got to see the policy in action before they experienced it themselves. Stripling and Ray have been the first test cases. Unlike Cole, though, neither seems to have been affected by the change at all.
Stripling’s spin rates on Tuesday against the Marlins were actually higher than his season average. His fastball spun at 2,215 rpm and his curveball at 2,521 rpm. In his start on May 30 against Cleveland, his fastball and curveball were at 2,147 and 2,459, respectively.
Ray experienced a slight decrease in his start on Wednesday. Compared to his start on June 1, also against the Marlins, his slider declined 46 rpm, from 2,251 to 2,205; his fastball went from 2,307 to 2,249 rpm. The crackdown didn’t seem to hurt his effectiveness, as Ray pitched six innings giving up only one run in Toronto’s 3-1 win. His slider still had the same break, his fastball the same velocity.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be searched in front of thousands of fans, but pitchers are going to have to get used to it. “It is what it is,” Stripling said following his start on Tuesday, according to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi.
“The fact that we’re basically two days through the games and no one’s been caught, I think that goes to show you what pitchers are doing. They’re taking it serious and they’re either going to be really sneaky with it or they’re not going to risk it. Me personally, I didn’t risk it, and I’m not going to moving forward.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred believes the policy is working well. The Blue Jays pitchers don’t seem to mind. Just three days into a brand-new world for pitchers, who throw harder with more movement than ever before, Spider Tack has been relegated to something only powerlifters use once again.