Vladimir Gutierrez walked off the mound after completing an inning in his start Friday and the home-plate umpire met him along the first-base line.
A portion of the Great American Ball Park crowd of 30,231 began booing as Gutierrez was inspected for foreign substances on his hat, glove and belt. It’s a short 10-second interaction between innings, but it’s the latest spectacle in the sport’s spotlight.
“It was fine,” said Reds pitcher Wade Miley, who was checked twice during his start Tuesday. “They just took my hat and my glove, looked around. I don’t know how much they love doing that. It is what it is. It’s another thing we have to deal with.”
Reds reliever Ryan Hendrix was checked before his relief appearance in Monday’s extra-inning loss to Minnesota Twins, which was the first day of the league’s enforcement.
“It was strange; definitely weird,” Hendrix said. “I thought I was going to get checked after the inning, so I kind of got caught off guard coming in and they were checking it right away. It is what it is, man. We’ll get through it.”
There have been some tense moments. Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi asked umpires for a third check on Max Scherzer, one more than the required number, after he saw Scherzer run his hand through his hair. Scherzer was furious. Girardi was later ejected when he walked onto the field as members of the Washington Nationals dugout yelled at him.
Oakland A’s reliever Sergio Romo tossed his hat, glove and belt to the ground and slightly lowered his pants when an umpire stopped him for an inspection earlier this week, upset after he gave up a homer. Romo later apologized.
“The inspections have gone forward, the games haven’t gotten longer, we’ve had no ejections,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told The New York Times. “And the data seems to suggest that we’re moving the game in the right direction, that we found a problem that needed to be addressed and it’s being addressed.”
So far, the league’s crackdown on foreign substances is having its desired effect. Spin rates are way down across the entire league, showing how rampant it was when the rule wasn’t enforced. Offensive numbers typically rise in summer months, so it’s too early to make definitive statements about its effect in games, but strikeouts are down (23.95% strikeout rate in May, 23.32% in June), and hits are up (.239 batting average in May, .245 in June).
Reds minor leaguer Reiver Sanmartin became the first Triple-A pitcher to be suspended 10 games after he was caught with a pine tar-like substance on the brim of his cap, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
MLB is experimenting with several rule changes in the minor leagues this year to increase the amount of action in games, ranging from slightly larger bases, restrictions on defensive shifts and limits on pickoff moves. Perhaps, the least intrusive way to improve the sport was eliminating foreign substances.
“We’re all following the same rules,” Reds manager David Bell said. “As difficult of a process that it’s going to be, I think in the end, it’ll be much better for the game just because it’ll be clear and there are no unwritten rules that people aren’t exactly sure what they are. It’s going to be very clear what the rules are. It’ll keep it even and fair.”
The biggest question at this point is whether pitchers must change their approach after foreign substances weren’t regulated in previous seasons. Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow attributed an elbow injury to the fact that he was no longer allowed to use sunscreen and he changed his fastball and curveball grips.
Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson said that improving the baseball would solve a lot of the issues. San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish shared some game balls from Japan’s top league with pitchers from the Padres and Reds, who they were playing last weekend, and tweeted that everyone seemed to like them.
“The antiquated practice of rubbing mud on a ball, for me, I know it's time-tested and part of tradition and that's great, that doesn't mean we should keep doing it,” Johnson said. “We're in 2021 and we're still using the same thing they used back in 1955. I don't know why we can't graduate to something a little bit better.
“I know that if couldn't load it up with something, whether that's sweat, whether that's rosin, whether that's a combination of sweat and rosin, I wouldn't have a grip on the ball. That's been something pitchers have always done, no matter what level. That's why you see guys lick their mouth, that's why you see them rubbing the ball. It's not here, it's a baseball thing. It's a pitching thing and it's everywhere you go.”
Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant said hitters were foolish to think pitchers should be allowed to use foreign substances for better grips – and not thinking it helped with performance. Bryant called it “a cop-out.”
The enforcement of foreign substances is just beginning. MLB wants to find a way to improve the baseball. For now, it’ll settle for the potential to level the playing field.