ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) – Jacob deGrom was stopped off the hill after fixing the team in the first inning and giggled as he presented his glove and cap to the umpire. The ace of the New York Mets then opened its belt buckle as requested and showed that there was no goop there either.
This wasn’t a difficult situation for the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner, it was a new norm for all professional pitchers.
The search for illegal foreign substances with which pitchers can annoy baseballs is long against the rules, but so far only rarely enforced. The crackdown began on Monday when major and minor league referees began periodically checking all pitchers for sticky substances that can be used to better grip the balls but also increase the spin of the balls and make hitting difficult.
“I said, ‘What do you all need?’ “Glove, hat and belt,” they said. I gave them the stuff and then went my way, “said deGrom, who was the first to be inspected since he was the first pitcher to take the mound on the day the new enforcement policy of baseball went into effect. He started the first game of New York’s home double headers against Atlanta.
The Mets and Braves were among the 14 Major League Baseball teams that played Monday, six days after a five-page memo to the teams of the upcoming enforcement change that followed what Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred repeated as an extensive process Denoted warnings without effect.
“I think I’ve seen it all in baseball, but that’s new and setting a new precedent,” said Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker in his 24th season as a big league manager after 19 seasons as a player.
When asked if such substances were tacitly allowed in the past, Baker replied, “They just weren’t really making a fuss, but it was against the rules, so we’ll see.”
Rangers starters Kyle Gibson and Oaklands Frankie Montas weren’t checked until after pitching in the second inning in Texas. Both smiled after being inspected in the field and then tapped on the chest by record referee Dan Iassogna. They were checked again three innings later.
Texas manager Chris Woodward said ahead of the game that Gibson said he had never used anything to baseball.
“He’s kind of a unicorn these days when he’s got such a good guy who doesn’t use anything,” said Woodward. “It’s probably rare.”
Manfred said last week that after two months of extensive data collection, including inspections of balls used in games and testing by third party inspectors, foreign material enforcement was needed to “level the playing field.” That came with the league batting average at a low of more than half a century along with record swings.
Fans at Citi Field booed when record referee Ben May deGrom stopped on the pitcher’s path from the field after the right-handed player had two strikeouts in the first inning. After being evacuated by crew chief Ron Kulpa, who had come from the third base for inspection, deGrom continued to the dugout and laughed at the exchange with catcher Toms Nido while the fans cheered.
Kyle Muller, who made his first big league start for the Braves, was also stopped and inspected after the first ended.
DeGrom seemed to ask May if he needed another inspection after the end of the second, but May waved to him at that point. After the fifth, it was re-inspected, causing further boos from fans while their home pitcher was again cleared.
“To be honest, I didn’t mind. It was quick and pretty easy,” said deGrom.
There was a strange incident in Phoenix when Milwaukee left-hander Brett Anderson was under scrutiny by the umpires when he left with an unknown injury in the middle of the second game.
Anderson was slowly leaving the field when approached by record referee DJ Reyburn. After his glove and cap were quickly checked, the jug was allowed to go into the shelter.
The umpires had inspected Arizona starter Merrill Kelly after the top of the second.
Any suspended players would not be replaced in a team’s active line-up. Braves manager Brian Snitker emphasized this when he met with the players on Sunday and discussed the crackdown at length.
“I think the most important thing we wanted to repeat is that if you get banged, we can’t replace you,” he said from New York on Monday. “This is a big deal. I think everyone is aware of what is going on and how serious it is not to fool around and get banned because that is a definite blow to your club if you are neglected.”
Chicago Cubs manager David Ross, a former big league catcher, was asked if thugs needed to be more careful due to potentially smoother baseballs in the batter’s box.
“So the previous information in the last 10 days has increased, the average has increased, the base has increased (slugging percentage) has increased. The spin rates have decreased in fastballs, breaking balls and hits by pitches,” said Ross. “So draw your own conclusions.”
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who didn’t worry about problems with his pitchers, thought everyone in the league would be at their best if everyone watched the first night.
“I’m sure there will come a day when it’s a hot day and everyone is a little confused that something is likely to happen,” said Francona. “MLB has been pretty open to the possibility of a hiccup or two. But I think most of them want the same thing with competitive people and sometimes you get angry or something. Something will happen, I’m sure.”