Records show that Jacob DeGrom was the first pitcher to be subjected to a mandatory search by umpires under Major League Baseball’s new police state. The league on Monday decided to start with the best and work its way up.
The Mets’ fragile but incomparable ace DeGrom needed no Jedi mind tricks to pass through his observation point after the top of the first inning. These were not the substances MLB was looking for.
“What do you guys need?” DeGrom said he asked plate umpire Ben May and crew chief Ron Culpa to return to the dugout.
“Gloves, hat and belt,” he replied, and DeGrom did as he had said.
“I handed them that stuff and went on my way,” he said.
For DeGrom, this meant dominating again to the point of absurdity. He a. worked five shutout shifts of 4-2 Victory over the Atlanta Braves, allowing two walks and one hit – a double that fell on the warning track between two outfielders. He extended his streak of no-scoring innings to 30. He has 50 strikeouts in that stretch, and has allowed eight hits and three walks. His season earned run average: 0.50.
DeGrom is almost too powerful for its own good. He was the only batsman in the Mets lineup on Monday – in any game of a doubleheader. Split Against Atlanta – Averaged above .250. But hitting .407, alas, takes a toll on a man; DeGrom showed a bunt in one of his bats, then swung carefully on a soft fly out with two men.
“I was just trying to slap the ball, not take a crazy swing,” he said. “I was trying to poke the ball at shortstop or third base. I felt like I had extended the shoulder on the swing at the last start, so I was trying to be smart there.”
(Forgive the tangent, but that comment only underscores how amazing Shohei Ohtani has been for the Los Angeles Angels, both as an elite starter. and The pre-eminent slugger of the Majors. Again, it took three injury-free seasons for full Ohtani to bloom. Baseball is a tough game.)
The Mets pulled DeGrom on Monday for the pinch-hitter after 70 pitches – a smart move, he said, after a shoulder trouble that forced him off his last start after three perfect innings. It’s not like Bob Gibson in 1968, Steve Carlton in 1972, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, or Orel Hershisser in 1988. Full games, even in the seven-innings format, are certainly rare in this maximum-effort era.
But when the degrom is on the mound, no matter how tall—well, that’s what greatness looks like. The doses are smaller than before, but the effect is no less powerful. Watching an athlete perform at such a high level is part of the joy of the sport.
The problem with the idea of baseball is that many other pitchers have figured out how to handle hitters. DeGrom will stand out no matter what, but when nearly every team has an army of fungable power arms, it dulls the wow factor.
During the weekend, teams averaged 8.92 strikeouts per game this season, the highest rate ever. Hits stood at 7.91 per game, matching 1968 for the lowest rate in more than a century. In an effort to balance things out, MLB has targeted spin rates and recreational agents who have helped them grow – All Foreign matter (besides rosin), not just the infamous Spider Tack.
Monday was the first day of better enforcement, with umpires inspecting sticky splotches in each pitcher. Violators will receive a 10-game suspension with pay, and their teams will have fewer players in their absence.
“The biggest thing we wanted to reiterate is that if you get popped, we can’t take your place,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s a big deal. I think everyone knows what’s going on and how serious it is not to mess up and get suspended, because it’s a definite blow to your club.”
Pitchers are disappointed, not just the fringe guys whose unnatural spin propelled them into the majors. Many veterans have become deeply skeptical about the league – from last summer’s tedious talks to inconsistencies with the ball, to the refusal of some teams to invest in experienced talent.
Policing all the sticky stuff in the middle of a season, without a viable alternative, is just the latest battleground state. Mets manager Luis Rojas said he wondered what would happen if a pitcher’s sunscreen accidentally drips onto the ball. Veteran reliever Trevor May said the long-approved — if technically illegal — combination of sunscreen and rosin was a harmless and timeless aid.
“It feels a bit like the back of a sticker, maybe not even that adhesive,” May said. “It’s so light and it goes, like you touch it once, you throw a ball and it’s gone. It doesn’t do much. If anything, it’s there for continuity. Basically “Every time they go there, pitchers just want to limit the number of variables. That’s why it’s been there forever, because it’s two legal substances that aren’t foreign substances on the baseball field.”
May said that substances that generate excessive spin rates should be explicitly banned. But he said most pitchers were simply striving for the uncompromising feel of baseball, which is surrounded by mud before each series.
“They put them in those cloth bags, and if the balls get cooked, they dry out and the dust settles down—so the farther you go to the bottom of the bag, the more dusty it gets,” says Me. he said. “Sometimes you’re dusty and you’re like, ‘Man, today is a dusty ball day,’ because you’re in the bottom half of the bag on the last day of a series, and it’s a day’s play. And you sweat. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Players will learn to adjust, as they always do, and the biggest impact may not be felt until the off-season. That’s when fast-moving players should negotiate a new collective bargaining deal with a league they distrust.
We would then wish for warm summer days like Monday, when the planet’s biggest pitcher cast its magic, leaving nothing to hide.