How Sticky Was It?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So far this year, there have been two ejections and suspensions for sticky stuff, along with two notable non-ejections. In all four instances — two of them just in the last week — the umpires involved made themselves available to a pool reporter for comment after the game. I cannot for the life of me imagine that the umpires want to be making these statements, but here’s the thing: So far as I can tell, they’re not required to. There’s no way that on an umpire’s list of favorite things to do after a game, Describe How Sticky Max Scherzer’s Hand Was ranks anywhere near the top 10. And yet, whether to justify their actions or out of a sincere belief that sunshine is the best disinfectant, the umpires have dutifully attempted to answer that impossible question. Not that I’m complaining. I adore these explanations. I don’t know how anyone could actually do a good job of explaining how sticky a hand was, but watching big league umpires give it their best shot is a truly rewarding experience.

I spent a morning trying to look up how tackiness is measured. It turns out there’s no one answer, but there is an ocean of scientific debate to dive into. I can now tell you the difference between probe testing, loop tack testing, the rolling ball test, and the peel adhesion test. Each test needs to account for variables like dwell time, contact pressure, temperature, and test speed. There’s also something called the finger test, which isn’t as gross as it sounds (but also probably is).

There are five different commercial products — some of them huge industrial machines — named either the Tack Tester or the Tackiness Tester. Koehler Instrument Company’s Tackiness Tester K95200 is the size of a refrigerator, and is used solely for the purpose of “measuring the cohesive and adhesive tactile properties of greases.” The point is: None of these methods is perfect. Or comprehensive. Or designed to test human fingers.

Science has yet to determine a definitive way of measuring tackiness, so it would be unreasonable to ask umpires to do so. But again, I’m thrilled that we’re asking them anyway. Their answers are poetry. Given the welded-shut needle those answers are attempting to thread, they can’t help but be poetry. Tell me you wouldn’t shell out for a slim chapbook full of gems like this one:

It’s not rosin.
It was not rosin.
It was definitely not rosin
(Because I’ve felt hands with rosin).
That wasn’t rosin.
It was extremely sticky.

In sports, we’re accustomed to calling things we can’t quite measure “intangibles.” Stickiness has got to be the world’s most tangible intangible, and trying to describe it leaves perfectly intelligent people producing sentences like, “Phil then asked me to come in to verify that the hand was too sticky.”

In any other context, that sentence would leave me with a whole lot of questions about Phil. As a general rule of thumb, any time someone asks you to verify that a human hand is sticky, let alone too sticky, you should run away.

According to Bryan Hoch, crew chief James Hoye said on Tuesday that Domingo Germán’s hand was, “the worst hand we’ve ever felt during a game,” which sounds more like a qualitative assessment. If I were Germán, I might be a little hurt.

There is one thing that umpires have been nailing. “Not tacky, sticky,” said Dan Bellino of Max Scherzer’s right hand in April. “It sounds silly, but there is a difference between tackiness and stickiness.” On Tuesday, Hoye said of Germán’s hand, “It was extremely sticky. And rosin usually is kind of like a little tackiness. This was sticky.” On Friday, crew chief Brian O’Nora made the same distinction when describing something stuck to Clarke Schmidt’s wrist: “He noticed something just a little tacky… It wasn’t sticky, and it wasn’t a foreign substance.” The dictionary definition of tacky is, “somewhat sticky to the touch,” and umpires have been using it to mean exactly that. A tacky hand is fine, but once it’s made the leap from somewhat sticky to fully sticky, there’s a problem.

I checked his pitching hand;
It was slightly sticky,
A little tacky.
And it was dark in color–
Which really isn’t a surprise.

When I looked at it
And looked at him
He said,
“No, it’s just rosin.
I’m going to wash it off.”

I said, “Okay–
You got to wash that off.”

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only language umpires can use to place things on the spectrum of adhesion. Even the thesaurus isn’t much help, though I would love it if an umpire characterized a pitcher’s hand as agglutinative. It’s like quantum physics. You’re either tacky or you’re sticky, with nothing in between, and umpires really only have one way of illustrating the difference. Of Scherzer, Bellino said, “Our fingers were sticking to his hand, and whatever was on there remained on our fingers afterwards for a couple of innings where you could still feel that the fingers were sticking together.” Really, how can you describe something sticky, other than to say that it stuck to you? The Tackiness Tester K95200 could tell us exactly how many newtons of force it takes to pull away from a pitcher’s hand, but it would have to crush that hand into a millimeter-thin pancake first. The only thing an umpire can say is, “My fingers had a hard time coming off his palm.”

That being the case, I think that umpires have been a bit reckless in burning through the superlatives so quickly. When Scherzer got suspended a month ago, crew chief Phil Cuzzi said, “It’s far stickier than anything that we’ve felt, certainly today and anything this year.” Bellino went even further, saying, “This was the stickiest it has been since I’ve been inspecting hands, which goes back three seasons.” You can’t come right out of the gate and say the first offender was the absolute stickiest you’ve ever touched! That’s just poor planning. It doesn’t leave any room for expansion. Now Germán also possesses the “stickiest hand I’ve ever felt.” Whose hand was actually stickier? After just two infractions, we’re already suffering from stickiness inflation. This is the same logic that’s turned the last 20 minutes of every superhero movie into one continuous explosion. Whoever gets caught next will have to have the stickiest hand in the galaxy. There’s nowhere else to go.

That’s really my only quibble, though. In addition to the stickiness factor, umpires have given detailed and reasoned explanations of the logic that led them to ask a pitcher to wash their hands, to change their gloves, and finally, to hit the showers. Here’s Bellino on Scherzer:

We have a universal rosin bag that Major League Baseball provides that we inspect before every game. So when we check these pitchers’ hands, we know what the rosin typically feels like on a pitcher’s hand because everyone’s using the same rosin bag. So it’s really important to understand that when they claim it’s just rosin, every pitcher we check, we check every pitcher every single game, and every pitcher we check, we’re accustomed to what that rosin residue will be on a pitcher’s hand … So we’re trying to really make sure that it’s a level playing field out there and that no one’s gaining an unfair competitive advantage. I know that’s the goal … I would just say, the most important aspect is, we were not quick to remove him from the game, understanding that removal from the game is a very big penalty, a very stiff penalty. The fact that he was given many opportunities and he was told that it was getting too far and that it continued to be an ongoing situation…

I have really appreciated those explanations. They gave me a better sense of how the game works and made me more of a believer in MLB’s innovative hand massage accountability system. Still, my favorite part was the very next words Bellino said: “The level of stickiness, it was just too much.”

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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9 months ago

What’s the difference between “stickiness” and “yuckiness”. There should be an official MLB policy on the degree of “yuckiness” allowed. Nose picking comes to mind