Thursday, April 20, 2023

Cognitive Dissonance and Max

Max Scherzer is correct in questioning the arbitrary nature of MLB's sticky stuff enforcement, but he was still wrong in putting himself in the position to get tossed out of the game.

I'm on team Max Scherzer. Something is very wrong with Major League Baseball's enforcement of pitchers using sticky stuff to enhance their grip on the baseball. Max is only the third pitcher to be ejected from a game and subject to the automatic 10-game suspension in the three years the rule has been on the books. All of the ejections have involved the same umpire. Phil Cuzzi appears to be the only person involved in policing the game of baseball who can differentiate between "tacky" and "sticky." And the more explanations I read about his decision — including his own — the less I am convinced.

But I keep coming back to the same place. Max Scherzer is an intense competitor but also a very smart man. Max has won over 200 MLB games thanks, in part, to the physical gifts he was born with and his intensely competitive nature. However, just as important is his keen intellect. Max is just plain smarter than many of the hitters he faces, which gives him another advantage to exploit. But Max's intelligence failed to save him on a Wednesday afternoon in La La Land. Ultimately, it will be Scherzer and the Mets who will pay the price for that failure.

As Will Sammon documents in this piece on The Athletic, Scherzer's ejection from the game didn't come as an ambush:

The hoopla started after Scherzer completed his second inning.

At the end of the inning, Cuzzi, the first base umpire, performed a substance check. While checking Scherzer's hand, Cuzzi deemed that it was, "slightly sticky, a little tacky, and it was dark in color," the umpire said. Scherzer said it was just rosin. Both Scherzer and Cuzzi agreed that Scherzer would then wash off his hand. Cuzzi said he told him, "OK, you got to wash that off. I'm going to check you when you come out. And there better not be anything there."

Then, before the third inning, Scherzer was instructed by Cuzzi to change his glove because the umpire felt the pocket of the glove felt sticky. Scherzer acknowledges that he understood at that point that he would be under rigorous scrutiny from the umpires for the rest of the game. So why would Max go out there for the fourth inning with enough sticky stuff on his hand to give the umpires the chance to toss him? Even if it was just "rosin and sweat," as Max claimed — and I tend to believe him — why take any chances to allow Cuzzi to pull his whole sticky vs. tacky act?

When I was a kid in school, I played some CYO basketball in a very competitive league. One of the referees, who officiated several of our games, didn't like our team very much for complicated reasons that I won't bore you with here. The upshot of his dislike was that the game was called very differently for our team than for the other teams in the league. And believe me, you could really get away with biased officiating in that league. Hardly anyone was watching those games besides the players and coaches. Refs got paid for those games, but it was essentially pocket change.

The bias was so blatant in one game that the other ref actually apologized to us. I'm sure you'll agree that this was all very unfair. But you know what? Although we bitched about it, we also came to understand that we had to be more careful when this guy was officiating to not give him the chance to make calls against us. It was like playing 5 against 6, but it was the reality of the situation. We disliked the guy, of course, but we also won all but one of the games where we had to deal with him. We channeled our frustrations into playing better so we could put it in his face by winning.

So, if kids in a rinky-dink little CYO basketball league were smart enough to deal with reality, no matter how unfair it all seemed, it would only seem logical that a veteran pitcher like Scherzer would have been able to handle the ridiculous situation with Cuzzi Wednesday afternoon. The consequences of his failure:

  • A 99% chance that Scherzer will lose his appeal and serve a 10-game suspension.
  • The Mets will have to play a man short for that entire 10-game period.
  • Hall of Fame voters, notoriously capricious, will likely deny Scherzer a first-ballot entrance.

Jon Heyman made all of the important points in his piece on the subject:

When asked if they could identify what foreign substance they believe Scherzer was using, [Umpire Crew Chief Dan] Bellino said, "You know, I couldn't. I would only have to speculate and I don't think it's fair to speculate."

Here’s the big problem: The whole thing is speculation. And it's all unfair.

The nice thing about PED rules is you know when you get someone, no matter what bizarre excuse they make up. (My personal favorite: Manny Ramirez suggesting he took PEDs to help him get pregnant. Thanks Dr. Manny.)

The bad thing about the sticky-stuff rule is that, while well intended, it is an utter failure. In three years they've "caught" three perpetrators when we have to know many more pitchers are trying to game the system. And here's the clincher: In three years, the only umpire who's caught anyone is Cuzzi.

I'm sure there are people in the Commissioner's Office who are smart enough — and self-aware enough — to understand how ridiculous this all is. It won't matter. They'll enforce the suspension. I'd bet the farm on that outcome.

Max Scherzer should have seen this coming. Sure, it's unfair, but what does that have to do with anything? Sometimes, as with my long-ago CYO team, you must understand and accommodate reality. 

The website Verywell Mind defines cognitive dissonance as "the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes." I believe Max Scherzer is in the right in this matter. I also think he was incredibly wrong by not adapting to the obvious reality of the situation, thereby allowing Cuzzi, Bellino, and the rest of the crew to do what they did. Being right matters little here. Scherzer and the Mets will face the consequences of Max's failure to understand this.

Be well and take care.

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