As Major League Baseball cracks down on pitcher-friendly substances, Josh Donaldson has accepted the unofficial position of watchdog. Donaldson claimed on his Twitter account that he had a catalog of pitchers cheating, and prior to the Minnesota Twins game with the New York Yankees, he had Gerrit Cole in his crosshairs.
Cole has been one of the poster children of this scandal and on Tuesday, his comments only fanned the flames. Donaldson noted that Cole’s spin rate had declined in his last start, the Yankees broadcasters wanted revenge, and Donaldson was prepared with a kevlar vest.
Thankfully, Cole decided to get retribution on the field with a pair of strikeouts. But the question that should be asked is how did we get to this point? The answer is that Cole and Donaldson should not be pointing at each other but rather at MLB’s decisions that have led us here.
News of the substance scandal broke last week, but its origins could be traced back to 2018. That’s when MLB cut out the middle man on equipment and bought Rawlings to manufacture gloves, bats, and, most importantly, baseballs.
Rob Manfred wanted to add excitement to the game, and fans and analysts alike suspect Rawlings altered the baseballs in 2019. What was supposed to be a subtle change — lowering the laces, making the leather harder to grip — made regular-season games look like a home run derby. Four teams passed the Yankees’ 2018 record for home runs hit in a season. In some ways, Manfred succeeded. But he opened Pandora’s box.
There are few teams in baseball that have experienced the benefits of this more than the Twins. They set the record for home runs hit in a season with 307 and several players, including Mitch Garver, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco, enjoyed breakout seasons at the plate. Minnesota believed they were in a championship window and signed Donaldson, who smashed 37 home runs in 2019, to the richest free-agent contract in franchise history.
Donaldson, now 35, was believed to be in the twilight of his career when he signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Atlanta Braves. But he was awarded handsomely because of his power. Other players followed suit, going to the plate looking to achieve maximum exit velocity and launch angle. Hitters could add another 10 points on their batting average if they hit away from the shift but that won’t get them paid. Hitting the ball as far as possible does.
With hitters having more success at the plate, pitchers needed to adapt or risk being replaced by a cheaper alternative. Suddenly, spin rates jumped across baseball, and Cole was one of the game’s biggest beneficiaries.
After being an average pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cole was traded to the Houston Astros prior to the 2018 season. Upon arriving in Houston, he saw a 6.5 percent increase in his curveball’s spin rate and a 9.9 percent increase on his four-seam fastball. In 2019, he took his game to the next level and won the American League Cy Young Award.
While it could have just been the magic of the Astros’ coaching staff, there’s a chance that Cole was exhibiting a case of baseball Darwinism. Some may call it cheating, but it’s been part of the game from Joe Niekro carrying a file in his back pocket to Michael Pineda smearing pine tar on his neck.
This topic even had a reference in the film Major League when a bewildered Rick Vaughn finds out that Eddie Harris has a variety of substances to add life to his pitches.
MLB tried to throw water on the fire by deadening the baseballs prior to this season but all that did was create a perfect storm. With pitchers using substances to add life to their pitchers, hitters looking for home runs are either flying to the outfield or missing the ball entirely. With hitters’ productivity plummeting, they have looked to MLB for help, which has led to the crackdown.
Tuesday’s situation between Donaldson and Cole could become the norm as the 2021 season rolls along. With hitters not trusting the pitchers, we’ll see more comments once a pitcher has a bad start or sees a decline in their spin rate. That will result in more tension on the field and create a safety hazard for the players.
Oh, and it will slow down the game. This brings us back to Manfred.
Manfred’s decisions have manipulated the game of baseball so much that there’s more talk of what’s going on off the field than on it. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire after this season, it’s things like this that are going to make the players lose trust in the league. That could lead to a lengthy lockout and further hurt the league.
The players are on the field are doing whatever it takes to succeed in the environment. And when it keeps changing, the results on the field will suffer.