MLB's Sticky Situation
WRITTEN BY COBEY KAY
Wild to think that even just a few weeks in, the MLB Regular Season is more than a third of the way through. There’s a half a million storylines to follow but I’m particularly interested in one of the best pitchers thus far, Trevor Bauer.
Bauer is easily one of the games’ most polarizing players with much of that perception stemming from his presence on social media. He is always one of the quickest to comment on the increasingly high amount of controversies happening around the rest of the league, and has been for quite some time.
Recently making waves were his “Free Joe Kelly” custom cleats that the League Office forbade him from wearing. But even that incident stemmed from a larger issue at hand. Bauer has been on the public offensive against the Astros and their cheating scandal(s) since “before it was cool” to do so.
Back in 2018, Bauer pointed out the significant increase in spin rate in Gerrit Cole’s four-seam fastball immediately coinciding with him joining the Astros via an offseason trade. Cole wasn’t the first nor only Astro to experience this noticeable uptick in spin rate either.
In 2018 though, part of what made Bauer’s accusation questionable was that Statcast only has spin rate data available beginning with the 2015 season. So in the public eye it may have been a stretch to say that it was otherwise impossible to see this increase without some form of a foreign substance being used, due to the small sample size of three years of data.
Publically it may have been a stretch of an accusation but let me introduce you to Kyle Boddy, the President and Founder of Driveline Baseball. Driveline is a baseball training facility/laboratory outside of Seattle where Bauer and an increasingly high number of elite pitchers continue to train.
Boddy, who’s made a career studying pitching mechanics and numbers, backed Bauer’s claim in 2018. While not directly accusing Cole of using a specific substance, Boddy intimated that the only means to that significant increase in RPMs would be through the use of a foreign substance. A pitching data scientist, with volumes of data rather than just 2015 and on, publically questioning this trend should have raised more red flags with the League Office.
I want to remind everyone that this all occurred in April/May of 2018. The young core of the Astros to that point were coming off a World Series victory in 2017 and had yet to be publically shamed for a (different?) cheating scandal. For that reason, these accusations from Bauer and Boddy fell largely on deaf ears. Needless to say, these claims against the Astros would probably play out very differently if made public today.
Now pitching for the Reds in 2020, Trevor Bauer is now seeing a similar RPM spike in his 4-seamer and pitching like one of the best pitchers in baseball through four starts. Over his 2019 numbers, the four-seamer spin rate has increased 16% while the accompanying whiff rate has increased 23%. Kyle Boddy was also hired in the offseason by the Reds as the Director of Pitching Initiatives.
It seems too obvious that Bauer has apparently joined the movement of players using “something” to artificially increase their four-seam RPMs. That being said I want to point out that Bauer is CERTAINLY not alone, he just seems to be getting flack because of the significant presence he has on social media and the direct correlation to the success he’s had this year.
Meanwhile, Gerrit Cole signed a $324 million contract with the Yankees in December 2019 and his spin rate numbers have remained just as high. Then last week, we saw a clip that went viral of Cole’s fingers appearing to get stuck to the brim of his hat between pitches of his start 8/8 vs the Rays. You be the judge…
Click here for the video of Cole’s hat
So I’ve obviously spotlighted two pitchers thus far, but again, these are certainly not the only two offenders around the league. That’s the larger issue and I think what Bauer is actually trying to point out without explicitly stating it.
Bauer had been critical of the League Office’s failure to crack down on these questionable situations in the past and then the 2020 offseason played out where Commissioner Manfred’s office failed once again to hold accountable the players involved in the 2017 Astros sign stealing system.
If the video of Gerrit Cole isn’t evidence enough for Major League Baseball to, at minimum, open an investigation into the potential use of foreign substances, then Bauer is at a competitive disadvantage to not increase his spin rate in some fashion. And in a contract year no less, the results of Bauer’s abbreviated 2020 season will have a direct impact, likely tens of millions of dollars on his next contract – the same way Cole was rewarded.
At the end of the day, I don’t blame Gerrit Cole. I don’t blame Trevor Bauer. I blame the Commissioner’s Office for letting it get this far out of hand. I’m not sure what can even be done to crack down on the issue at this point. Suspending a player as the rulebook would deem appropriate would probably just initiate a league wide finger pointing battle to no end.
It is happening to some degree everywhere. A clear line of what is and isn’t legal needs to be drawn ASAP. But where? And how?
The league is in a sticky situation.