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Gerrit Cole’s sticky situation: The latest chapter in ball doctoring

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The Yankees’ ace was named in a court filing as one of several pitchers meddling with the ball. Is this a big deal?

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ray Chapman didn’t actually die on the field. The only player that we know of to be killed by a beanball died 12 hours later, after failed brain surgery. The shortstop was hit in the head in the fifth inning on August 16, 1920, by Carl Mays, the Yankees’ best pitcher and a notorious ball-meddler. Mays’ unconventional, near-submarine delivery, combined with his penchant for spitballs and dragging baseballs across his belt buckle, regularly had him atop the HBP leaderboards, but the ball that hit Chapman was different.

There are plenty of resources out there if you want to learn more about Ray Chapman, the person, the celebrity, the ballplayer and the man who was a few months away from being a father. The New York Times’ archive takes you into the day contemporaneously, and Mike Sowell’s book The Pitch that Killed details the humans at the core of this tragedy.

What this post is about, largely, is the fallout from Chapman’s death in the front offices of baseball, and how that’s changed over the last century. Spitballs were already banned in 1920, but the likely contribution of doctored balls to this incident led to a rise in enforcement, and crucially, a rule mandating umpires replace balls once they had gotten dirty or scuffed. It’s likely this played a role in the power breakouts of players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig that decade, the beginning of the “live ball” era, but the impetus was to make the game safer.

For the rest of this post, we’ll use the term “spitball” for any kind of doctored baseball, but few pitchers, if any, really spat on the baseball. Far more common is the use of substances that can be easily hidden on the body or in the glove, and generally delineated in two groups. First, there are the sticky spitballs, balls treated with pine tar or glue. These help pitchers with their grips on the ball, especially in less-than-ideal weather, and can contribute to spin rate gains on fastballs. As we know, better active spin on the fastball leads to a more deceptive pitch, building a pretty obvious incentive to gain spin however you can.

The other kind of substance are the slippery kinds, like petroleum jelly, personal lubricant, Crisco. This is used not for grip but to change the effect shape of the ball in flight. A perfect sphere will move predictably along a trajectory, but a more oblong shape will move in more unpredictable ways. Gaylord Perry was famously, finally, ejected in 1982 after being perhaps the most widely-recognized spitballer in baseball, and a couple of seasons later, Rick Honeycutt had a thumbtack in his glove, grooving the sides of the baseball to induce this kind of unpredictable movement.

Of course most stories about spitballs are anecdotal and some apocryphal, only confirmed when a pitcher is actually caught — see Michael Pineda’s famous case — but this week, a court filing shed a little light on the continued usage of spitballs around the league.

Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation. We don’t see you until May, but we have some road games in April that are in cold weather places. The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold.

Aside from my general disappointment with Gerrit Cole texting like a 13-year old, this appears to be a case where a player is conspiring to doctor baseballs, and that last sentence indicates that this is not Cole’s first time. The recipient of the text, Brian “Bubba” Hawkins, was the visiting clubhouse manager for the Angels, fired almost a year ago and now the plaintiff in a case contending baseball writ large made him a public scapegoat for distributing spitball-friendly substances to players around the league. Hawkins’ suit accuses not just Cole, but Cy Young winners Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, and most of the notable Angels pitchers of the last 15 years.

The inclusion of Cole and Verlander in particular caught a lot of attention, as the two are among the vanguards of pitching analytics, especially with respect to their use of high-spin fastballs up in the zone. Of course, both are veterans of the Astros analytics system, and their habit of increasing spin rate. Verlander’s spin on the fastball went from averaging 2559 RPM his last full season in Detroit to 2618 RPM in first full season in Houston, while Cole saw an even greater increase:

You can increase spin rate naturally — velocity alone is linearly related to spin, so throwing a ball harder will impart more spin — but even that link, from the venerable Driveline, makes mention of how the changing physical condition of a pitcher’s hand can increase spin, making a fastball much more effective:

Given that we know pitchers have only a handful of milliseconds to impart shear force on the baseball, any additional adhesive properties or friction between the fingers and the ball is likely going to be valuable in helping generate spin (Kinoshita et al., 2017).

This is more or less public knowledge. Players aren’t conspiring in the back rooms of smoking clubs, and even the wink and nod that MLB and its umpires give to the use of spitballs in a modern context are open secrets around the game. In Japan, NPB has gone one step further, proactively adding tack to every single league baseball, so the incentive to further doctor a ball is lessened, and the necessity of better grip in less-than-ideal weather disappears.

And that’s where I think MLB needs to go with this. In all things, you can take a prohibition attitude towards rule breaking, or a harm reduction attitude. The former would mean that players like Cole, Verlander, and others found to be enhancing their grip face substantial punishment from the league. However, as our own commenter Harlan Spence put it yesterday:

If Cole, or Verlander, or Scherzer, or Kyle Gibson were suspended for using these modern spitballs, the guy that came up to replace them would be using too. It’s endemic to baseball and as overlooked as the rules around batters leaving the box during an at-bat.

Thus, the actual solution, from the harm reductionist approach, is to codify the “right” kind of spitball, to implement some kind of tack on the ball the way NPB does it, and then move the mandate of enforcement to umpires more directly. Accept that pitchers are going to try and find ways to create spin on the baseball — as our methods of evaluating pitchers incorporate things like spin more and more, the financial incentive will always exist. A tacked baseball as the default eliminates the excuse that extra grip is needed and allows for better enforcement of the rules around spitballs.

It is, however, broadly important to remember the distinctions between the two kinds of spitballs we discussed above. Tack to create grip is far safer than a slippery substance creating unpredictable movement, and so while it does tilt the playing field in favor of the pitcher, it doesn’t create the same kind of unsafe environment someone like Ray Chapman played in.

I couldn’t get too fired up about Cole being named in this suit, or Verlander, or anyone else. It’s endemic to baseball, and the institutions that govern the game largely don’t care about it. A rule that institutions and the governed ignore isn’t a rule at all — I’ve never been pulled over for going 55 km/h on SW Marine Drive, which is technically a 50 km/h zone. Both the institutions charged with enforcing the rule — the RCMP and Vancouver Police Department — and those governed by it have agreed that a certain band of rule-breaking is acceptable. My going 55 km/h is the same as Cole having a bit of...something in his hair. Someone going 80 km/h on that same road is the same as Pineda smearing tar all over his neck on a nationally televised game.

Yankee Michel Pineda ejected Pine Tar Photo By: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Gerrit Cole will certainly not face punishment from the Yankees for this. I am very skeptical that any pitcher will be punished at all. But, if as fans you feel that this is disrupting competitive balance around the game, prohibition cannot be the option. Baseball has attempted it for more than a century, and even in the shadow of Ray Chapman’s death, a social contract exists between the institution and the governed that a little bit of rule breaking is ok.

Particular to our own time in baseball history, there’s a good case to be made that the spitballs of 2020 are hurting the aesthetics of the game. Better pitches lead to more swings and misses, and hitters will fall back on the three true outcomes. Still, this is merely one component of a larger existential question of the game, and one that, while needing to be addressed, must be done at the same time as questions about the use of relief pitching, the mound height, and improvements in team defense.

We’ll have to wait and see what becomes of Bubba’s case in California. I’m sure that whenever the 2021 season begins, we’ll all be checking Cole’s spin rate and see what, if anything, has changed now that he has some egg on his face. But the $324 million he’ll have earned over the length of this contract goes a long way to washing that egg off, and if a little bit of pine tar was what is needed to make that kind of money, every single pitcher in the game will take it.