Last season, Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ dominant and dependable ace, was at times not dominant, nor was he dependable. However, it is impossible to talk about Cole’s Cy Young runner-up effort without mentioning the much-ballyhooed “sticky stuff.” But was sticky stuff as big of an issue as it is often made out to be when people discuss Cole’s 2021 campaign?
I likely don’t need to remind anyone reading that Cole, likely unfairly, became the face of sticky stuff when Major League Baseball moved to crack down on the use of foreign substances on June 21, 2021. While many pitchers saw a drop-off in performance after the ban — remember that Rays ace Tyler Glasnow implied that the sudden shift away from a foreign substance possibly led to his need for Tommy John surgery — the scrutiny around sticky stuff was almost exclusive to Cole.
To be clear from the beginning, if Cole was using sticky stuff, he was not the only player to do so. But now that it’s been nearly a year and a half since the ban, we should look at Cole’s spin rates. Below is a chart of Cole’s career spin rates by season:
We can see that Cole’s spin rates begin to climb after the 2017 season, his last with the Pirates. His curveball, four-seam fastball, and slider climb and plateau after the 2019 campaign. However, his curveball and changeup peak in 2019 and then fall to a normalized level from 2020 onward.
Outside of the peak in his curveball and changeup, Cole’s spin rates look very stable since 2019, his second season with the Astros. While in Houston, Cole could have adjusted his grip or begun using sticky stuff. The Astros have been known to take something that is borderline cheating, like deciphering signs illegally, and take it farther than other teams, implementing a sign-stealing system in real-time. So it’s not impossible to think that the Astros could have introduced Cole to the highest-quality sticky stuff, leading to the 2019 spike.
However, if we look closer at 2021, things become more interesting. Below I have included a chart of Cole’s spin rates by month and by game during the 2021 season. Cole’s spin rates by month in 2021 make it clear that his curveball, slider, four-seam fastball, and slider all see a dip in their spin rates from May to June.
Of these spin rate drop-offs, there is a massive dip in Cole’s sinker spin rate from May through the remainder of the year. So, something clearly changed when comparing May to June and May to the remainder of the season.
Looking at Cole’s spin rates by game, his fastball, curveball, slider, changeup, and sinker spin rates began to decline, leading up to the ban on June 20th.
Although it is important to note that Cole’s spin rates do seem to climb later in the season, they do not recover to their pre-crackdown levels. As seen below, this season, Cole’s spin rates look much more similar to what we saw after the “sticky stuff” crackdown.
However, the real takeaway is that even after sticky stuff, Gerrit Cole has elite spin rates. For example, looking at average spin rates for four-seam fastballs this season, among pitchers who have thrown 100 or more fastballs, Cole has the eighth-highest spin rate in baseball. At the same time, his curveball is averaging 2820 RPMs, and his slider is averaging 2525 RPMs. These spin rates, post sticky stuff, are still very elite. What does this all mean, then?
It does appear that Cole’s spin rates did decrease once the sticky stuff ban was implemented. However, he was far from the only pitcher to see a decrease, and even with the decline in his spin rates, they remain elite. While they have dipped, his spin rates are still higher than in his Pittsburgh days, and Cole will be fine even if his spin rates do not return to their 2019 or early-2021 levels.
Many pitchers have managed to have magnificent seasons with lower spin rates than Cole’s current levels. So at the end of the day, Cole has seen a dip in his spin rates, but take a look at other pitchers in the league. He’s not alone, and he’s still a dominant pitcher.