Gerrit Cole Stumbles Through Answer About Doctoring Baseballs

Asked directly on Tuesday if he had used Spider Tack — a sticky paste that can greatly increase the spin on pitches — while on the mound, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole stammered through an answer by citing the shadowy tradition of pitchers breaking rules to get an edge.

“I don’t know quite how to answer that, to be honest,” Cole said on a Zoom conference with reporters, after searching roughly 15 seconds for an answer. “I mean, there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players from the last generation of players to this generation of players. I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard, and I’ve stood pretty firm in terms of that, in terms of the communication between our peers and whatnot.”

He added: “This is important to a lot of people that love the game, including the players, including fans, including teams. If M.L.B. wants to legislate some more stuff, that’s a conversation we can have, because ultimately we should all be pulling in the same direction on this.”

Major League Baseball has been desperate to curb the rise in strikeouts that has overtaken the sport in recent years. Lately the league has focused on the foreign substances that pitchers furtively apply to the ball, a practice that has grown increasingly common — and effective — with technology that tracks precisely how much their pitches spin.

Spider Tack is marketed to competitive strongmen to improve their grip while hauling Atlas stones, and studies have shown it to be much more helpful in increasing spin rates than traditional methods like sunscreen mixed with rosin. All of it is forbidden for pitchers to use. But for years, the practice was so widespread and accepted that most teams largely ignored it.

The issue, however, became a prominent topic at the owners’ meetings last week, and M.L.B. is planning to formalize enforcement protocols and penalty structures in the coming days. Umpires will probably be instructed to check pitchers’ gloves, caps and uniforms for evidence of foreign substances.

Pitchers may already be heeding the warnings, and Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson singled out Cole in a weekend interview with The Athletic. In Cole’s last start, his spin rate dropped by 125 revolutions per minute on his four-seam fastball and also dropped on his off-speed pitches.

“Is it coincidence that Gerrit Cole’s spin rate numbers went down after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?” Donaldson said. “Is that possible? I don’t know. Maybe. At the same time, with this situation, they’ve let guys do it.”

Cole dismissed Donaldson’s comments as “low-hanging fruit” but said he was entitled to his opinion. Cole, a member of the executive council of the players’ union, said he supported an open dialogue about the issue with fellow players.

Cole’s four-seam fastball spin rate was 2,164 r.p.m. in 2017, his final season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It rose to 2,379 r.p.m. in 2018, his first of two seasons with the Houston Astros, and has been around 2,500 since 2019.

As for the drop in his spin rate last Thursday, when he allowed five hits and five runs in five innings, with seven strikeouts, in a loss to Tampa Bay, Cole said his mechanics were off, which affected his release on the ball.

“I attribute it to just not being as good or as sharp as I wanted to be,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

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