Apparently, someone in baseball is naming names.
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation,” the pitcher wrote, adding a wink emoji. “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.”
First off, if you were writing a script of a baseball movie where some clubhouse employee went rogue and turned state’s evidence, as it were, you’d almost certainly name him Bubba Harkins. For years, Harkins worked in the visiting clubhouse in Anaheim, so he provided an illegal sticky mix of rosin and pine tar to pitchers throughout baseball, including, in a bombshell text message, Gerrit Cole.
However, none of this will come as much of a surprise. Pitching using illegal substances for better grip is a fight that MLB has essentially waved the white flag on without ever engaging in it. The process of checking every pitcher, in every inning of every game, is certainly daunting, and something that the league has just decided is beyond them.
Fuck, they just handed a Cy Young to a pitcher in Trevor Bauer, who basically taunted the world in 2018 that he knew a way to illicitly increase spin rates, then just happened to have career-high spin rates on all of his pitches, by a lot, in 2020. Actually, not just career-high spin rates, but the highest average spin rates on fastballs, sliders, cutters, and sinkers in six seasons of Statcast data. Nothing suspicious at all about that!
And now Bauer is a free agent, asking for three of Jupiter’s moons in salary. You can see where baseball might think stamping this out is just beyond them. Even though Cole’s spin rates dropped in 2020 without access to Harkins’ secret stash, it’s not like “mixing rosin and pine tar” is an impossible recipe to experiment with untl you get it right, nor is it as if there’s a shortage of other potential sticky stuff. Maybe Harkins’ concoction was the best in the business, but it’s not like Cole became a schlub with his supplier out of business — he just had a slight drop in spin rates, remaining one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.
But the problem is legitimate. Baseball has become a game of strikeouts and home runs, and the whiffs are way up in part because of pitchers gaining spin rate so that their velocity ticks up and/or the movement on their pitches becomes something out of Hocus Pocus.
Maybe it’s a pain in the ass to check every pitcher every half-inning. Maybe they’ll always be ahead of the game, hiding it somewhere different every time. But maybe the pain in the ass is worth it if it’ll get the damn ball in damn play more often.