TAMPA — The paranoia about the Astros seeps well beyond the illegal sign stealing for which they admitted culpability and incurred penalties.
Once opponents think you are wearing buzzers under uniforms, it is pretty much open season. And theories have abounded regarding other areas in which the organization was pushing legal boundaries.
One common complaint within the game is that Houston had mastered a more undetectable sticky substance that helped with baseball grip, allowing their pitchers to elevate the spin on their pitches to gain greater velocity and movement.
Reds starter Trevor Bauer, a gadfly to MLB in general and the Astros in specific, resurfaced his complaints that both the majority of major league pitchers use illegal sticky substances such as pine tar to improve the effectiveness of pitches and that Houston was at the vanguard of using a sticky substance and teaching how to maximize spin rate. Bauer made these observations most recently in a first-person account on The Players’ Tribune and in an interview for HBO’s “Real Sports.”
Bauer did not directly implicate any Astro of recent vintage, including Gerrit Cole. But the two have had an uncomfortable relationship since being UCLA teammates who were talented enough to be selected first (Cole) and third (Bauer) in the 2011 MLB Draft. In his piece for The Players’ Tribune, Bauer wrote, “When I see a guy go from being a good pitcher for one team and spinning the ball at 2,200 rpm, to spinning the ball at 2,600 or 2,700 in Houston, I know exactly what happened.”
As identified by Statcast, Cole’s spin rate on his four-seam fastball in his final season in Pittsburgh (2017) was 2,164 revolutions per minute, compared to 2,379 rpm in his first Astros season (2018) and 2,530 rpm in his second Astros season last year. The Statcast data, though, has Cole throwing three-and-a-half times more four-seamers than sinkers in 2017, at a time when the sinker was by far the key pitch in his arsenal. The system was just three years old then and has annually gotten better at identifying pitch types. Cole said it had his 2017 usage ratios close to backward.
Nevertheless, the Statcast data shows that already in 2017 Cole threw 16 of his four-seamers at more than 2,400 rpms and 55 in all above 2,350. Cole said the Astros told him that isolating those peaks motivated them to want to acquire him and get him into a program that emphasized throwing four-seamers up in the zone frequently.
Cole, who had his best two seasons in Houston before signing a pitching-record nine-year, $324 million pact with the Yankees, said he would not directly respond to Bauer. But he did talk generally on the question of whether the Astros were better at creating a sticky product and/or teaching how to use that product by repeating three times, “No.”
MLB said its study of spin data matched to video revealed the Astros gaining no unique advantage over other teams from use of an advanced sticky substance.
Cole detailed a variety of reasons why his personal spin/velocity improved on his fastball, slider and curve in both years with Houston after leaving Pittsburgh. Cole said he was healthier. He was in his prime. He was stronger. He smoothed out his delivery. He went from the Pirates, who harped on throwing sinkers, to the Astros, who had him throw four-seam fastballs to the top of the zone. He praised Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and Houston’s analytic department for being expert at unleashing more spin and more velocity.
“(Spin) is a skill that Brent and those guys over there have great tips on what maximizes spin. Period. They just do,” Cole said. “Brent was forward-thinking in the sense the Cardinals (where Strom came from previously) wanted to go East and West (inside/outside) and he wanted to go North and South (up/down)…. So finally he gets over to a new team in Houston, he gets control of the reins and people are going North and South and they think it is a new invention. It is not a new invention.”
Cole said Strom would make the point that most Hall of Fame pitchers emphasized four-seam up-in-the-zone pitching.
Still, Bauer put voice to an undercurrent in the game that the Astros’ spin was not being produced naturally. Better grip keeps the ball on the fingers longer and allows for better snap and/or backspin if the pitcher knows what he is doing.
“I don’t know who is creating (sticky stuff) or who is creating those rumors,” Cole said. “I feel like there are a lot of different ways to increase spin rate. I have done it for two consecutive years chasing some of the principles I learned over there on how you spin the ball. It is as simple as you want both your fingers to come off the four-seamer at about the same time because then there is no leak in the kinetic energy from your hand to the ball. If I am in the right slot, I can really get after spinning it because I know I have the right axis and I learned the right axis basically because of my good reps, so I get after it and I feel like I spin it harder.
“Spin efficiency is like the gyro. The more consistent you get, the more spin efficiency you have, the less you have to spin it to make the action you want. There are like 500 million different wormholes about spin that I’ve studied and learned of.”