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Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has been caught up in a lawsuit involving the Angels and a fired clubhouse manager for the team after attorneys for Brian “Bubba” Harkins submitted a text message, allegedly from Cole, in Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court on Thursday, according to reports, including one in the Los Angeles Times.
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“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole, I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation,” the pitcher, then with the Astros, wrote on Jan. 17, 2019, adding a wink emoji, according to the reports. “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.”
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Harkins, who was fired in March after the Angels were informed that a Major League Baseball investigation had found he was providing banned substances to pitchers to enhance their grip on the baseball, filed a defamation suit against the Angels and MLB in August. The team and the league filed a motion in November to dismiss the suit. In response to that motion, which claimed the 55-year-old Harkins was being used as a “scapegoat,” his attorneys submitted evidence, including the text.
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The origin of that information has not been verified and could be in question. More than a dozen other pitchers were also mentioned — both Angels and visitors — in the suit as having used the substance provided by Harkins. Pitchers have used similar substances through the years, but MLB has sought to crack down on the practice.
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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.
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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:
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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:
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Last year, Trevor Bauer wrote in The Players’ Tribune that he was suspicious of how pitchers on the Astros teams Cole pitched for had improved their spin rate so dramatically.
“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,” Bauer wrote.
Bauer never mentioned Cole’s name in the story. The Post’s Joel Sherman asked Cole about the issue in February, after he signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. Cole did not respond to Bauer’s story, but regarding the notion the Astros were better at creating a sticky product or teaching how to use that product, Cole repeated three times, “No.”
In response to the LA Times story, Bauer wrote on Twitter, “It’s almost like it did exist. Wow. The more you know… how crazy.”