In the coming weeks and months, Major League Baseball is expected to crack down on pitchers using foreign substances after a fact-finding mission determined their use is widespread enough to warrant intervention. The owners voted to approve the crackdown last week, though it’s still unclear how exactly it will be put into practice.
Among the pitchers in the foreign substance crosshairs is New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who was accused of using them in a lawsuit filed by a former Los Angeles Angels employee over the winter. The employee, former clubhouse attendant Bubba Harkins, claims MLB and the Angels made him a scapegoat for foreign substance use. The lawsuit included a text message exchange with Cole from Jan. 2019, when he pitched for the Houston Astros:
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole. I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation [winky face 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 …”
During his start last Thursday, Cole’s spin rate was down approximately six percent across the board, leading to speculation he either was no longer using foreign substances or he reduced his use of them right as MLB prepares to crack down. At least one player, former AL MVP Josh Donaldson took notice, and called Cole out.
“Is it a coincidence that Gerrit Cole’s spin rate numbers went down [Thursday] after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?” Donaldson told reporters, including The Athletic’s Dan Hayes, referring to MLB’s recent crackdown on foreign substances in the minors. “Is that possible? I don’t know. Maybe. At the same time, with this situation, they’ve let guys do it.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters he “doesn’t make much of it” when asked about Donaldson’s comments over the weekend. On Tuesday, Cole spoke with the media for the first time since Donaldson made his comments, and said the drop in spin rate was the result of issues with his delivery. He was also asked specifically about Donaldson’s comments.
“I was made aware of it this week,” Cole told reporters (video link). “Obviously it’s undesirable, but I understand this topic is important to everyone that cares about the game. In regards to Josh specifically, I kinda felt it was a bit low-hanging fruit, but he’s entitled to his opinion and to voice his opinion. I have other things to keep my focus on. Respectfully, I can’t worry about that type of stuff.”
Cole was also asked point blank whether he’s ever used foreign substances on the mound. This was his response (video link):
“I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest. There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from past generation 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. Again, like I mentioned earlier, this is important to a lot of people that love the game, including the players in this room, the fans, including teams. If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that’s a conversation we can have because ultimately we should all be pulling in the same direction.”
Cole was not the only pitcher to show reduced spin rate in recent days. Trevor Bauer, who once accused Cole of using foreign substances without naming names, was down about 10 percent across the board during his start Sunday. Other pitchers were missing some spin as well, including Angels righty Dylan Bundy on Monday (down about five percent).
Foreign substance use has been widespread for decades, though MLB looked the other way and left enforcement of the rules up to teams and managers, and they never called each other on it because every team has pitchers using them. These days foreign substances go beyond a little pine tar to get a better grip. Teams have weaponized sticky stuff to maximize spin and movement, which has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in strikeouts.
Foreign substances can improve performance, but they’re also not a magic pill that can turn a league average starter into an ace. A lot of pitchers use them, enough that MLB is putting its foot down, and yet only a handful are as good as Cole and Bauer. That said, so many pitchers getting little extra spin and movement on their pitchers has an incalculable effect on the game.
Coincidentally enough, the Yankees and Twins begin a three-game series at Target Field on Tuesday night. Cole is schedule to start Wednesday and will face Donaldson, assuming he’s in the starting lineup.