Red Sox: Let’s stop assuming that every pitcher is using “sticky stuff”

Don’t assume Red Sox pitchers are cheating with sticky substances

Major League Baseball’s efforts to clean up the game could land certain players in sticky situations. While it would be naive to assume that there aren’t any Boston Red Sox players bending the rules, we should be careful about jumping to conclusions without evidence.

Baseball players will always look for an edge that helps them compete and fans are always eager to call them out if they cross the line. MLB turned a blind eye to the steroid era for years before finally admitting they had a problem by instituting strict testing policies, ultimately tarnishing the legacies of some of the greatest players of that generation. The sign-stealing scandals of recent years have turned champions into villains. The latest uproar revolves around pitchers using foreign substances on the baseball.

Hitters will almost universally tell you that they don’t mind pitchers using anything that helps them get a better grip on the ball. Nobody wants to get hit by a pitch when the pitcher lets one slip out of their hand. A little sunblock or rosin is fair game if it prevents that.

Lately we’ve been hearing more about pitchers taking it a step too far with sticky substances such as “Spider Tack” that can improve spin rate. This can make certain pitches more effective, which may partially explain the rising strikeouts and plummeting batting averages we’ve seen across the league.

New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole made himself a target for this crusade with his awkward press conference where he essentially pleaded the fifth by stating he wasn’t sure how to answer a very direct question about if he was using this type of sticky substance on the ball.

The history of how Cole’s spin rate has evolved is also a bit suspicious. His four-seam fastball had below-average spin rates early in his career, rating between the 32nd and 39th percentile from 2015-2017, per Baseball Savant. All of a sudden, his fastball jumped to the 81st percentile in 2018, coinciding with Cole limiting opposing hitters to a career-best .185 AVG and .273 WOBA with his four-seamer. He improved those numbers to a .166 AVG and .254 WOBA the following season when his spin rate increased into the 95th percentile. He’s remained in the mid-90s percentile ever since while continuing to dominate with that fastball.

That alone isn’t proof that Cole has been up to anything nefarious. There are ways pitchers can improve their spin rate, perhaps by altering their grip or throwing from a different angle. But the drastic improvement combined with being called out by his fellow players and his lack of a denial when asked point blank about it certainly makes Cole appear guilty.

That doesn’t mean everyone with an elite spin rate is also guilty. Take Red Sox starter Garrett Richards for example. His fastball spin rate is among the elite in the 96th percentile and his curveball is one of the league’s best in the 100th percentile. What differentiates him from Cole is that Richards has always excelled in spin rates. He’s been in the 100th percentile with his curve every season since 2015 when the statistic was first tracked and his fastball spin rate is actually lower than it has been in previous years. If Richards is using any substances to improve his spin rate, he’s been getting away with it for his entire career.

Some other members of the Red Sox pitching staff aren’t drawing suspicion because they aren’t relying heavily on spin rate. Nathan Eovaldi‘s curveball is in the 10th percentile in spin rate and has always ranked among the league’s lowest. His fastball has generally been mediocre in terms of spin rate but has dipped to a career-low in the 31st percentile this year. Eduardo Rodriguez hasn’t used his curve this year but his fastball is only in the 26th percentile and has always been below-average.

Matt Barnes is a two-pitch pitcher – fastball and curve. He has a fastball spin rate in the 61st percentile, similar to where it’s been for most of his career, while his curve is only in the 12th percentile. A sudden increase in spin rate obviously isn’t the reason for the career-year the Red Sox closer is producing.

If these guys are cheating with substances used to increase spin rate, they aren’t doing a very good job of it. Spin rate isn’t what has made them effective on the mound and there are no clear outliers in their careers dating back to when this data was first tracked.

The backlash against performance enhancing drug abusers led to a mob mentality that suspected everyone was guilty until proven innocent. If you hit homers, you must be juicing.

We can’t allow ourselves to fall into that same judgmental trap. Not every dominant pitcher is cheating. Many of them aren’t even relying on spin rate. Not every pitcher with an elite spin rate is cheating either.

MLB should be taking this concern seriously and encouraging umpires to enforce existing rules regarding tampering with the baseball. Random checks between innings should go a long way toward solving the problem. If a player gets caught red handed – or sticky handed – then we’ll know. There may never be a way to completely eradicate the problem but as more players get caught, others will be more discouraged to try getting away with it.

If this issue is as widespread as recent reports have led us to believe, it’s highly probable that some members of the Red Sox are included. That may very well be the case with at least some members of every team. That doesn’t mean everyone though. Blindly pointing fingers without evidence is a disservice to those playing the game the right way. We saw this happen when the distrust created by the steroid era was at its peak. Let’s not go down that road again.