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Zulgad: Negative spin: What will Gerrit Cole’s response be when he faces Josh Donaldson?

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers
May 17, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) walks off the field during the second inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Donaldson hasn’t held back since reports about pitchers using foreign substances on the baseball made headlines a few weeks ago. On Wednesday, we will find out if Yankees ace Gerrit Cole exercises restraint when facing Donaldson.

The Twins third baseman tweeted that he had an “entire catalog of these guys cheating,” and followed that up by discussing the topic during a video call with reporters late last week.

“Is it coincidence that Gerrit Cole’s spin rate numbers went down after four minor leaguers got suspended for 10 games?” Donaldson said. “I don’t know. Maybe. (Dodgers pitcher) Trevor Bauer has been vocal about, ‘Hey, these are the substances that guys mix together.’ Well, now, as a pitcher, if you sit here and say, ‘Oh, hey, these guys are getting away with it, this guy’s getting $325 million, this guy’s getting paid, this guy’s doing this, they’re not cracking down on it, why wouldn’t I do it?’

“In 2017, there were four pitchers that had a spin rate on their fastballs of 2,400 rpm or more. Now, that’s league average. So think about that. You think everybody before 2017 was throwing the baseball wrong? No.”

Donaldson is no dummy. He knew the Twins were beginning a three-game series against the Yankees on Tuesday at Target Field — Cole will be starting Wednesday — and likely figured he could get into Cole’s head. Donaldson also came prepared, knowing that the Yankees’ $324 million pitcher was coming off an outing in which he gave up five runs in five innings of a 9-2 loss to Tampa Bay. The key stat: Cole, who had a spin rate that consistently sat above 2,500 rpm during his starts in the opening two months of the season, lost more than 100 rpm on his four-seamer in that start, according to Baseball Savant.

Cole had to face the music on the subject Tuesday — something that had to annoy him — creating the possibility he could be spinning a few pitchers high and tight to Donaldson on Wednesday.

“I was made aware of it,” Cole said of Donaldson’s comments “Obviously, it’s sort of undesirable, but I understand this topic is important to everybody that cares about the game, and in regards to Josh specifically, I kind of felt it was a bit of a low hanging fruit. But he’s entitled to his opinion.

“I just have other things that I need to keep my focus on, so respectfully, I can’t worry about that type of stuff. I would say that as a member of the executive council in the (players) union, part of my job there is to facilitate communication about all things involving the game and I’m open to doing that. It’s part of my role, so if anyone has a concern regarding anything, we’re always available to reach out and talk to if there needs to be some clarification and whatnot.”

It will be interesting to see when umpires begin to crack down on pitchers, given the amount of information that has surfaced about different substances that are being used to give them an advantage. 

One of the sticky substances that a pitcher hides on the bill of his cap, or elsewhere, is known as spider tack. Cole was asked about using that substance.

“I don’t quite know how to answer that to be honest,” he said. “There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from the last generation of players to this generation of players, and 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. … This is important to a lot of people that love the game, including the players in this room, including fans, including teams. If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that’s a conversation that we can have because ultimately we should all be pulling the same direction on this.”

Not only did Cole fail to answer the question, but he also doesn’t seem to understand that there is unlikely to be any type of conversation between MLB and its players on this issue. Suspensions, yes. Conversations, no.

While this controversy gained momentum in late May when umpire Joe West confiscated the hat of Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos’ in the seventh inning of game at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, MLB had sent a memo to teams on March 23 stating it would be more proactive in looking at game-used baseballs to check on the use of foreign substances. Pitchers have long used pine tar, rosin and sunscreen to get a better grip on the ball, but the feeling was there were more substances being used and the Sports Illustrated story linked to in this column confirms it.

“Here’s the deal — hitters have never really cared about sunscreen, rosin and pine tar,” Donaldson said. “We haven’t cared about that because it’s not a performance enhancement. What these guys are doing now are performance-enhancing, to where it is an actual superglue-type of ordeal, to where it’s not about command anymore. Now, it’s about who’s throwing the nastiest pitches, the more unhittable pitches.”

The question is how widespread is the use of foreign substances and are we going to start to see top-line pitchers like Cole start to receive 10-game suspensions? If these pitchers stop using these substances, how successful will they be? While this is being compared to steroid use by players in the 1990s and 2000s, this is an embarrassing but easier situation for commissioner Rob Manfred to handle. In the case of steroids, baseball’s biggest problem was that cracking down on cheaters meant (largely) going after home run hitters and cutting down on offense.

“The only way they get it through and to get it out of the game is if they get checked every half-inning,” Donaldson said. “If a new pitcher comes out, they get checked immediately by the umpire. Once they start doing that, it’ll be gone, and you’re going to start seeing offense come back into the game.”

Donaldson has a valid point. We will see how Cole feels about Donaldson making that point so publicly when he steps into the batter’s box on Wednesday.