As the White Sox were finishing their sweep of the Tigers on Sunday, Shane Bieber struggled uncharacteristically in his start against the Mariners. He gave five earned runs in a game for the first time since July 2019, including two homers on his vaunted curveball.
In ordinary times, you could write it off as a rare stumble for a Cy Young winner. In this particular month of this particular year, spin rates are the first place to look. Sure enough, Bieber’s spin rates were down across the board, with his curve taking the biggest hit:
Bieber is the latest of highly successful pitchers to experience a drop in spin rate as the league announced plans to crack down on the usage of foreign substances. Trevor Bauer‘s fastball spin plummeted 200 rpm from May to June, and has looked more ordinary as of late. Gerrit Cole‘s pitches lost less two starts ago, but he similarly struggled against Tampa Bay, and it was accompanied by an awkward Zoom conference that made him look something less than innocent.
The problem is that Cole recovered some of his missing fastball spin a start later, throwing six innings that fit in with the rest of his game log. His slider’s spin continued to slide, but his curveball gained more than any pitch.
There’s some danger in fixating too much on this metric. Personally, I don’t have a whole lot of experience in following a pitcher’s spin rate from start to start. You can look at a pitcher like Lance Lynn, whose fastball and cutter feature their lowest average spin rates since 2018. But you look at his season, and his 2021 average is dragged down by starts whose timing correlate with his trip to the IL for back tightness. Since returning, the gap between his best and worst games isn’t even 100 rpm.
Likewise, Liam Hendriks‘ spin rate is down on average, but the range fits within what he’s been doing the previous two years, just without the peaks of the 2020 season.Carlos Rodón‘s seeing a slight uptick, but he’s also gained a ton of velocity, which is the other way spin rates improve. Dylan Cease‘s spin rate dropped 100-150 rpm on his fastball and curveball his last time out, but his slider ticked upward. He was also pitching with a large early lead, which may or may not matter for all I know. Lucas Giolito has seen a slight dip in June, but within the band of fluctuation in the season.
There is a detectable drop in spin rate across the league since Major League Baseball announced plans to crack down, so it’s definitely something worth monitoring, especially when investigating struggles that would otherwise seem random.
I’m just inclined to avoid sweeping conclusions about individual performances and trends for the moment, because I can’t speak with a whole lot of confidence with regards to what’s normal, whether we’re discussing spin rate shifts or what kind of assistance White Sox pitchers have sought from grip-enhancers. It’s been a pervasive-enough practice that nobody should be absolved or pilloried. The White Sox pitchers who have recently spoke on the record about this avoided scorching rebukes of their colleagues.
Lynn acknowledged the issue in a general sense:
While Hendriks suggested that Major League Baseball sanction a grip substances that gives pitchers the security they seek:
“I still think a universal substance needs to be added,” Hendriks said. “Because if you’re coming into the ninth inning of a game, these balls have been sitting down for however long and they’re just pretty much dust. It’s interesting how everything is kind of ‘follow the rules, this way, this way, this way,’ but the balls are kind of left out the entire time and it’s controlled by the home team.”
Obviously, there’s a rosin bag provided on the mound, which Hendriks says is not that helpful until the warmer months, when it combines with sweat to provide “a little bit of tack” and improved grip. But in the cold, pitchers are struggling more, and he feels MLB should provide something if it’s really wary of what players are seeking out on their own.
Hendriks’ argument — pitchers wanted to improve grip for grip’s sake before realizing the performance-enhancing qualities — would seem to be a realistic line for the league to draw. In his Cup of Coffee newsletter, Craig Calcaterra has been saying that Rob Manfred could easily take ownership of the situation by adopting a similar “things got out of hand” stance that doesn’t seek to blame or vilify specific players or teams, because Britt Ghiroli in The Athletic says teams have issued their own sticky substances up and down the organization to avoid drawing scrutiny for massive spin-rate increases upon promotion.
The weirdest thing about Joe West’s confiscation of Giovanny Gallegos’ cap in the Cardinals-White Sox game on May 26 is how reasonably he carried out the enforcement. He could’ve made a big show of it, but instead St. Louis manager Mike Shildt was the one who exploded during and after. Shildt did have cause to feel singled out, but a more even form of policing would seem to address that particular concern.
Alas, the way Buster Olney presents the current situation, it seems like the league wants to stop at scaring pitchers straight, rather than seeing the task all the way through.
The sport’s powers, said one source, “do not want to find any violators of the foreign substance.”
Another league source said, “I’m glad you’re writing about this. I glad this is getting a lot of attention. It’d be great if we could get it cleaned up before they actually start enforcing the rule.
“The enforcement has not started yet because all parties involved want to give pitchers time to adjust.”
Without an attempt at direct and regular enforcement, it relies on peer pressure and public scrutiny, which will include Baseball Savant spin rate updates monitored by people like you and me. Such independent investigations play a part — and far be it from a blogger to suggest that people outside the games shouldn’t note changes — but they’re also subject to provincial slants. Astros fans tired of hearing about their team’s own “cheaters’ label would love to see Cole and the Yankees taken down a peg, and Bauer’s history of trolling created a bunch of enemies along the way. Likewise, it’s easy for a White Sox fan to cast stones when seeing Bieber and James Karinchak take big spin-rate hits in June, but I’m not yet comfortable with my understanding of whether White Sox pitchers have benefited from similar practices, and to what extent.
All we can say is White Sox pitchers seem no worse for the wear thus far. They own the American League’s third-best ERA (3.00) in June, thanks to the league’s best strikeout rate (30.4 percent) and third-best walk rate (6.8 percent). They’re thriving at a time where other staffs are reeling. If they can somehow sustain that kind of performance through this week’s seven-game gantlet through the Rays and Astros, I can imagine a paradox where some see the performances speaking for themselves given the backdrop, while some opponents — or at least their fans — won’t take their words/actions for it.
(Photo by Arturo Pardavila III)