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The results were Gerrit Cole. Two runs. Eight innings.
But this was a different Cole, operating under a new reality. Despite peak velocity, Cole did not hunt the top of the zone regularly with his fastball. In its place were the most changeups he had ever thrown in a major league game. Cole worked quicker, and on a windy night in Buffalo he rubbed up baseballs frequently and frantically as if a genie would pop out and grant him a few pitching wishes.
Clearly from his words after the Yankees’ 3-2 win over the Blue Jays those wishes are that the Commissioner’s Office not become intractable in 1) listening to pitchers about what they need in this less sticky world and 2) adapting after “making a drastic change in the middle of a season” to give pitchers a better capability to grip baseballs.
Welcome to Cole’s new world. There is a certain Baseball CSI these days examining all pitchers, a condition that will only heighten come Monday when umpires will be unleashed to check regularly for illegal sticky substances. But Cole is one of the faces of this issue. Arguably the biggest. So his every touch of the hair, fingers to the brim of his cap gains scrutiny.
So does just four strikeouts Wednesday night against the Blue Jays by one of the foremost strikeout pitchers of this strikeout era.
“Look, we are all trying to play by the rules.” Cole said.
Cole is one of the top player executives in the union. He said there is a “strong consensus” among the players that they are in “alignment” with the commissioner’s intent on attacking sticky stuff. MLB put out a memo this week detailing its plan, believing that the game was not self-correcting and illegal sticky substances were distorting the pitcher-hitter dynamic too much to the favor of the pitcher.
In recent weeks, with just scrutiny on the subject but no upgraded enforcement applied yet, spin had decreased on average across the majors while batting average and run scoring rose.
Cole has not directly said he used sticky substances the past few times he is spoken to reporters. But he has referred to “customs and practices” that have grown over the past few decades as people within the game learned more and more about what the full impact of spin on the baseball brought. Clearly, Cole had adapted to the modernity, learning to maximize his stuff, especially with four-seamers at the top of the zone.
“It is so hard to grip the ball,” Cole said. “For Pete’s sake, it is part of the reason almost every player on the field has something to help them control the ball. … I don’t have a solution. We are aligned in a lot of areas with the Commissioner’s Office on this. Just talk with us and work with us.”
On Wednesday, Cole said he didn’t go to the top of the zone as much for mechanical reasons as much as anything. But his spin rates were down dramatically on his four-seamer (down 202 revolutions per minute, slider (198) and curve (137).
Nevertheless, he still threw hard (sticky stuff has never been shown to improve velocity). He averaged 97.5 mph with his four-seamer and hit 101.5 mph with his next-to-last pitch. His final pitch was a changeup, his 20th of the game — the most ever by him according to data on Brooks on Baseball. It was a staggering 94.6 mph changeup that Bo Bichette grounded out on. Cole thrust his fist in celebration, culminating a successful, adaptive, difficult outing.
“It [spin] is not everything,” Cole said. “You can pitch well without high [spin rates].”
For now, this is where the sport is. So it is where Cole is. He will have to adjust, tinker, use his vast baseball mind to figure out a puzzle already in process. The results were there on Wednesday night — eight innings, two runs. It just was created in a different fashion.
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