Indians starting pitcher Trevor Bauer isn't shy about creating controversy on Twitter. In his latest episode, he comes pretty close to accusing the Astros pitching staff of cheating. He dances around it some, insinuates it some, but in totality, it's pretty clear that's the spin.
Ooh, what a good jumping off point. Spin!
The conversation started on Twitter about the Astros rotation and their spin rate. Then we get this:
If only there was just a really quick way to increase spin rate. Like what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight...imagine the steals you could get on the trade market! If only that existed...— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) May 1, 2018
Vague, but it's clear there's a sarcastic implication in here. Astros starter Lance McCullers took umbrage.
Bauer had a few replies, including to McCullers (the first one below) that lay out what he's saying.
Someone brought up using foreign substances helping ...
Agreed. So just make it legal then. Problem is it also massively increases the spin rate, making pitches much harder for hitters to hit— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) May 1, 2018
Just pick one But to not let me use non sticky surgical grade glue to reinforce the stitches on the back side of my pinky finger that has no chance to touch the ball while simultaneously allowing people to blatantly use sticky stuff is hypocritical to the max— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) May 1, 2018
As noted, though Bauer doesn't straight up say, "the Astros are cheating," the totality of the message is just that. He's saying Astros pitchers are using sticky, foreign substances to increase their spin rate, which helps with breaking stuff and velocity, among other things. Let's take a look.
With fastballs, Justin Verlander is first in spin rate among starting pitchers. On curveballs, Charlie Morton is second among qualified starters after Garrett Richards while Verlander is in the top 10.
We've also seen players make pretty big leaps once joining the Astros or getting together with the forward-thinking front office.
Through April, the Astros lead the majors in rotation ERA by a pretty big margin (2.54 with the Diamondbacks at 2.96 and no one else below 3.20).
Dallas Keuchel went from a 5-plus ERA guy to a good pitcher in 2014 and Cy Young winner in 2015. From 2008-16 with the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, Charlie Morton had a 4.54 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 893 career innings. Last season he made 25 starts for the Astros, pitching to a 3.62 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. So far this season? Morton is 4-0 with a 1.72 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 45 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings.
The Astros traded for Gerrit Cole this past offseason. He had one excellent season with the Pirates in 2015, but otherwise seemed to be underachieving compared to his raw stuff. Particularly head-scratching for someone with his stuff was the low strikeout rate (relatively speaking). So far this year, Cole has a 1.73 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and an MLB-best 61 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. In line with Bauer's thoughts, Cole's spin rate has dramatically increased this year from last.
Then there's Verlander. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting in 2016 (and should have won, by the way), but he took things to the next level upon joining the Astros. He had a 3.82 ERA and 1.28 WHIP with the Tigers in 2017. In 11 regular-season starts with the Astros, Verlander is 9-0 with a 1.22 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 91 strikeouts against 13 walks in 73 2/3 innings. He was also excellent in the playoffs.
There's more to the Verlander story and it has to do with the Astros' front office and analytics. Via Tom Verducci during the ALCS:
When the Tigers traded Verlander to Houston Aug. 31, another world opened for Verlander. The Astros are one of the most forward-thinking, resourceful teams when it comes to analytics, and Verlander not only embraced it all, he also asked for more. The joke among the quants in the organization was that Verlander was the first guy to actually ask for more than the reams of information they already were crunching.
"Before a game," [Carlos] Beltran said, "you come in here [in the clubhouse] and he's at a table with 25 pieces of paper spread out and all kinds of other stuff. He is the most prepared pitcher I've ever been around."
In Houston, Verlander found another tool to improve and modernize his game: a super high-speed camera that shows in clear frame-by-frame detail how a baseball leaves a pitcher's hand on every pitch. The camera showed Verlander the position of his hand on his slider that needed improvement to give it more tilt. Verlander had always thrown his slider in a way that more resembled a cutter. But with the camera's help, he began to carve off nasty sliders that bore to the back foot of lefthanded hitters.
Let's assume all of those pitchers have a story at least moderately similar to Verlander's. Isn't it possible the savvy think tank in Houston is helping players with the ability of Keuchel, Morton, Cole and Verlander maximize their stuff? It's not like these guys don't have any physical ability.
If Bauer is right and the Astros are using foreign substances, I find it hard to believe they are somehow super-substance users while all the rest of the teams have been left behind. It comes across like saying "STEROIDS!" whenever a hitter is having an offensive breakthrough. It's lazy.
Sure, it's entirely possible Bauer is right about the Astros pitching staff, but it can't be such a dramatic difference from every other team that it's their key to success. There's more to it than that, otherwise it would be an MLB-wide conspiracy to help the Astros be awesome. That's a bit far-fetched, no?