The marquee flashed Yankees vs. Twins, but that served as an undercard to the juicier event, a matchup between the spinmeister and the spin skeptic.
Gerrit Cole on the mound, Josh Donaldson in the batter’s box and a week’s worth of headlines about sticky substances and spin rates filling the 60 feet, 6 inches that separated them.
Would Cole throw at Donaldson? Glare at him? Go full-on WWE by lathering the ball with the filthiest gunk available. Or seek revenge for a public rebuke by simply striking him out with an assortment of nasty pitches?
Donaldson poked the bear and the bear snarled back with a performance that left hitters’ heads spinning. Cole allowed two solo home runs but struck out nine batters with no walks in six innings in the Yankees’ 9-6 win at Target Field.
What did we learn from this brouhaha? That Cole is still masterful with or without extra “help.” And that Twins starter Randy Dobnak isn’t doctoring baseballs based on the meatballs he threw that the Yankees launched into orbit.
Cole struck out Donaldson the first two times he faced him in a showdown that attracted a lot of attention after Donaldson put the Yankees ace front and center in MLB’s latest controversy — pitchers using illegal substances to create more spin on pitches, which makes the ball dance more than normal.
Donaldson addressed the situation again before the game and doubled down on his frustration and desire to see MLB get control of what he considers a serious and widespread problem.
“Nobody is speaking up for the hitters right now,” he said. “I felt like it was almost a responsibility to say something.”
Say this for Donaldson, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it opens himself up to criticism or retaliation. He felt this issue is too important to stay silent.
“To me, it’s gotten out of control,” he said.
Donaldson came armed with data to support his argument that something is fishy with increased spin rates. He didn’t share a dossier that he claims to have on pitchers, but he clearly has spent a lot of time researching analytics.
Donaldson noted that Cole’s spin rates decreased dramatically in his first start after MLB suspended four minor leaguers caught using illegal substances. Donaldson said at least 12 pitchers have posted lower spin rates since then, which he sarcastically described as happening “magically.”
Cole responded to Donaldson’s comments about him as “low-hanging fruit” but didn’t exactly a provide convincing case for his innocence. Asked directly if he has ever used Spider Tack — a super-sticky concoction — Cole stammered like a kid caught eating cookies before dinner.
“I don’t quite know how to answer that, to be honest,” Cole said.
Rather than box himself in with a yes-or-no answer, Cole attempted to offer context by noting that “there are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players.”
Donaldson offered a rebuttal for that, too.
“In 2017, you had four pitchers in the entire game that had a spin rate on their fastballs over 2,400 rpm,” he said. “Now it’s league average. You’re going to tell me for over 100 years guys have been throwing the baseball wrong?”
Baseball’s Steroids Era stripped away our naiveté when it comes to cheating in sports. We just assume that athletes will step over the line to gain an edge, as seems to be the case in this instance. And when cheating comes to light, it is up to leagues to fix it.
MLB needs to dole out punishment that has bite to it. Maybe that will help improve a brand of baseball that has become boring. The league is on pace to post the lowest batting average and highest strikeout total in MLB history.
Donaldson believes higher spin rates caused by doctoring baseballs is at the root of offensive struggles. Hitters deserve some criticism here too. Their love affair with home runs and unwillingness to adjust their approach with two strikes have contributed to a feast-or-famine effect.
Whatever comes of this episode, Cole looked particularly motivated to battle but offered no inflammatory comments afterward. He threw his best and hardest stuff at Donaldson. That wasn’t a coincidence.
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