The Impact of Banned Substances on Pitchers’ Spin Rates
The Impact of Banned Substances on Pitchers’ Spin Rates
by Owen Hetherington December 22, 2020
Banned substances have always been a part of the game of baseball. In regards to pitchers, banned substances could be more beneficial than steroids are to a power-hitter. Whether it be the use of pine tar or another sticky substance, pitchers can gain a competitive advantage by using illegal materials. This can helps their teams win and can earn them tens of millions of dollars in huge contracts based upon their performance.
Looking at spin rate can give an indicator of which pitchers could be using illegal substances on the mound. Spin rate, in simple terms, represents the amount of spin on the baseball after it is released by the pitcher. It is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm). The ball spin determines in large part, the hitter’s ability to make contact with the pitch. Thus, a higher spin rate is preferred among pitchers because batters are more likely to swing and miss balls with a great deal of spin.
For this article, I am going to look at Trevor Bauer’s spin rate by year to determine whether or not Bauer could have been using an illegal substance to increase his spin rate. Trevor Bauer came off an impressive 2020 season and is one of the most sought-after free agents in the starting pitcher market this offseason.
Disclaimer: Trevor Bauer does not represent even a fraction of the pitchers who could be using an illegal substance to increase their spin rate. New York’s own Gerrit Cole and others have seen increases in their spin rate during certain game situations. However, Bauer is a good model to look at because of his increased spin rate on his fastball from 2019 to 2020 and is coming off an impressive 2020 season. This is not to say I believe he used illegal substances. I am just using his success as a case study.
Gerrit Cole’s fingers literally stick to his hat here… Bro… 😂 pic.twitter.com/eYzAkHbtaF — Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) August 8, 2020
In 2019, Trevor Bauer had one of the worst years in his professional career, finishing the year 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 27.8% K-rate. He struggled to keep the ball inside the ballpark, as his HR/9 spiked from .46 in 2018 to 1.44 in 2019 (14th worst among starters). There’s no doubt that his struggles in 2019 contributed toward the Cleveland Indians moving Bauer to the Reds in 2019 in a trade halfway through the season.
Bauer made a more than impressive leap in his 2020 campaign where he took home the Cy Young Award and was the most impressive starter in the National League. He led all of baseball in ERA (1.78), ERA+ (276), WHIP (.80), and hit rate (5.1 per 9 innings). He finished the year going 5-4 with 100 K’s and 17 walks in 73 innings pitched. He was dominant and entertaining to watch on the mound all season long as he made baseball fun again by taunting batters every step of the way.
Trevor Bauer punching dudes out and hitting them with the Conor McGregor strut. pic.twitter.com/PG7TO6G7eO — Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) August 2, 2020
It does pose the question though, what improvements did Bauer make to his game to win himself the Cy Young, and more importantly, make him the top free-agent pitcher on the market this offseason? The answer could be the use of illegal substances to increase his spin rate in 2020.
Before going into more detail on Bauer’s increase in spin rate on his pitches in 2020, let’s rewind a bit to look at Bauer’s comments on how pitchers can increase their spin rate. Before the 2020 season, Bauer wrote an article for the Players’ Tribune to increase awareness on the use of banned substances by pitchers. The article highlights Bauer’s accusations on his former college teammate at UCLA, Gerrit Cole, and how he could have increased his spin rate on his fastball:
“I mean, when I see a guy go from being a good pitcher for one team and spinning the ball at 2,200 rpm, to spinning the ball at 2,600 or 2,700 in Houston, I know exactly what happened… For eight years I’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the spin on my fastball because I’d identified it way back then as such a massive advantage. I knew that if I could learn to increase it through training and technique, it would be huge. But eight years later, I haven’t found any other way except using foreign substances.”
This quote implies two things. First, according to Bauer, Gerrit Cole’s increased spin rate in Houston before joining the Yankees was caused by the use of illegal substances. Secondly, Bauer basically admits that the only way a pitcher can increase their spin rate is through the use of illegal and banned substances. This quote implies that Bauer’s increase in spin rate during the 2020 season could be the result of using banned substances himself.
The graph above represents Bauer’s change in spin rate by season on his fastball. In 2019, Bauer averaged 2,412 RPMs on his fastball, ranking him 16th among starting pitchers with at least 2,000 pitches thrown. In 2020, Bauer’s spin rate increased to 2,776 RPMs on his fastball and ranked first among starters with at least 500 pitches thrown. Based on his own quote from the article he wrote for the Players’ Tribune, a pitcher can only increase their spin rate this much by using illegal substances as he stated “I haven’t found any other way (to increase spin rate) except using foreign substances.”
In an interview Bauer’s did with HBO’s Real Sports, he stated that the use of a sticky substance on the mound “is more of an advantage than steroids were.” In the video, Bauer talks about the impact of illegal substances on the game of baseball and how pitchers can increase their spin rate as a result.
Whether you like Trevor Bauer or not, I think he’s one of the smartest players to ever play the game of baseball, he is definitely one of the smartest players in the game today. His influence and voice in the Astros’ cheating scandal had a significant impact on MLB’s investigation. He is a baseball pioneer and is attempting to clean up MLB’s cheating tactics that often go unnoticed because, according to the interview, he states that “most pitchers in baseball are doing it – 70% to be exact.”
So, is Trevor Bauer cheating with the same method that he is accusing other players of doing? It is possible. Why do I believe this? I think Bauer is trying to prove a point. He wants to show Major League Baseball that there is a problem in baseball with substance abuse by pitchers to increase their spin rate. What better way for Bauer to show this than doing it himself to prove its significance?
Trevor Bauer does not seem to be a player that particularly cares about his image and what people think of him. On top of that, we saw last offseason how much a player can benefit financially from using banned substances with the Gerrit Cole signing. If Bauer is indeed correct about the only way to improve one’s spin rate is to use banned substances, then he will likely find himself in the same position as Cole this offseason, as he waits to sign a contract projected to be at least one hundred million dollars.
Major League Baseball needs to address this issue. The sport either needs to make significant strides to eliminate the use of illegal substances or simply allow it because it seems that many pitchers are using them.
Using a sticky substance for a pitcher to gain an advantage over a hitter in my mind is no different than a hitter taking steroids to gain an advantage over pitchers. Whether it’s using a trash can, buzzers, or live TV monitors to indicate pitch selection, corking a bat to increase exit velocity, or taking steroids, there is plenty of cheating going on in the game of baseball.
In my mind, Trevor Bauer is making significant strides to exposing cheating in baseball since Major League Baseball allows it to continue.