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To Spin or Not to Spin: How Do the New Rules on Foreign Substances Affect Yankees’ Pitchers?

To Spin or Not to Spin: How Do the New Rules on Foreign Substances Affect Yankees’ Pitchers?

By Chris O’Connor

April 3, 2021


As Joel Sherman of the New York Post first reported, Major League Baseball is attempting to crack down on pitcher usage of foreign substances as part of their effort to increase the number of balls in play and improve the aesthetics of the game. There will be increased monitoring among compliance officers, spin rate analysis conducted by Major League Baseball, and random inspections of baseball taken out of play.

A pitcher can use a foreign substance to increase the stickiness of the ball to add more spin to their pitches, helping them increase the movement on a fastball and the break on a curveball. It is well known throughout the sport that pitchers have been using foreign substances on baseballs for decades; in February 2020, Trevor Bauer estimated that up to 70% of pitchers did it in some way in an appearance on “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel”. Bauer himself is an interesting case. He famously called out the Astros in 2018 for brazenly having their pitchers use foreign substances, citing evidence of a significant increase in spin rate among their pitchers. He also noted that applying foreign substances to the baseball is the only way to increase one’s spin rate by 200-300 revolutions per minute (RPM). Perhaps feeling left out, Bauer saw his spin rate on fastballs and curveballs increase by over 300 RPM from 2019-2020. Hmm.

A gentleman’s agreement has long been had between Major League managers in not challenging opposing pitchers on foreign substances, mostly because they knew that their own pitchers were using them. Only in the most egregious cases were pitchers called out, like Michael Pineda of the Yankees having pine tar on his neck in an April 2014 game against the Red Sox. While I am unsure of the actual effects of these announcements, I wanted to take a look at whether Yankees pitchers have seen a notable increase in RPM in recent years. Young pitchers do not have much data to go off of, so it makes more sense to focus on the veterans that the team acquired from other teams. Spin rate stats are courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole notably saw a significant increase in his spin rates, particularly his four-seam fastball, during his two year stint with the Astros in 2018 and 2019. His four-seamer went from averaging 2168 RPM from 2015-2017 with the Pirates all the way up to 2379 in 2018 and 2530 in 2019. With the Yankees last year, it was at 2505 RPM. So not really any difference in his time with the Astros.

Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber

Taillon and Kluber’s spin rates have remained consistent throughout their careers. Aside from 18 pitches with the Rangers in 2020, both have spent their whole careers with one team. Thus, any significant increase with the Yankees would seem to be of interest for Major League Baseball to crack down on.

James Paxton

The Yankees had him throw a little less of his four-seam fastball and curveball than he did in his time in Seattle. The spin on his fastball slightly declined while his curveball slightly increased, so nothing notable there. While they had him throw more of his cutter, its spin actually slightly dropped after joining the Yankees.

Sonny Gray

The Yankees had him throw less of his four-seamer and more of a sinker and curveball. His spin rates stayed steady from his time with the A’s to the Yankees, but Gray has actually seen a 100+ RPM increase in almost every pitch he throws since joining the Reds. It is notable that in 2019, the Reds hired Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball to be their Minor League Director of Pitching Initiatives/Pitching Coordinator. Boddy, of course, is famous for founding Driveline Baseball and his work with Trevor Bauer in using advanced technology and analytics to improve pitching performance.

J.A. Happ

Happ did not see any significant difference in his spin rates upon joining the Yankees in 2018. The Yankees had him throw a little less of his four-seamer and more of his slider, but his spin rates with the team stayed very consistent with his career rates. I am interested in seeing if his rates increase with the Twins, but with the apparent crackdown across the sport and Happ approaching the end of his career, that appears unlikely.

Zack Britton

A little after Zack Britton came to the Yankees at the 2018 trade deadline, he remarked on how much more analytical data is available to pitchers in the Yankees organization compared to his previous team, the Orioles. Knowing this, I figured I would see a large increase in his spin rates after he joined the team. This has actually not been the case. Britton throws only two pitches: a sinker and a slider. While the Yankees have had Britton throw a little less of his trademark sinker and more of his slider, he posted higher spin rates on both of those pitches in his last full season with the Orioles in 2017 than he did in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Adam Ottavino

With Ottavino, the Yankees increased the use of his two primary pitches: his slider and sinker. However, while his slider went from 2787 RPM in 2018 with the Rockies to 2876 RPM in 2019 with the Yankees, that was on par with the 2866 RPM he posted in 2017. Similarly, the RPM on his sinker did increase from 2288 RPM in 2018 to 2387 RPM in 2019, but it fell back to 2217 RPM in 2020.

Ultimately, I could not find any significant alterations in the spin rates of pitchers upon joining the Yankees. While Gerrit Cole had a notable uptick when he joined the Astros in 2018, his rates stayed steady after joining the Yankees. He may be grandfathered into this crackdown, as will so many other pitchers. If guys have been using it their whole careers, it stands to reason that they will experience a large uptick in their rates moving forward, thus avoiding suspension from Major League Baseball. As for my ultimate take on the memo, I think this is more of a scare tactic than anything else. Not only has the usage of foreign substances long been something that has been more or less acceptable among major league teams, but this is something that is incredibly difficult to enforce. I do not think this will have any significant impact on the Yankees and their pitchers.


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