The World Series opens tonight with the Washington Nationals at the Houston Astros. In an era that uses more relief pitchers than ever, both teams feature three ace starting pitchers, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke for the Astros, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin for the Nationals.
The Astros, who beat the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, are the most prestigious front office operation at present as they seem to have best implemented much of the new thinking in baseball analytics.
Old time sabermetricians like Bill James tended to take a Nature over Nurture approach, focusing on how to look at minor league statistics to find overlooked guys with the specific skills that would mean they could contribute in the majors.
But after awhile, everybody was doing that, so there weren’t many overlooked natural talents left. So in recent years, the Astros have taken the lead at developing better Nurture, such as teaching their hitters how to maximize their chances of hitting home runs rather than mere hard line drives.
With pitchers, they’ve followed the strategy of trading for star talent that wasn’t being exploited fully on other teams.
When they acquired Verlander from the Detroit Tigers, he was a 34 year old near-Hall of Famer who appeared to be in the natural decline phase of his fine career. But the Astros had a complex plan for how to optimize his pitch selection. Since arriving in Houston he has returned to his age 28-level of dominance and now appears a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Greinke has stayed the same since arriving in Houston this season, although leaving the National League meant he can’t use his bat in the American League, with its Designated Hitter rule. This season in Arizona, Greinke hit .271 with a .583 slugging average, making him one of the more dangerous batters in the National League. (Greinke is also great at fielding bunts. He suffered mental health problems early in his career after going 5-17 at age 21, but his team, then the Kansas City Royals, were impressively understanding.)
The biggest improvement was in Cole. Last season, the Astros got him back to his previous peak, and this year he turned unhittable. He’s 18-0 in decisions since late May.
Cole’s old UCLA teammate and enemy, pitcher Trevor Bauer has pointed out that Cole’s new success is due to a sizable increase in the amount of spin he puts on balls. It was always understood that legendary power pitchers like Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan put huge amounts of backspin on their fastballs to get them to sail and stay up while also putting huge amounts of topspin on their curveballs to get them to dive down. But the technology for quantifying spin on each pitch wasn’t deployed to ballparks until the last few years.
This led to searches for overlooked natural wonders like Rich Hill, an aged curveballer who put huge amounts of topspin on the ball.
But once the baseball world knows how to exploit Nature, thinking naturally turns toward improving Nurture, with Gerrit Cole seemingly as a prime example. As I wrote in my Taki’s Magazine review of The MVP Machine:
And baseball doesn’t have much room for guys who would drive their teammates crazy, like, say, [pitcher Trevor] Bauer.
With his Asperger-y personality, Bauer makes for an interesting if insufferable hero for The MVP Machine, as if Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory had honed himself into a pitcher who can throw 95 miles per hour through sheer know-it-allness.
The MVP Machine points out that the new ability to measure spin on pitches may be encouraging a novel form of cheating by pitchers to increase their spin rate. Some pitchers long applied spit, Vaseline, or other slippery substances to one side of the ball to make it dip unpredictably. But if you use something sticky on your fingers, such as pine tar, you can put more spin on the ball. While umpires try to police spitballs, they don’t care about sticky substances, agreeing with the pitchers that pine tar, while technically illegal, makes hurlers less likely to lose control of a pitch and hit a batter in the face.
Last season Bauer of the Cleveland Indians more or less implied on Twitter that his old teammate from UCLA, Gerrit Cole of the Houston Astros, must have been putting stickum on the ball to boost his spin rate. Bauer and Cole had hated each other while on the Bruins, carrying out a classic nerd vs. jock feud.
This year Cole is leading all of baseball in strikeouts with 292, while the bumptious Bauer, even though he’s tied for third in the big leagues with 245, got traded from contending Cleveland to lowly Cincinnati. Some things in baseball never change, such as that nobody likes a nerd.
Here’s another pine tar incident involving the Astros back in 2015: Mike Fiers threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers while appearing to have sticky stuff on his glove. But the Dodgers’ then manager, old school Donnie Baseball Mattingly, refused to make a stink about it. (Probably some Dodgers were doing the same?)
Maybe what’s going on is that baseball has an unwritten rule that pitchers can apply a reasonable amount of pine tar to their fingers so they don’t let a pitch slip and kill a batter. But perhaps the super smart Astros have undertaken to scientifically exploit this loophole to increase spin rates?