Gerrit Cole has a record salary, is one of eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee and is the ace of the sport’s most visible team. Add it up and he just might be the most powerful player in the game.
One other item: I would put Cole with David Cone and Pedro Martinez as the most passionate, insightful, articulate players with whom I have ever discussed the art of pitching.
I bring this up because on Tuesday — after pitching the top of the first against the Royals — Cole is likely to be frisked with or without probable cause by a major league umpire who may or may not know exactly what he is looking for and then will serve as judge and jury to decide whether Cole has an illegal sticky substance on his person and needs to be ejected.
That we have reached this moment speaks to many items, including that competitive people will seek to find advantages — legal and illegal. But the absurd stop-and-frisk on a baseball field that officially began Monday also illustrates anew how poorly MLB and the players association have worked together.
Part of the problem is both sides read that sentence and immediately began blaming the other for the poisoned working relationship.
On this matter, MLB believes it provided ample warning beginning with strongly worded memos from spring 2020 that enforcement on pitchers applying illegal sticky substances to the ball was coming and that it wanted union/player input. The players association feels MLB only offered input on the periphery and not on the substantive part of new guidance on handling sticking stuff.
Even if the union’s perception is accurate, it still had to a) see that momentum was building in the Commissioner’s Office to address this strongly and b) that it had to be proactive, where it could, to influence legislation that would impact the most important item on the field (the ball), the most relevant relationship (pitcher/hitter) and put half its constituency (pitchers) in line to be humiliated and punished.
This brings us to Cole and trying to move forward productively amid a relationship often mired in past recriminations. Following his last start against the Blue Jays, Cole said of the sticky situation, “I don’t have a solution. We are aligned in a lot of areas with the Commissioner’s Office on this. Just talk with us and work with us.”
Cole should force that issue by using his station as perhaps the most powerful player in the game. Cole cares a great deal about baseball and pitching. That positions him to be an agent of change for what pitchers need while keeping in mind that the rise of pitching dominance with sticky substances was not good for the game.
In many ways that last start, which Cole left frustrated about his lack of grip on the ball in this less-gooey world, actually emphasized what is possible. Cole is so special as a pitcher he could remake himself — more working down in the zone, more changeups, a quicker pace — and still hold a strong Blue Jay offense to two runs in eight innings; albeit with just four strikeouts. There is no place in a baseball bible that pitchers have to strike out double-digits to excel. In a fair environment, the best pitchers, like Cole, will still rise. We just have to get to that fair environment.
And just the threat of action on sticky stuff has led to spin-to-velocity ratios dropping and offensive output increasing the last three weeks. Hit by pitches have stayed neutral despite pitchers voicing that no sticky stuff will lead to more hit by pitches. But if Cole thinks it will lead to more plus a greater number of injuries (though, again, there have been plenty of pitching injuries through the Sticky Era), then his voice should be heard. It needs to be heard. He is a passionate expert with a large platform. If the commissioner will not directly listen, Cole has plenty of forums to speak out on what he perceives is best for the sport.
Maybe I am naive, but I think MLB should and would listen to him. I am more naive to think if the sides work together in an area in which they are “aligned,” what else would be possible to work on together.
In the present, though, action is needed on pitcher stop-and-frisk and umpires being given outsized power. The only way to do that is for the sides to brainstorm to find an acceptable level of tack for pitchers that is not weaponized to heighten spin and warp the hitter-pitcher dynamic. That is tougher than it sounds. But I can’t think of anybody who would have more passion or insight into how that can be done than the Yankee starter who is going to be inspected by an umpire before fans and a TV audience not long after 7 p.m. Tuesday.