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Let’s assume Jacob deGrom is innocent. That he has not doctored baseballs en route to one of the best pitching runs in MLB history. That he has reached ace-of-the-sport status, and comparisons to 1968 Bob Gibson, the old-fashioned way — with talent fueled by athleticism, adaptability, attitude and aptitude.
This just adds to the sins (and sadness) of a widespread cheating scandal. It makes us unable to differentiate the clean from the dirty. It soils greatness as we wonder how that greatness was achieved. DeGrom very possibly has done nothing other than be brilliant. A detailed statistical breakdown of his pitches reveals no overt signs of guilt. Yet in this environment …
DeGrom was ensnared in the scandal du jour when video surfaced of him reaching inside his belt area then directly rubbing near the webbing of his glove, creating a very modern social media frenzy. Was he — like so many pitchers — applying a sticky substance to improve the spin and effectiveness of his pitches, when that action is drawing larger scrutiny than ever?
Many teammates took to their devices to offer testimonials defending their No. 1 starter. Tomas Nido tweeted: “I promise you he doesn’t use anything. If he did they would be lucky to even foul tip the ball.”
It is great that deGrom’s comrades had his back. But if we have learned anything through the years it is that the guilty do not admit guilt readily. Pete Rose only came clean about his gambling on baseball in a book for which he was paid.
Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger at Congress during steroid hearings in which no player admitted wrongdoing. I had players such as Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez lie to my face repeatedly about usage — reporters only have questions, not subpoena power to gain blood, urine and the truth.
The Astros did not admit their sign-stealing malfeasance until the evidence was incontrovertible. And, in spring training 2020, Gerrit Cole one-on-one insisted that he did not use sticky substances to forge the large improvement to his spin rate. He provided long, detailed responses in how he had educated and applied himself to the craft to make the gains.
It was starkly different from the hesitance-filled tap dancing he did Tuesday when he never did directly answer whether he uses illegal sticky substances — the lack of clarity in the non-answer providing quite a clear answer. He said his delivery was off in explaining a dramatic loss of spin in his last start. How ironic that the spin-rate data that brought definition to how much cheating would help is now so publicly available. It provides potential DNA-like evidence of malfeasance if the rates mysteriously plummet when talk of enforcement grows.
DeGrom’s rates, by the way, did not fall in his last start. His success has seemed more tied to annually rising velocity on his fastball and slider. No documentation has been shown that sticky stuff increases velocity. In fact, his spin rates are good, but hardly elite. For example, of the pitchers Statcast has with more than 100 thrown four-seam fastballs in 2021, deGrom’s average spin rate of 2,425 revolutions per minute is 77th most. Trevor Bauer, whose spin rates dropped precipitously in his last start and is one of the pitchers at the center of this story, is first at 2,822.
And while deGrom’s nine-start stats this year are brilliant, there are previous cases of similar genius. He has a 0.62 ERA, .128 batting average against and .396 OPS, not far removed from, say, the final nine starts in Jake Arrieta’s 2015 NL Cy Young season: 0.27 ERA, .132 batting average and .315 OPS.
But that we simply are raising questions now and wondering what it would mean if he held these results all year emphasizes detraction from the accomplishment, which is horrid for the sport. MLB should have been on this issue earlier. Like steroids and illegal sign stealing, there was larger than a whisper circulating on this issue too before MLB increased its diligence. MLB must learn — as uncomfortable as it might be — to take these potential illegalities with greater investigative fervor to avoid the distortion of achievement on the front end and embarrassment that comes on the back end. They are the adults in this room.
The players, though, must stop being the children. DeGrom and his teammates should be fighting for their union to not stand in the way of significant penalties to cheaters. The hope is that, say, unpaid suspensions would serve as an even stronger deterrent and — as important — better support the non-cheaters whose achievements become less distinguishable in lawless times.
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