BRADENTON, Fla. — The Yankees’ $324 million investment in Gerrit Cole sounds as if it just got more valuable, thanks to changes in a baseball that costs about six bucks.
We already knew MLB altered the manufacturing process for the 2021 batch in an effort to deaden the ball — or make it more fair, to use the preferred terminology. But after Cole pitched a simulated game through the raindrops on Saturday, the Yankees’ ace admitted to noticing differences in the feel of the ball, ones that he found favorable compared to the irregularities of past years.
And if Cole, a master at his craft, likes the baseball better, shouldn’t that at least raise the possibility that some of his pitches will be improved?
We’re not suggesting that he needs the help. Cole had a 2.84 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP in 12 starts in his debut season for the Yankees, which was disrupted in a vast assortment of ways by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Cole did have a little trouble with the long ball — his 1.7 HR/9 was the highest of his career, a big jump from 1.2 the previous year — so there's room to tighten up his already tiny margins. If the baseball indeed travels one to two fewer feet when hit more than 375 feet because of the slightly altered specs for reduced bounciness, and if the superior grip allows for sharper movement/location, those are clear advantages for Cole.
"I haven't thrown in a game where I'm really going through like four or five boxes of balls," said Cole, who has one Grapefruit League start and one simulated game under his belt. "But I would say I've just noticed that they're consistent. I'm not seeing as much inconsistency in the seams pretty much."
The seams — the red stitching that holds the two pieces of cowhide cover together — often come up in conversation. When they’re lower and pulled tighter, the ball not only is harder to grip but plays off the bat like a Titleist Pro V1. Higher seams tend to facilitate increased pitch movement and cause more drag in the ball’s flight, i.e. less distance.
MLB didn’t specifically mention seam construction in its memo to teams last month about the changes to the baseball. It said only that the coefficient of restitution (COR) — or the bounciness of the ball — was being reduced after drifting upwards recently, which had caused a massive spike in home runs.
In order to do that, the interior tension of the baseball, mostly layers of yarn, was loosened somewhat, but still in accordance with Rawlings’ manufacturing specs. If the ball is not wound as tightly, that would help explain Cole’s description of the seams, which now aren’t being stretched to the max the way they had been in previous seasons.
"We were seeing seams that were like pulled apart by the leather," Cole said. "Or you know, a large seam or maybe even like a deviation in the horseshoe, like a wiggle. And I just haven’t [seen that]. I don't know how many I'd have to go through to find something like that before. But I haven't come across anything like strikingly weird, which is new."
"Strikingly weird" is not what anyone wants in a baseball. A pitcher strives to do everything the exact same way — repeat the same delivery, same arm slot, same release, over and over again. Cole’s large appetite for analytics probably makes that even more the case for him, as all of that data can allow for imperfections to be viewed on a nearly molecular level.
Seems like fortuitous timing. Cole was looking to reduce his home run totals just as MLB was aiming to do the same for the sport.
The breaking point came in 2019, when MLB averaged 1.39 homers per team per game and 6,776 overall — both records. Those numbers had been trending upward for years, but it reflected a huge jump since 2014, when the averages were 0.86 home runs and 4,186 total.
When MLB commissioned a study to uncover the reason for the 2019 jump, the panel of scientists determined a near-microscopic drop in seam height had created less drag, hence the longer flight.
"The landscape’s never been unfair," Cole said. "I mean, we’re all playing with the same thing. But I'm certainly not the only guy that had noticed stuff in the last few years."
For what it’s worth, given the small sample size, the MLB average dipped to 1.28 homers during last season’s 60-game schedule. Oddly enough, that coincided with Cole’s personal spike, but the 2021 balls are designed to reverse what had been an overall climb.
Does that mean they will? No one knows for sure yet. And what if MLB’s plan for a slight correction turns out to be a dramatic reduction instead?
Cole wouldn’t be complaining. There hasn’t been any pushback yet from the other side, either, and Pete Alonso shrugged off a question about the deadened baseballs by saying, "If I hit it on the sweet spot, it’s gonna go a long way." But if Cole’s initial impressions turn out to be the norm with these 2021 baseballs, squaring up these pitches might get more difficult in the season ahead.
The slightest advantage for an elite pitcher such as Cole can make for an overwhelming mismatch. And right now, he’s just getting in shape. We won’t know the true significance of these changes until the games count. But it stands to reason that the more Cole likes the baseball in his hand, the worse things are going to get for the opposition.