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The fourth-worst team by record in Major League Baseball during the shortened 2020 season, the Boston Red Sox also had the third-worst staff ERA at 5.58 and ranked dead last in opponent batting average at .281.
But to start off the 2021 season, the Red Sox got off to a 17-10 start in large thanks to their pitching, which produced a staff ERA of 3.59 in April and held opponents to a .230 average on the month. Though not quite as effective in May, the Sox pitchers held opponents to a .269 average and had a collective ERA of 4.46 as the club went 15-11 to enter the month of June 11 games over .500 at 32-21.
Could the change be explained by the return of injured aces Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodríguez to the rotation? Nope. Sale is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and though Rodríguez is back after missing all of 2020 due to COVID-19, he is pitching very poorly this season, with a bloated 6.03 ERA on the year. Did the Red Sox bring in a bunch of free agent arms? Not really. With the exception of the addition of journeyman Garrett Richards and the return of Rodríguez, Boston’s rotation is the same in 2021 as it was at the end of 2020.
So how exactly did a pitching staff that was basically the worst in the league in 2020 suddenly morph into a respectable bunch just months later? Probably two things: Alex Cora and Spider Tack.
One of the ringleaders of the sign-stealing scandal that helped the Astros win the World Series in 2017, Cora managed the Red Sox in 2018 and ’19 before being suspended in 2020 for his role in Houston’s scheme. Re-hired to manage Boston following his suspension, Cora is back in the dugout for the 2021 season, and it appears he’s still pushing the envelope and residing just at the edge of the rules of fair play.
Which brings us to the second possible explanation for the mound turnaround in Boston (though the situation is not unique to the Red Sox).
One of many foreign substances that major league pitchers have been using to help them get a better grip on the baseball is a paste called Spider Tack that’s normally used by strongman competitors to heave 300-pound stones. Spider Tack makes the ball cling to a pitcher’s fingers longer, thus increasing its spin rate and making pitches very difficult to hit. (Red Sox pitchers have the third-highest increase in spin rate in 2021 compared to last season, per The Boston Globe.)
The use of Spider Tack was illuminated by Sports Illustrated in a piece that was published on June 4th, and MLB announced around the same time that a practical strategy for eliminating the use of the substance and handing out discipline for violators was coming very soon. (It may already be here …)
On the day the SI piece came out, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi pitched at Yankee Stadium and allowed one earned run over six innings while striking out seven batters in a 5-2 victory. Though Eovaldi threw the ball well and got the win, the spin rate on the majority of his pitches was down substantially, with his cutter down 26 revolutions per minute compared to his yearly average, his slider down 30 RPM, his fastball down 51 RPM and his splitter down 166 RPM, according to The Boston Herald. In the 10 days after Eovaldi pitched, three other Red Sox starters (Rodriguez, Nick Pivetta and Martin Perez) also saw the spin rates on their off-speed pitches drop.
In the nine games since that win, the Red Sox have given up at least three runs in every game and allowed five or more in six straight games (as of Monday afternoon), including 18 to the Blue Jays in a Sunday slugfest that saw Toronto hit eight home runs and chase Perez after he recorded just four outs. That game was the third in a row against the Jays, a stretch that was preceded by three against the Astros. In those six games, the Red Sox surrendered 53 runs, which equates to 8.83 per game. Over the course of seven May games against the Jays and Astros, two of the best offensive teams in baseball, Boston pitchers gave up 37 runs, an average of just 5.28 per game.
Entering play on Monday, Red Sox starters had an 8.20 ERA and allowed 40 earned runs on 66 hits over 39 innings in the nine games since Eovaldi pitched in the Bronx. That evidence strongly suggests that the team put the kibosh on whatever its pitchers were doing on the mound in order to avoid attracting the raised attention of MLB and risking another suspension — or worse — for Cora.
And it isn’t just the Red Sox that have had pitching problems since the SI piece ran and word leaked that the league is telling umpires to issue discipline to players and teams that introduce foreign substances to the ball. In the month of May, the average ERA per team was 4.19 in the American League and 3.93 in the National League. Thus far in June, league-wide ERA has risen by nearly half a run to 4.68 in the AL and by about one-third of a run in the NL to 4.22. In May, the collective batting average in the AL was .242 and .237 in the NL. It has risen to .256 in the AL and .238 in the NL in June.
With an official MLB menu outlining punishments for doctoring the ball expected to come as soon as this week following by strict enforcement of the “new” standards, expect ERA and batting average to continue to rise across the league and mediocre pitching staffs to be exposed for what they truly are. Even the best aces in the majors — Cy Young winners Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer have been directly called out by some players for messing with the baseball — figure to be less effective moving forward than they were to start the season; The Score reports that 67.2% of MLB pitchers had a reduction in spin rate since June 3, with 36% of them experiencing a significant reduction.
“Everyone will be looking at the scoreboard and who’s pitching and if you give it up, then you were using something your last start. Before that, a lot of pitchers were giving it up,” Cora told The Herald. “I know the league is doing a good job with the stuff and they’re going to come down with a memo, but I don’t think struggling has to do with stuff. Those guys [the hitters] are really good, too.”
They’re also (probably) no longer going to be at a disadvantage at the plate now that MLB is taking the necessary steps to break up the web that Spider Tack has spun. As a result, the Red Sox — and plenty of other MLB teams — may regress to the rather mediocre baseline that plagued them last season.
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