Josh Donaldson has always bet on himself and never backed away from a confrontation, for better and worse. He has sparred with opposing players, opposing coaches, his own manager and even his own general manager.
So, it’s not surprising that when he felt certain major league pitchers were cheating to get batters out, he was happy to take the fight public when his peers were working behind the scenes. When it was suggested recently that stance would make him pitchers’ Public Enemy No. 1, he chuckled.
Donaldson has never been a favorite of opposing pitchers.
“I think a lot of guys have wanted to get me out,” he said, “so it’s really not anything different.”
Besides, Donaldson worked hard to become one of the best hitters in baseball, redesigning his swing and approach after being called up and sent back down a few times by the Oakland Athletics. He didn’t play his first major league season until he was 27, and two years later was the 2015 American League Most Valuable Player in Toronto.
Donaldson wasn’t going to accept being rung up by pitchers he was convinced were cheating. Say what you will about his often confrontational approach to baseball, the man isn’t sitting on his four-year, $92 million contract and content to go out quietly.
“I felt like it had to be somebody established, somebody that had a little something to their name,” he said, “so that people would listen to what he has to say.”
Major League Baseball was concerned as well. Balls in play make for better highlights than walks and strikeouts, and by May 26 was on pace to become baseball’s worst offensive season since 1968 — when the AL (Denny McLain) and NL (Bob Gibson) MVPs were pitchers, and Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 average.
After the Year of the Pitcher, as it’s now known, baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches. No such drastic changes have been required this season; instead, baseball decided to more aggressively police its rules against pitchers using tacky substances to give them a better grip on the ball to create “spin.”
Spin determines how much a pitched ball moves, straight forward (velocity) or up and down (break). Donaldson said he started comparing the spin rates of certain pitchers in late April.
“I knew something was up, but it wasn’t as prevalent throughout the league,” he said. “It was just kinda like, ‘Oh, maybe this guy’s good.’ Then the entire league turned; what used to be elite three or four years ago had become league average. Something’s up.”
A lot of that is because pitching has become more of a science than ever. MLB teams have more tools at their disposal to make pitchers more effective, including cameras that gather data such as spin rate (the Twins installed a system at the Saints’ CHS Field, as well). The fact that many relievers routinely throw fastballs clocked in the mid-90s — the average fastball this all season has been 93.6 mph — isn’t because of sunscreen. Still, the numbers bear out Donaldson, and Major League Baseball.
On May 31, the day before umpires started routinely checking pitchers’ hats, belts and gloves for pine tar, sunscreen and other potentially pitch-altering substances, major league batters were hitting a combined .236, just off the pace of .230 set in 1968. By Aug. 22, it was up to .247.
Also up: On-base percentage (.312 to .321), slugging (.394 to .481), OPS (.707 to .739) and runs (4.36 a game to .460). Down are strikeouts, from 24.2 percent of all at-bats to 22.8, and walks (8.9 to 8.3).
Perhaps the biggest anomaly of the early 2021 season was the preponderance of no-hitters — six through May, and seven if you count Madison Bumgarner’s seven innings of no-hit baseball in a shortened double-header game, regulation yet not recognized by MLB. There have been two since, a collective effort by four Chicago Cubs pitchers on June 24 and by Arizona’s Tyler Gilbert on Aug. 14. That’s a modern-era record, tying the eight no-hitters thrown in 1884 during the so-called “dead ball era.”
Spin rate is enhanced by a better grip, particularly on breaking pitches. On May 31, average spin rate on a major league curveball was 2,552 revolutions per minute; on Aug. 22 it was 2,476. The average slide was 2,462 rpm, and by Aug. 22 it was down to 2,387.
“If you go around and ask MLB executives, scouts, they put so much value on spin, on what I was talking about,” Donaldson said. “There’s a reason for it — because it works.”
In case you’re wondering, the Twins’ numbers are up correspondingly, as well. The team’s batting average on May 31 was .239; on Aug. 28 it was .246.
Donaldson has called only one pitcher out, Lucas Giolito of the Chicago White Sox. After homering off the right-hander on June 29, Donaldson rubbed his hands while he crossed home plate and yelled to his dugout, “No sticky stuff.” After the game, Giolito called Donaldson a “— pest” and Donaldson said the two had a conversation in the parking lot after the game.
But not all pitchers are angry about it. One of Donaldson’s teammates said he was happy to see the enhanced enforcement “because I don’t do it,” and Donaldson said he has heard from other pitchers that are happy the playing field has been leveled.
“I don’t think a lot of people wanted to (cheat), but they probably felt they had to if they wanted to play in the big leagues, because they knew it wasn’t right,” Donaldson said. “I’ve heard from guys that weren’t and they’re like, ‘Hey, thank you.’ Because it’s a competitive advantage over them. But some guys probably in their heart knew it wasn’t right, and they didn’t want to do it.”