HOUSTON — After the Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers late last August, he enjoyed a sudden renaissance in what had been a decent year by his recent standards, dominating the final month of the season and spurring his new team to its first World Series title.
But Verlander is not the only pitcher to experience a drastic revitalization after arriving in Houston.
Charlie Morton, a journeyman signed as a free agent before last season, has become a force — as the Yankees witnessed in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series and again on Tuesday night, when he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Gerrit Cole, acquired over the winter from the Pittsburgh Pirates, seems to have quickly harnessed the tools that once made him the top overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Those transformations caught the attention on Tuesday of one of baseball’s most unconventional thinkers — Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer.
Bauer fired away on Twitter, suggesting that the Astros — who are among baseball’s most forward thinking franchises — might be doing a little more than just crunching numbers.
It began with Kyle Boddy, who runs Driveline Baseball, a training center in Kent, Wash., that is known for helping pitchers increase velocity. Boddy retweeted a fan’s comment wondering if the Astros were doctoring baseballs since Verlander, Morton and Cole had increased their spin rates since joining the team.
Boddy added: “What a weird coincidence you have discovered” along with a thought emoji.
Bauer, who is an acolyte of Boddy’s, replied with 36 more thought emojis.
Then Bauer chimed in:
More musings about how spin rate might be affected by bubble gum or pine tar followed.
Naturally, this did not go over well with the Astros.
Pitcher Collin McHugh and third baseman Alex Bregman had biting responses:
This is hardly the first time that Bauer has stirred emotions in a clubhouse. A firm believer in training methods that were once far outside convention, like extreme long toss and weighted balls, he has rankled some with his iconoclastic views and has a gift for getting under the skin of even his own teammates on occasion.
Bauer may have softened some of his edges in recent years, but not in this instance.
“I like Trevor,” said Astros reliever Joe Smith, a teammate of Bauer during two stints with Cleveland. “He’s hilarious, he’s a really intelligent guy and he’s very opinionated. This time I think he’s speaking to some things that he’s not even close on.”
The Astros, coincidentally, may be the organization with a worldview closest to Bauer’s; they have continually challenged baseball convention, from being one of the most prominently tanking teams to culling its scouting staff last fall so it could hire more data analysts.
Baseball, of course, is quick to draw suspicion for spikes in performance, whether it is players suspected of taking performance-enhancing drugs or illicitly stealing signs — something the Yankees caught the Red Sox doing last year with the use of an Apple watch.
And the way the Astros’ starters have pitched this season, it is no surprise that some are wondering how they do it. No rotation has been as dominant over the first month as that of the Astros, whose starters carried an earned run average of 2.44 into May, far ahead of the next best in baseball — Boston’s 3.26. They also lead the major leagues in strikeouts, innings pitched and batting average against. Verlander delivered another outstanding outing on Tuesday, striking out 14 and scattering three hits over eight innings, but Ken Giles gave up a three-run homer to Gary Sanchez in the ninth inning of a 4-0 Yankees win.
Using pine tar to get a better grip on a baseball is something of an open secret in baseball, and it’s particularly beneficial in cold weather or with the slick balls that some pitchers, including Verlander, complained had been put in use for the playoffs last year.
But Manager Aaron Boone, whose Yankees had scored one run or fewer in their last six games in Houston entering Tuesday, shrugged off Bauer’s suggestion.
“I don’t read that much into it,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “Guys use stuff to try to help with grip, but I don’t think anything fishy is going on.”
Another member of the Astros rotation, Lance McCullers Jr., who chided Bauer on Twitter, saying “jealously isn’t a good look on you,” did not want to comment on the kerfuffle.
“What I said on my tweet is what I said,” McCullers said.
But McCullers did say that the Astros’ improvement can be explained simply: they have built a pitching staff that is willing to embrace the data that analysts and pitching coach Brent Strom provide.
“People in general search for vindication — we’re selfish beings in general,” McCullers said. “Sometimes people are against analytics because it’s something they don’t want to hear. But I think everyone here is pretty open and the way the front office has approached us, it’s a tool for us to be more successful, not to tear us down. It’s a tool to be used to improve a pitch, improve the way you pitch, the way you attack hitters.”
McCullers said that he had seen Verlander, one of the best pitchers of his generation, pore over data during a bullpen session from a Rapsodo pitch-tracking device, which provides live feedback on spin rates, spin axis and allows him to try different grips and different arm swings and how they play in different quadrants of the strike zone.
“So there’s a lot of effort, a lot of hard work that goes into everything you see here,” McCullers said, something that the Bauer will get a live look at in three weeks, when the Astros travel to Cleveland.