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Of Gerrit Cole, Paul Menhart, spin rate and soft contact

Until the analytical revolution, before pseudo intellectuals turned our national pastime into differential equations, baseball succeeded through simpler, more practical concepts.

Example: Among the precepts of effective pitching came the idea of getting the most outs with the fewest pitches. Throw strikes, seek soft contact, eat innings, save the bullpen. God love Catfish Hunter in 1975: 328 innings, 177 strikeouts. (And 23 wins.)

The analytical bent, however, offers a narrower interpretation of good pitching. You must throw 98 and strike everybody out with acceptable levels of spin rate. Throw it as hard as you can and yield to the next guy who throws 98 and strikes everybody out, too.

Except that in recent weeks, baseball initiated a new cause celebre — L'Affaire de Sticky Hands. Seems spin rate levels have plunged in direct correlation to watchdogs monitoring foreign substances on the baseball.

But a funny thing happened Wednesday night on the way to industry hand-wringing. Gerrit Cole, the Yankee pitcher accused of being tricky with the sticky, pitched one of his best games of the season — without really pitching what the analytics folks would consider one of his best games of the season.

Cole, who — gasp — had a season-low four strikeouts, also threw an economical 104 pitches, lasted eight innings, got 12 ground ball outs, pitched to mostly soft contact and allowed Aaron Boone to bypass the rest of the bullpen and go straight to closer Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees won, 3-2. And this just in: Any future Yankee game this season in which Cole goes eight and leads right to Chapman will be a victory nine times out of 10.

And yet I didn't find many — any? — media accounts of Wednesday's game saluting Cole for his economy. Baseball is so awash now in analytics and a curious gotcha mentality tethered to it that many keepers of the gate chose to chronicle Cole's declining spin rate and strikeout count instead of realizing that two runs and 104 pitches in eight innings is far more valuable over the interminability of the regular season.

One New York baseball columnist wrote, "Cole's spin rates were down dramatically on his four-seamer (down 202 revolutions per minute, slider (198) and curve (137)."

Can something be so pathetic that it's amusing? I mean, when I gather for coffee most days with forever Yankee fan Fran DePeter, I can guarantee Fran's not going, "say, Mike. Did you see Cole's spin rates were down 202 revolutions per minute last night?"

Cole's economy hearkened a pitching lesson some high school kids around here learned almost 10 years ago now from Fitch grad Paul Menhart, who was working his way up the chain in the Washington organization at the time.

Menhart, who eventually became the pitching coach the year the Nats won the World Series (2019), stopped by Fitch to offer his wisdom from pitching in the majors. What he said on a summer morning in 2012 is what Cole did Wednesday night. And what all good pitchers used to do before the game was hijacked by math class.

He told the kids to pitch "to the hollow of the knee," which is just below it. Why? Menhart: "Nobody's ever given up a 500-foot ground ball." Then after a primer on the necessity of pitching inside, he told pitchers that throwing 100 miles per hour is nice, but so is pitching to contact.

"As I was about to release the ball," Menhart told them, "my thought was 'hit this!'" Menhart said. "I bet a lot of you guys release the ball and think, '(bleep) you!'"

Fitch won the state championship later that year under coach Marc Peluso. In the wake of the state title win, several Fitch pitchers said they recalled Menhart's words often as the season progressed. Pitching to contact is hardly a mortal sin.

"All the things I've done in my career," Menhart said, "the one thing that always stayed with me was (former Fitch coach) Ed Harvey, who taught me more about baseball than any man ever has. Your high school coach will stay with you forever. It's just that some of you might not realize it until later."

Turns out that you really don't need a degree in Numerical Analysis from Princeton to grasp the concept of good pitching. Menhart told the kids as much. And Gerrit Cole showed everybody Wednesday night the value of "hit this!" even when his spin rates were down 202 revolutions per minute. Oh, the humanity.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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