10 Degrees: The next baseball revolution is here, and spin is in

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Sometime this summer, Major League Baseball’s website plans on unveiling the treasure trove of information its new Statcast system has collected. For anyone interested in the game, from geeks to casual fans, the data dump represents a watershed moment: Baseball is reigniting the ability to better understand things thought long understood.

Already, thanks to MLB’s At-Bat app and the enterprising Daren Willman of BaseballSavant.com, we’ve seen a smattering of information on the speed of batted balls. The data has been illuminating in a vacuum – the idea that Giancarlo Stanton has hit two balls 120 mph this year and they’ve gone for a single and double is just fun to know – but there’s not enough there to establish patterns and understand what, exactly, we can glean from exit velocity.

Coming in June, MLB Advanced Media hopes, are leaderboards that include batted-ball data as well as numbers that haven’t been leaked for public consumption: the spin rate on pitches. For years, a Danish company called Trackman has used its radar system to measure the angle, velocity, trajectory, location and, yes, spin on balls thrown and batted. MLBAM folded Trackman into Statcast this year, and in addition to the deluge of fielding numbers that the league expects to make public, the pitching data is on its way.

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards throws against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. (AP)
Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Garrett Richards throws against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. (AP)

Teams have been getting all of the Statcast information in giant raw data files, to do with whatever it pleases. And some have glommed onto the spin of pitches – how many revolutions per minute it is turning – as a component worth studying. It’s far too early to tell whether it will prove as valuable a marker as velocity. What’s undeniable is that the spin of a ball has a demonstrable effect of how hitters react to it.

In Japan, researchers have studied baseball spin for years. One study at Waseda University, home of the biggest powerhouse in Japanese collegiate baseball, looked at the difference between an 87-mph fastball with 2,400 revolutions per minute and one with 1,800. The faster-spinning one crosses the plate 70 millimeters higher than the slower one. The diameter of a baseball is 73 to 76 millimeters. Not all 87-mph fastballs are equal, not even close.

One ball length is the difference between a barreled-up ball launched over the fence and another that pops in the catcher’s mitt. Certainly somewhere in baseball there is a pitcher who unintentionally throws one fastball with a high spin rate and another with a low one – an accidental pitching genius. Teams are finding value in that, and the public will get to see it, too. MLBAM offered a sneak preview of the spin-rate information, sending Yahoo Sports the top 10 pitchers by revolutions per minute (rpm), for each of the seven major pitches: two- and four-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup, slider, curveball and split-fingered fastball. And the undisputed king of spin rate in baseball today is ...

1. Garrett Richards, who, not coincidentally, happens to own one of the nastiest pitching arsenals in the game. As Mike Petriello highlighted last week all of Richards’ main pitches dot the top of the leaderboards. His 2,755-rpm slider is second in baseball, and his three fastballs – cutter, two-seamer and four-seamer – all rank in the top 11.

Richards’ four-seamer is particularly interesting. Even though another study in Japan said velocity correlated with spin, none of the other pitchers ahead of Richards in the miles-per-hour leaderboard tops him in rotations per minute. Where baseball analysis could take a leap is through the corresponding statistics.

Richards’ 47 percent groundball rate on four-seam fastballs, for example, is significantly higher than that of the six starters who throw harder than him: Nate Eovaldi, Matt Harvey, Andrew Cashner, Yordano Ventura, Gerrit Cole and Danny Salazar. Even more telling, his 14 percent line-drive rate on four-seamers is half that of everyone but Salazar. Not only does his fastball have giddyup, its spin keeps gravity from tugging it to the ground and initiates poor contact from hitters whose brains have taught them to expect different.

Among starting pitchers who regularly throw four-seam fastballs, Richards’ 82.2-mph average exit velocity is by far the lowest, according to Baseball Savant. Next: Clayton Kershaw at 84.33 mph. Then Shelby Miller at 85.15 mph, Jason Vargas at 85.26 mph and Zack Greinke at 85.42 mph.

When looking for the next Richards …

2. Jesse Hahn is a pitcher worth considering. Like Richards, he is getting his first full turn in the rotation the year he turns 26, and he happens to be the only player in baseball whose slider has more spin than Richards’. Hahn also tops the curveball leaderboard by a tremendous margin: His 3,013-rpm curve is the single spinningest pitch in baseball.

And yet in his start Monday against Detroit, Hahn’s pitch breakdown went like this: 92 fastballs, 15 curveballs, two changeups and one slider. He did throw a four-hit shutout against Detroit, so to question anything would be foolish, but know this: Hahn’s curveball is bound to get better.

Jesse Hahn delivers a pitch for the Oakland A's during a game against the Houston Astros. (AP)
Jesse Hahn delivers a pitch for the Oakland A's during a game against the Houston Astros. (AP)

Curveballs that spin at least 2,600 rpm were swung on and missed 16 percent of the time in MLB from 2010-13, according to Trackman, more than twice as much as curves 2,300 rpm or less. Last season, Hahn generated swings and misses on 19.88 percent of his curves. This year, the numbers are down to 10.74 percent, and even though hitters are swinging at it less than last year (around 52 percent then to 44 percent now), the numbers are bound to even out and give Hahn even greater success.

At least, that’s what we presume. With spin, we don’t necessarily know yet, even though the Houston Astros acquired …

3. Collin McHugh specifically because of the spin on his curveball. While he is not on MLBAM’s current leaderboard, hitters who do swing at McHugh’s curve barely touch it. The exit velocity of 81.16 mph is the lowest among pitchers who have had at least 10 hooks put into play this season, according to Baseball Savant. Miller would rank second with one more curve put into play. Richards is right there at 83 mph.

The Astros’ progressive use of spin rates isn’t a shocker with Mike Fast, the foremost PITCHf/x authority before he decamped to Houston, one of the organization’s leading analysts. Smart teams are trying to crack the spin code – not just how to target it but teach it. Without that knowledge, they’re likelier to target players to whom spin comes naturally, like a left-handed high school senior named Tom Szapucki, who at last year’s Perfect Game National showcase event averaged the highest-spin breaking ball (2,853 rpm) and fastball (2,545 rpm). His heater, in fact, spun more than any starter in the major leagues this season has averaged, even the leaderboard-topping …

4. Max Scherzer at 2,510 rpm. He has been the best pitcher in baseball this season not just on account of his gas but the array of pitches he throws and his ability to command them. Seventy-two strikeouts against just nine walks is a testament to that.

The power of a 2,500-plus-rpm fastball is palpable, according to Trackman’s data. Throw a fastball with that much life, and the average swing-and-miss rate is 13.4 percent, compared to just 5.5 percent on one that spins 2,000 rpm or lower. Scherzer’s whiff rate on fastballs, according to Brooks Baseball: 12.96 percent. Not quite the 27.27 percent of his slider, but he’ll take it. A heavy-spinning fastball plays, something …

5. Rick Porcello can attest to as well as anybody. Porcello’s 2,500-rpm spin rate on his four-seam fastball finds itself in the top 10. Now, because the data wasn’t available on Porcello’s fastball last season, this is simply a guess, but there almost assuredly has been an uptick in spin on it year over year.

Over his career, Porcello has thrown nearly two and a half sinkers for every four-seam fastball. This season, his split is about 50-50, slightly in favor of the four-seamer. The different in swing-and-miss rate is staggering: It’s at 13.56 percent this season – almost exactly where Trackman suggested – after 5.39 percent last year and 6.28 percent over his career coming into this season. However Porcello tapped into the additional spin – he’s also in the top 10 in curveball rpm – he should pass the secret along to his Red Sox teammates. Because he joins ...

6. Jake Arrieta, Richards, Hahn, Scherzer and just four others in the top 10 on multiple leaderboards. Arrieta ranks among the leaders in sinker and changeup spin, two odd categories because those are pitches that often benefit from less spin since they’re meant to dive below the strike zone.

And perhaps that’s the secret to Arrieta’s emergence: Hitters see the pitch, assume it will move to a spot and make weak contact because the spin keeps it higher than anticipated. The result: Arrieta is one of baseball’s best pitchers.

Hyperbole? Hardly. Since May 3, 2014, Arrieta has started 34 games, thrown 214 2/3 innings, struck out 229, walked 55 and allowed just eight home runs. His ERA is 2.64, his fielding independent pitching metric even better at 2.30. Seven pitchers have a better ERA: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke, Dallas Keuchel and Chicago Cubs teammate Jon Lester. None of whom, by the way, are on multiple leaderboards. The others: Tyson Ross, Jason Vargas, Anibal Sanchez and Carson Smith.

Which just shows ultra-elite spin isn’t necessary for excellence. These are the sorts of things the numbers will teach us. It’s difficult, after all, to reconcile ...

Carlos Gonzalez reacts after hitting a three-run home run for the Colorado Rockies. (Getty)
Carlos Gonzalez reacts after hitting a three-run home run for the Colorado Rockies. (Getty)

7. Carlos Gonzalez being the only one hitter who shows up on three exit-velocity leaderboards with the reality of his season: .206/.285/.326. Does that make CarGo patently unlucky? Well, his average on balls in play is .238, so probably. Does that mean he just hits curves (94 mph, the highest in baseball), changeups (93, second) and cutters (92, fifth) particularly well while failing miserably on other pitches? Perhaps.

Top-end exit velocity, like spin, isn’t always a proxy for the best players. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Miguel Cabrera appear on one top 10 list. Pedro Alvarez, Melky Cabrera, Mark Trumbo, Howie Kendrick and Joc Pederson appeal on two apiece. And while none of them is a slouch – particularly Pederson – they’re not among the best players in baseball, either.

Could be that bigger samples help clear the noise and the best players do rise to the top. At very least, we’ll be able to look at players like …

8. Prince Fielder and compare them to past years in which they struggled. It’s the sort of data that might be able to foretell an injury – if a player’s exit velocity drops slowly, perhaps it’s the sign of some impending trouble, just as could be the case with a pitcher’s spin rate.

The Prince of today looks like the Prince of old finally after he missed most of last season with neck surgery. He leads the American League in batting average and has carried the Rangers to a six-game winning streak that brought them to a half-game under .500. While Fielder cracked two leaderboards for exit velocity, those numbers alone don’t tell the full story.

A missing component that gives every batted ball context is launch angle. As Trackman explains on slide 11 of this handy manual, elite launch angle (around 25 to 30 degrees) combined with top velocity (100 mph-plus) is a recipe for home runs. Which, duh.

It’s other intersections of batted-ball speed and angle coming from Trackman’s 4,011-ball-in-play sample that are interesting. For example, batted balls between 75 and 80 mph – weak hits – that were between 10 and 15 degrees averaged a slugging percentage of nearly .600. And ones above 80 mph at that angle were usually above 1.000 SLG. Why? Ten to 15 degrees is line-drive height.

The easy-to-dangerous flyball threshold seems to be 90 mph. On 85-to-90-mph exit velocities, slugging percentages are .279 for 25 to 30 degrees, .241 for 30 to 35 degrees and .213 for 35 to 40 degrees. The corresponding SLG for pitches that leave the bat at 90-95 mph: .789, .538 and .700. While few hitters live above 90 …

9. Giancarlo Stanton lives in triple digits. He is the king of exit velo, averaging a baseball-best 99 mph on sliders and ranking second behind Pederson with 97 mph on four-seam fastballs. While there are kinks in the system – as Jeff Sullivan pointed out, hard-hit groundball velocity can mislead – Stanton threatens to pummel them out with baseball’s equivalent to Thor’s hammer.

Stanton has hit 13 balls in the air at 110 mph or more this season, according to Baseball Savant. CarGo is next with nine. They’ve been on all different pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, changeup, curve, slider), a range of pitching velocities (78.7 mph to 94.9 mph) and with varying results (four home runs among 12 hits and one brave, brave catch by Mets third baseman Eric Campbell on a ball moving 112 mph).

Anticipating what Stanton will deliver next is one of Statcast’s treats. Stanton is to exit velocity what …

10. Garrett Richards is to spin, and that is something special. Like Stanton coming back from his broken jaw at the end of last season, Richards’ return from a gruesome knee injury has been nothing short of phenomenal. He strikes guys out, and even when he doesn’t, he generates a gang of groundballs, perhaps stemming from the weak contact his spin induces.

Certainly the forthcoming studies will try to determine not just the correlation but the potential causality. Spin is in, the sort of tool to be probed and dissected. And maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just another number.

This offseason, though, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who owns a Trackman unit, worked diligently on a two-seam fastball this offseason that takes advantage of spin axis to defy physics. The result was palpable, and it reminded us that for all baseball knows, there’s still so very much to learn. The Statcast data can’t come soon enough.

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