Spin rate. It’s been one of the big things in the scouting and analytics world that we’ve been able to “figure out” with the advancements in technology. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer has been, at least among Major League players, at the forefront of the more advanced ways of breaking down this kind of stuff to try and develop, improve, innovate, and change how he goes about throwing a baseball. With things like Trackman, Rapsodo, and now Hawk-Eye, tracking pitches has never been easier to follow – and the kind of information that even outsiders can get their hands on is something scouts could only dream about having access to just a decade ago.
Scouts have long said things like “he can really spin the ball”, though that’s more been with breaking balls than fastballs. But things like a “rising fastball” or a ball that “accelerates” as it gets close to the plate – those things, while technically don’t really happen, the illusion that they do is based on how much a fastball spins and how it reacts comparatively to pitches that spin less (less spin on a fastball makes it “sink”, so pitches with more spin “sink” less, giving the illusion that they “rise”).
For Trevor Bauer, spin rate has been a bit controversial. That isn’t because he’s been against it, but that he’s been outspoken about those he believes have been using things to increase their spin rate that are technically against the rules. Things like pine tar, or other tacky substances on the fingers that will lead to a better ability to spin the baseball.
That, of course, isn’t the only way in which a pitcher can increase spin rate. Throwing the ball harder can lead to an increase in spin rate, though the jump isn’t typically a large jump when it comes to an individual pitcher. Spin rate can also be increased by cutting the fastball.
In 2020, and even in late 2019, Trevor Bauer started showing very different spin rates on all of his pitches than he had in the past. Let’s take a look.
|N/A indicates that the pitch was not thrown enough|
Across the board, in 2020, Trevor Bauer’s spin rate on all of his pitches is up. And it’s up significantly. The slider is the pitch that is up the least, and it’s still up 223 RPM compared to last season. Everything else is up at least 273 RPM, with the sinker being up 450 RPM compared to 2019.
Using Baseball Savant’s search tool here’s where Trevor Bauer’s spin rate ranks in Major League Baseball for each of the five pitches he has thrown this season – minimum 15 pitches thrown of that pitch:
- 4-Seam Fastball: 1st
- Sinker: 1st
- Cutter: 1st
- Slider: 4th
- Curveball: 27th
That’s something else, right? Earlier you may have picked up on the part where it was noted that Bauer actually started showing higher spin rates late last season. Ben Clemens wrote about it at Fangraphs in early March, noting that in September everything with regards to spin rate for the right-hander changed and all of a sudden there was significantly more spin on everything he threw. All of that has continued this season through three starts.
That begs the question of where did the extra spin come from? We almost know for certain that back in 2018 there was an inning where Trevor Bauer was using something to increase his spin rate. While he didn’t admit it, everything lines up for it to be true. It’s a rather public secret that pitchers by-and-large are using pine tar or similar things to enhance their grip on the baseballs. Unless it’s incredibly painful and obvious, opposing managers aren’t saying a word about it given that it’s going to, A) keep their guys from being plunked because the baseball is slick, and B) they’ve probably got some guys doing it, too.
There’s the argument that perhaps the Reds have figured out how to “teach” spin rate, but that one falls apart rather quickly. First, there’s not a ton of evidence that spin on a fastball can really be taught to an extent that makes a big jump. Breaking balls are a bit different because of what goes into throwing them. But if the Reds did somehow figure out how to teach a guy to spin a fastball better, that’s not something they’d only show to certain pitchers on their staff.
Sonny Gray hasn’t increased his spin rate since his time before he joined the Reds. Luis Castillo actually has a lower spin rate on his fastball in 2019 and 2020 than he had in 2017 and 2018, though it’s a small decline. Anthony DeSclafani’s spin rate isn’t all that different from the time before and after Derek Johnson arrived in Cincinnati and brought a different and more advanced philosophy to the Reds.
But there is someone else on the roster that has seen their spin rate make a big jump since joining the Cincinnati Reds: Lucas Sims. Here’s how his spin rate compares from his time with Atlanta and his time with the Reds.
He, like Bauer, saw his spin rates jump up across the board and they did so in rather big ways. And Lucas Sims was already a guy who had a high spin rate – particularly when it comes to his breaking stuff, though the fastball was above-average in spin rate, too.
Did these two guys figure something out and not tell anyone on the team? Are they doing what most of the rest of the league is doing now and weren’t before? Regardless of where it came from, or how it’s getting there – the fact is that it is indeed happening.
For Trevor Bauer, he’s had stretches like the one he’s on to start the 2020 season in the past. He’s been downright dominant at times in his career, and he’s doing it again this season. But his stuff is a little bit different than it has been in the past. Whatever it is causing it, it’s working and it’s working quite well. The Reds right-handed starter has a 0.93 ERA in 19.1 innings, has allowed just seven hits, walked just four batters, and he’s struck out 32 of the 69 batters that he’s faced this season through the first three starts.