One of the big things that happened for the Cincinnati Reds in 2020 was the emergence of Tejay Antone at the big league level. Entering spring training he was a solid prospect with a good breaking ball who was a bit older than your typical prospect. But when he came out throwing in the upper 90’s he went from a guy who looked like some pitching depth to a guy who could be a difference maker in some role. And eventually that’s what happened as Antone joined the team on the second day of the regular season, and barely looked back as he posted a 2.80 ERA in 35.1 innings from four starts and nine relief appearances that saw him strike out 45 batters and put up a 1.02 WHIP.
With the loss of Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani to free agency, the Cincinnati Reds seem to have two spots open for the taking in the rotation. Tejay Antone is battling for one of those spots along with Michael Lorenzen, Wade Miley, José De León, and Jeff Hoffman.
“I prepared as a starter,” said Antone. “There’s an opportunity to have that job and I’m going to do my best to take it. But I do also understand that if I don’t get that role that I will probably be a reliever. And I will probably throughout the season be in that hybrid role again, and I’m totally fine with that. I prepared this offseason as a starter and I’ll definitely be starting in spring training and kind of going after that role.”
While Tejay Antone has only started four games in the big leagues, he made 109 starts in the minor leagues with just two relief appearances. One of those came following a rehabbing pitcher when he was in rookie ball, and the other was in 2019 right before the All-Star break. He’s always been a starter and he’s handled a workload over a full season three different times since he was drafted. He missed all of 2017 after having Tommy John surgery, and missed part of the first half of 2018 as he recovered – but made 26 starts for Louisville and Chattanooga in 2019 and threw 146.1 innings on the year.
With a strong rookie debut out of the way, the right-handed pitcher didn’t take things for granted that he could just go out and do it again. He spent the offseason working on improving what he felt was something that didn’t work so well during the 2020 season.
“My fastball last season wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be in terms of just the way it was spinning,” said Antone. “I had pretty poor spin efficiency last year. I was getting away with it because I was throwing a little harder, but I was getting hit pretty good in the zone and I wanted to improve, just kind of the spin metrics in terms of spin efficiency, not really increasing spin or anything but just spinning it more true. I was just like cutting it off, just getting around the fastball a lot last year. So this year, that was my whole focus this offseason, staying through the ball and allowing the spin to work for me and kind of ride through the zone a little better.”
It’s interesting to hear that Antone was working on his spin in the offseason. Well, sort of. He notes that he wasn’t spin efficient rather than he was working on adding more spin. When it comes to the spin itself – the revolutions per minute – Antone is among the best in the game. His 2625 RPM spin rate on the fastball was better than 98% of pitchers in baseball last year. His curveball averaged nearly 3000 RPM and was higher than 95% of other pitchers curveballs in the game last season. He can spin the ball with the best of them. But spin alone doesn’t tell the whole story. As Antone notes, you need to spin it efficiently to get the best results. His belief (and the data tends to back it up) is that he can get better results by changing the direction the ball spins a little bit.
It’s not just the fastball, though, that Tejay Antone liked what he saw this offseason. His slider, which was already one of the better better sliders in baseball – it ranked 25th best among 158 pitches who threw at least 30.0 innings last year according to Fangraphs – is one he believes is going to be even better this year.
“Based off of what I’ve seen this offseason with my slider, I think my slider’s going to be different this year to say the least,” said Antone. “I think it’s going to be game changing.”
For as good as the slider was last season, on a per-pitch basis, it was only his second best offering last season. His curveball was more valuable and was the 3rd best curveball in the game according to Fangraphs among pitchers who threw a curveball at least 3% of the time during the season and threw at least 30.0 innings.
The fastball was the focus of the offseason, though, mostly. And from a metrics standpoint, it was league average according to Fangraphs pitch values – a perfect zero. It wasn’t above-average or below-average in even the tiniest way. If the pitch shows some improvements at all, and the two breaking balls continue as they were last year, Tejay Antone could be throwing three different above-average pitches to hitters in the upcoming season. He was already outstanding – if he’s going to step forward from that, look out, regardless of the role that he ultimately winds up in.