Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tejay Antone’s performance in San Francisco on Monday jump started a conversation online, even more than it already had. The 27-year-old dazzled against the Giants for 3.2 innings and it left fans asking why he’s not in the rotation. During spring training, he was definitely in contention, but the Reds went with Jeff Hoffman and José De León instead.
This decision couldn’t have been based on what he did in his rookie season of 2020 nor what he did in spring training this year. Last season, Antone pitched in 13 games, starting four of them. He had 45 strikeouts and walked 16 in 35.1 innings. Both his FIP and his xFIP were under 4.00 and his WHIP was a sparkling 1.02. During spring training, he allowed only one earned run in 7.2 innings while walking three and striking out 13.
Despite not making the rotation, Antone has carried over his 2020 performance into 2021, and although it’s a small sample size, he looks even better now. He’s only pitched 6.2 innings, but has nine strikeouts and has yet to give up a run while walking two.
Antone never had a standout minor league season. As a fifth-round draft pick in 2014, it’s safe to say that Antone would have been considered a fringe minor league pitcher as he was making his way through the ranks. And aside from 2015 where he recorded a 2.91 ERA in 158.1 innings at Single-A Dayton, he really did pitch like a player who may or not make the big leagues. In 2019 at Double-A and Triple-A, his ERA was well over 4.00 and his FIP and xFIP were also roughly the same: over 4.00. Enter Derek Johnson, Kyle Boddy, and the Reds’ new pitching philosophy. The coaching staff must have seen something in him because he went to work trying to improve his pitches, notably his breaking stuff.
Antone has three pitches in his arsenal, but can also throw a change up. He rarely uses his change up, however, and threw it just 17 times in 2020, all to left-handed batters. He has yet to throw the change up in 2021. So, Antone sticks to three pitches: a sinker, a slider, and a curve ball. In 2020, he threw his fastball 40.6% of the time, his slider 39.8%, and his curve ball 16.8%. This season, he’s still throwing his sinker and slider at about the same rate, but his curve ball is up to a 30.2% usage rate, and all mostly to left-handed hitters. Antone will throw his slider mostly to right-handers and his curve mostly to left-handers.
Pitch Location and Pitch Spinning
Like so many other pitchers in this organization, he’s a high spin rate guy. He worked on his spin metrics in the off season, especially with the slider and the curve. In 2020, his fastball averaged 95.6 mph with a spin rate of 2625 rpm and an active spin of 85%. Already in 2021, he’s averaging 97.0 mph on his fastball with a spin rate of 2658 rpm. He’s spinning it only a little more, but throwing it harder. Antone’s velocity has increased, but his fastball isn’t his best pitch.
He admitted in an MLB.com article written by Mark Sheldon at the start of spring training in February that his slider wasn’t the best last season, but he’s been working on it and thinks it’s the best it’s ever been at this point. His spin rate on his slider in 2020 was 2674 rpm. This year, even though it’s a small sample size, the spin rate for his slider is 2863 rpm. It’s a big reason for why his whiff% and K% are so high right now. Both last year and so far this season, he’s had a 40% whiff percentage on his slider. It’s currently at 46.2 percent.
Why is Antone having so much success striking out batters? Not only has Antone increased his spin rate, but he also paints the edge of the strike zone very well. It was impressive to watch him find the edges of the zone on Monday night. His highest whiff percentages come on the outside or inside of the zone, depending on the batter. According to Statcast and Baseball Savant, that’s where most of his strikeouts come from too. He has been excellent at locating his pitches.
Rotation or Bullpen?
If there’s anything the last two series has shown the fans, it’s that the bullpen might end up being this team’s biggest weakness. Sonny Gray is returning to the rotation Saturday. That leaves one spot open. As of right now, the Reds are sticking with Jeff Hoffman until they find out more about Michael Lorenzen, who was placed on the 60-day injured list yesterday. With only one spot in the rotation open and the bullpen being how it is right now, it appears the coaching staff might find Antone more useful in the later innings rather than the first.
I do think Antone will get a chance to start at some point this season. Unfortunately, injuries happen, which is why depth is key. He’s already pitched four innings, and if he continues to pitch that long during a game, it will be easy for him to move into a starting role. It should be an easy transition for him, if he would ever be asked to do that.
Whichever direction the Reds go, we know they are going to be able to count on him. He can and will help the team win, whether that’s in the bullpen or in the rotation. 2020 was a weird year–and maybe we are still dealing with small sample sizes here (42 innings in his major league career), but with his mid-90s velocity and his nasty breaking pitches, I think he’s here to stay. It really doesn’t matter where he pitches. What matters to David Bell and the rest of the coaching staff is winning, and they will do everything they can to make sure the Reds win.