Strikeouts are at an all-time high in Major League Baseball and the rate continues to grow year after year. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tejay Antone is doing his best to make sure that rate keeps rising. Since making his debut in 2020 he has struck out 34% of the hitters that he’s faced. This season he’s pushing 39% through his 13.2 innings. And that’s by design.
“Oh, for sure,” Antone told Fangraphs David Laurila when asked if he wanted the swing-and-miss. “I mean, that’s what runs the game. In spring training, Nick Castellanos asked me, ‘Do you try to strike out every single person you face?’ I said ‘Absolutely.’ There’s no other choice. I’m trying to strike out every single person, in every situation. He asked me, ‘What about being efficient?’ I mean, you can go down a rabbit hole and talk about individual situations all day, but I’m trying to strike out every single person, no matter what.”
The strikeout is the best solution to an at-bat for a pitcher. When contact happens, you just don’t know what will happen. Even if you get the desired result – say a ground ball to an infielder – every so often that play doesn’t go as planned as a throw gets away, or the ball goes under a glove, or it hits the lip of the grass and takes a bad hop. The strikeout goes down as an out 99.9% of the time.
Pitching coach Derek Johnson spoke about the strikeout being the plan for the pitching staff all spring training. He’s spoken about it in the past, too. Obviously you can’t get a strikeout as often as a player makes contact, but the hope is to rack up as many swings-and-misses as possible because it’s just going to limit the damage.
For Tejay Antone, he entered the year with one of the best sliders and best curveballs in all of Major League Baseball. But last season he didn’t throw his curveball often – when he did it was highly successful, but he leaned heavy on the fastball and slider combination. This year things have been different, at least early on. In 2021 he’s throwing the curveball more than any other pitch he’s throwing. His fastball, slider, and curveball are getting a rather even split – all are thrown between 31 and 36 percent of the time so far. In 2020 the curveball was only thrown 16.7 percent of the time, with the fastball and slider sitting at 40 and 41 percent of the time.
We are dealing with a small sample size of just 13.2 innings this season so far, but the whiff rate on all three of Tejay Antone’s pitches stick out. Here’s how things look for both 2020 and 2021.
There’s a small decline with the slider, but with the sample size we’re dealing with it’s essentially a rounding error. The curveball is up a little bit. But there’s a big jump in the whiff rate on his fastball this year. That’s by design – literally.
Back in early March we wrote about how Tejay Antone went into the offseason trying to work on his fastball. He wasn’t trying to necessarily throw it harder. And he wasn’t necessarily trying to add more spin to an already elite-spin-rate fastball. What he was trying to do was use the spin he could generate more efficiently. Not all spin is created equally. You want true backspin on a fastball in order to give it more “rise”. Antone was getting a bit too much away from that, causing the pitch to have a little more cut and sink to it.
Now the pitch is getting more backspin than cut and sink, and it’s giving hitters fits. The results have followed with batters swinging and missing the pitch far more often than they had last season. Strikeouts are up. Heck, even with a fastball that is getting less sink on it, ground balls are also up (small sample size alert!) from an already high 48.7% in 2020 to 65.2% in 2021.
Tejay Antone almost assuredly won’t keep his ERA under 1.00 this year (it’s 0.66 as I type this), but the Reds right-handed pitcher is doing every single thing you want to see a pitcher do in order to be successful. He’s missing bats at an elite rate. And when guys are making contact against him they are hitting the ball on the ground at an elite rate. While he mixed pitches up last season at a fine rate, he’s truly leaving hitters with three different options on any given pitch with his 30% usage rate of the fastball, slider, and curveball this season.