Can Luke Bard spin way into Angels' bullpen?

Rule 5 Draft pick has shown elite four-seam spin rate in Spring Training

March 23rd, 2018

If the Angels break camp with on their roster, watch him. The 27-year-old reliever, a Rule 5 Draft pick from the Twins, has some underlying tools where -- if he can take advantage of them -- he might prove to be an arm the Halos want to keep around.

Bard's only thrown a handful of Spring Training innings. The results have been mixed, but his stuff has looked interesting, to say the least. We can take a look at the data thanks to two of his appearances coming at Salt River Fields, where Statcast™ tracking technology is installed.

Bard, the Angels' No. 21 prospect according to MLB Pipeline and younger brother of former Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard, has flashed an extremely high four-seam fastball spin rate. The Angels are sure to take note. High-spin four-seamers are more likely to get swings-and-misses -- they create a "rising fastball" effect, which can give hitters all sorts of trouble. (Bard's slider has a lot of spin, too, but slider spin rate doesn't have as clear of a correlation with the movement or success of the pitch, because of the widely varying ways pitchers throw their sliders.)

So let's focus on the fastball. The Major League average four-seam spin rate in 2017 was 2,255 rpm. Bard has far exceeded that this spring. In his first outing at Salt River, against the D-backs on March 6, he threw only a pair of fastballs, but they tracked at 2,625 rpm and 2,581 rpm. That's already top-tier spin -- only 7.5 percent of all four-seamers thrown in MLB last season had a spin rate of 2,500-plus rpm. But in his return to Salt River last Thursday against the Rockies, he took his four-seam spin to an even higher level.

Bard threw 10 four-seamers in his two innings. His average spin rate was 2,877 rpm. That is truly exceptional. In fact, it's higher than any single-game four-seam spin rate by a Major League relief pitcher since Statcast™'s introduction in 2015.

Highest single-game four-seam spin rates by relief pitcher since 2015

(Minimum 10 four-seamers thrown in game)

Luke Bard: 2,877 rpm vs. Rockies on March 15

  1. : 2,808 rpm (May 23, 2016)

  2. : 2,793 rpm (June 7, 2017)

  3. Carl Edwards Jr.: 2,789 rpm (Aug. 8, 2017)

  4. Nik Turley: 2,778 rpm (Sept. 28, 2017)

  5. Andrew Bailey: 2,776 rpm (May 27, 2016)

    Bard's four-seamer ranged from 2,815 rpm to 2,967 rpm. He blew one high fastball by at 2,886 rpm.

    Gif: Luke Bard fastball whiff vs. Rockies

    Edwards and Bailey -- a former Angel, and now the team's instant-replay coordinator -- are the only Major Leaguers who have breached 2,800 rpm with any semblance of regularity. Halos ace has also done so on occasion. So there's some organizational precedent for a pitcher like Bard, if what he's shown in Spring Training is for real.

    This is basically the smallest of samples, two games and 12 pitches worth of spin rate. How Bard's fastball would play over a season at the Major League level is an unknown. Plus, even high-spin fastballs aren't guaranteed to be good ones, just as high-spin pitchers aren't necessarily good pitchers, either. It's one thing to have top-tier spin rate, another to convert it into strikeout stuff.

    But the big reason for encouragement is that Bard already remade himself as a pitcher because of what the data showed him about his spin, and got immediate results. In a February Q-and-A with FanGraphs' David Laurila, Bard detailed how he traded his sinker for a four-seamer last spring, and in 2017 at Double-A and Triple-A his strikeout rate spiked dramatically.

    Bard struck out 34.7 percent of hitters, which put him within the top 50 strikeout rates across the Minor Leagues. In 2016, Bard struck out just 20.1 percent of batters at Class A Advanced and Double-A. The year before that, in Class A, his strikeout rate was 22.1 percent.

    Bard racked up 99 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings in 2017. He had never exceeded one strikeout per inning pitched in a full professional season. He had 57 K's in 65 innings in '16 and 47 in 52 1/3 innings in '15.

    Because Bard was a Rule 5 Draft pick, the Angels have to keep him on their 25-man roster for the entire 2018 season or offer him back to the Twins for $50,000, half of the $100,000 it cost the Halos to get him. Bard is also just one candidate of several for the team's last bullpen spot. But he's probably the most intriguing out of the bunch. Maybe the Angels will want to see what he can do in the big leagues.