This team's secret? Tons of spin

August 3rd, 2020

The Reds are one of the top strikeout pitching staffs in the Major Leagues right now. They're one of four teams, along with the Indians, Rays and D-backs, to have already reached the 100-K mark in 2020. But there's one big way the Cincinnati staff stands out: spin.

Reds pitchers are spinning the ball the most, on the pitches where it really counts -- their fastballs and curveballs.

High spin on a four-seamer is what gives you the "rising fastball" effect, and a rising fastball is more likely to get a hitter to swing and miss. A high-spin curveball tends to get more movement, and more break on your curve is good if you want to get strikeouts with it, and also keep hitters from getting it into the air where they can do damage.

These are the teams with the highest spin fastballs and curveballs this season.

Highest 4-seam spin rate by team pitching staff, 2020
1) Reds: 2,489 rpm
2) Marlins: 2,386 rpm
3) Rangers: 2,380 rpm
4) D-backs: 2,368 rpm
5) Brewers: 2,360 rpm
MLB avg. 4-seam spin rate: 2,309 rpm

Highest curveball spin rate by team pitching staff, 2020
1) Reds: 2,884 rpm
2) Dodgers: 2,763 rpm
3) Astros: 2,754 rpm
4) Cubs: 2,689 rpm
5) Braves: 2,603 rpm
MLB avg. curveball spin rate: 2,515 rpm

Hello, Reds. The Cincinnati pitching staff leads the Major Leagues in fastball and curveball spin rate -- and that's no accident.

The Reds have two of the most prominent figures in pitching analytics spearheading their staff: Kyle Boddy and Trevor Bauer. They hired Boddy, the founder of Driveline Baseball, to be their director of pitching initiatives and pitching coordinator last October. They traded for Bauer, Driveline's most famous acolyte and maybe the most data-driven pitcher in MLB today, last July to form a starting-pitching troika with Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.

The teams populating those leaderboards are essentially who you'd expect. The Rangers have a pair of high-spin fastball-heavy starters leading the rotation, Lance Lynn and Mike Minor. The Yankees, just outside the top five in fastball spin, added Gerrit Cole, who developed and emphasized his true-spin four-seamer over the last few years. The Dodgers and Astros are known for top-class analytics and are organizations full of high-spin breaking ball pitchers. So it's impressive that the Reds top both lists.

The Reds' averages are close to what we'd consider the "top-tier" benchmarks for both pitch types -- 2,500 rpm for fastballs, 3,000 rpm for curveballs. The 100-plus rpm difference between the Reds' fastballs and other top teams, and the close to 200 rpm difference from league average fastballs, is significant. The same goes with curveballs, where they're 100 rpm higher than the next-closest team and nearly 400 rpm above league average. That puts them in a different tier. Hundreds of rpm is a big difference in spin rate.

Bauer, of course, is leading the Reds' spin revolution. A pitch-design specialist, Bauer already had high fastball spin before this season, adding about 200 rpm from 2015, the first season of Statcast tracking, to 2019, when he averaged 2,412 rpm. But in 2020? He's on another level.

Highest 4-seam spin rate, 2020
1) Trevor Bauer (CIN): 2,827 rpm
2) Lucas Sims (CIN): 2,803 rpm
3) Dillon Maples (CHC): 2,792 rpm
4) Luke Bard (LAA): 2,747 rpm
5) Corbin Burnes (MIL): 2,676 rpm
MLB avg. 4-seam spin rate: 2,309 rpm

Bauer is leading the Majors in four-seam spin rate -- and he's added over 400 rpm since last year. That's why his four-seamer is getting 3.4 inches more rise than an average fastball. It's a true rising fastball made to get swings-and-misses at the top of the zone, exactly where Bauer threw it in his first start, striking out six Tigers with four-seamers and getting them to whiff on nearly 40% of their swings.

You might also notice Bauer's teammate, Sims, right underneath him at No. 2. Sims had top-tier four-seam spin last season, averaging 2,641 rpm -- top-five in MLB -- but he's also a big gainer in 2020, with 150 extra rpm.

In the five years of Statcast tracking, no pitcher has averaged 2,800-plus rpm on their four-seamer for a full season. The Reds have two pitchers doing that right now.

In fact, the Reds have three pitchers in MLB's top 10 highest-spin four-seamers, and four averaging 2,400 rpm or higher.

Reds pitchers on 4-seam fastball spin rate leaderboard
Trevor Bauer: 2,817 rpm -- #1 in MLB
Lucas Sims: 2,801 rpm -- #2 in MLB (#1 among RP)
Michael Lorenzen: 2,644 rpm -- #9 in MLB (#7 among RP)
Sonny Gray: 2,405 rpm -- top 25% of MLB (top 28% among SP)
Raisel Iglesias: 2,386 rpm -- top 29% of MLB (top 27% among RP)

Almost half of the four-seam fastballs the Reds have thrown this season have had a spin rate of 2,500 rpm or higher. They're throwing easily the most high-spin four-seamers of any team (they're at 2,500-plus rpm 49.2% of the time, and the Rangers are second at 34.7%). And they know where to throw them -- the Reds are throwing nearly 60% of their four-seamers in the upper third of the zone or higher, the third-most elevated fastballs of any team.

Reds pitchers have been among the league leaders in four-seam whiff rate all season ... all those high-spin high fastballs probably have something to do with it.

Now let's check out the curves. This time Sims leads the way.

Highest curveball spin rate, 2020

  1. Garrett Richards (SD): 3,343 rpm
  2. Seth Lugo (NYM): 3,269 rpm

3) Lucas Sims (CIN): 3,116 rpm
4) Joe Kelly (LAD): 3,065 rpm
5) Casey Sadler (CHC): 3,008 rpm
MLB avg. curveball spin rate: 2,515 rpm

Sims' curveball spin is as elite as his fastball spin. Five of his six strikeouts in his four scoreless relief appearances this season have come on his four-seamer and curve. Sims' four-seamer is getting 2.4 inches of rise above average; his curve is getting 6.2 inches of horizontal break above average.

Just like with the fastball spin leaderboard, the Reds have a whole group of pitchers in the top tier of curveball spin -- five in the top 20, with two of the top 10 starters and three of the top 10 relievers.

Reds pitchers on curveball spin rate leaderboard
Lucas Sims: 3,186 rpm -- #3 in MLB (#2 among RP)
Brooks Raley: 2,975 rpm -- #10 in MLB (#8 among RP)
Sonny Gray: 2,959 rpm -- #12 in MLB (#4 among SP)
Tejay Antone: 2,943 rpm -- #15 in MLB (#8 among RP)
Trevor Bauer: 2,862 rpm -- #20 in MLB (#9 among SP)

Over half of the Reds' curveballs have had a spin rate of 2,900 rpm or higher (53.4%). About a third of them have been 3,000 rpm or higher (32.9%). Both those marks are tops in the Majors. That's a lot of elite spin.

Gray and Bauer provide all the breaking-ball spin the starting rotation needs -- Castillo's out pitch is his changeup (maybe the best changeup in baseball), and changeups are low-spin offerings.

Both Bauer and Gray get a lot of movement on their curves. Bauer's, which he designed specifically to get vertical drop, is getting 8.9 inches more drop than an average curve. That's more of the same from last year, when his +9.5 inches of vertical curveball movement vs. average was the second-most in the Majors. Gray's curveball is getting +5.0 inches of vertical break vs. average and +5.6 inches of horizontal break vs. average; last year he was at +3.5 inches (vertical) and +7.0 inches (horizontal).

The relievers might be even more interesting. Raley hadn't pitched in the Major Leagues since 2013 until he made his comeback with Cincinnati this season -- the 32-year-old left-hander was pitching in Korea and the Reds signed him in January. Antone, the Reds' No. 20 prospect, is a 26-year-old rookie who knew Boddy before Boddy joined the Reds staff (though, as Boddy put it in an offseason Twitter thread, Antone's development, including a big velocity spike, is a credit to the pitcher's own work). Antone has flashed high fastball spin, too (2,655 rpm), he just throws a two-seamer.

Raley's curve is getting +6.1 inches of horizontal break vs. average in the season's early goings. Antone's is getting +7.1 inches vs. average.

The Reds have amassed a stable of high-spin arms, and they sure look like they're targeting and developing these pitchers for a reason. Their pitchers' ability to harness their high-spin, high-movement arsenals is certainly playing a big part in Cincinnati's emergence as a strikeout staff.