As a rookie last season and a first-timer on the 40-man roster, Reds pitcher Tejay Antone was assigned No. 70. Despite being more established and with a strong chance of being on the 2021 Opening Day roster, Antone chose not to seek a lower number.
“Even if I’m a 20-year vet down the road, and I show up to camp and I’m wearing that No. 70, I’m going to remember how it was when I first showed up,” Antone said from Reds camp in Goodyear, Ariz. “You have to grind every single day. Every time I look at No. 70, it reminds me that you have to be that animal that wants that job, that rookie that wants that job and is trying to steal that job from somebody.”
There are more important numbers that Antone wants to change for 2021. Mindful of the data feedback from his pitches last season, the 27-year-old aims to bring more spin efficiency to his two-seam fastball/sinker.
Antone’s sinker averaged 95.6 mph last season, according to Statcast, and the average 2,625 rpm on it was ranked eighth among Major League pitchers with at least 150 fastballs thrown. But the active spin, which is how much the spin contributes to the movement of the pitch, was at 74 percent.
“I had pretty poor spin efficiency last year. I was getting away with it just because I was throwing a little bit harder,” Antone said. “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, just spinning it more true. I was just, like, cutting it off and getting around the fastball a lot last year. This year, my whole focus in the offseason was staying through the ball and allowing the spin to work for me and kind of ride through the zone better.”
A pair of Reds teammates last season, starter Trevor Bauer and reliever Lucas Sims, had the best spin rates in the Major Leagues. Bauer had an average fastball spin rate of 2,779 rpm, but a 95.7 percent active spin. Sims had 2,771 rpm and 85.6 percent active spin.
That means both pitchers were almost fully optimizing their spin for more movement on their fastballs.
“I did do some live BPs before I left and I was just throwing fastballs down the middle and seeing how many swings and misses I got,” Antone said. “I was getting significantly more swings and misses with fastballs down the middle than I was last year. A lot of guys were crushing those pitches. I think it just has that extra life at the end where the hitter is not expecting it to go like that.”
While hitters batted .256 against Antone’s fastball, he fared better with his slider (.146) and curveball (.054).
“I love my curve, I love how it’s working for me right now,” he said. “The usage of it was a little bit lower last year because my slider was working well this past year. Based on what I’ve seen this offseason with my slider, I think my slider is going to be different this year to say the least. I think it’s going to be game-changing.”
Over two big league stints for Cincinnati last season, Antone was 0-3 but had a 2.80 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in 13 games (four starts).
Antone is preparing again as a starting pitcher, as he has a chance for the fifth spot in the rotation. Other candidates include Michael Lorenzen, Jeff Hoffman and José De León. But Antone could also fit easily in a bullpen role, where he showed dependability in some big spots and earned the praise of manager David Bell.
“I believe he could really serve in any role,” Bell said. “He’s one of those guys that might fall into the category of building him up and giving us the most options, making sure he’s at least prepared to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen. He’s one of those guys, too, where starting pitching is obviously very important. If it turns out we need him there, great, but you almost hate to lose him out of the bullpen.
“He was such a weapon out of the bullpen and able to get swing and miss, and really great stuff. We’ll see how it plays out, but he put himself in a great position last year.”