The enormous improvement in Reds pitching in 2019 is easy to demonstrate. Simply compare it to the previous two seasons. No matter how you measure it — ERA, fielding independent measures (FIP, xFIP), strikeouts or walks, weighted OBA or expected weighted OBA — the Reds staff languished in the darkest depths of MLB in 2017-2018.
But in 2019, Reds pitching jumped to near the top of the league in all these metrics except walks. When Reds pitchers ranked second, they were behind only the 106-win Dodgers. When they ranked third they trailed the Dodgers and NL Central champion Cardinals. The Reds rotation and bullpen showed enormous improvement relative to the rest of the league.
[Reminder: The plus/minus stats are on a 100-point scale, with MLB average set at 100. They are adjusted for run environment. Each point deviation from 100 is a percentage above or below league average. For example, in 2017-2018, the Reds were 15 percent worse than average ERA.]
Why did Reds pitching improve so much from 2018 to 2019?
A bit of it was new pitchers. The front office acquired starters Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood in the offseason. Gray pitched well the entire season. But Roark was traded in July after performing slightly worse than league average. Wood pitched only 35 innings due to a back injury. At the trade deadline, the Reds added Trevor Bauer.
The biggest improvement in Reds pitching came from within. A new coaching staff, armed with advanced technology and data, helped Reds pitchers get closer to their full potential. Part of that included large gains attributable to a new emphasis on pitch spin rate.
Spin Rates and Pitching
We’ve written several posts here about the importance of pitch spin. Matt Wilkes examined in detail how spin rate affects various pitches. It’s not the only significant variable, though. Velocity, vertical and horizontal movement, and location are other attributes that factor into arsenal scores or “stuff” measurement.
But pitch spin is crucial. It has to be. Spin affects how much the ball moves as it travels to the plate. The seams push air and influence the ball’s direction. Spin on fastballs (backspin) makes the baseball drop less than usual. Hitters swing under it. Spin on curveballs and sliders make the ball move further and more sharply.
In many cases a pitcher’s spin rate can be improved given sufficient knowledge and priority. Arm slot, grip position, pressure on the ball, motion and release — biomechanics — affect spin. We know this because teams, including the Reds, make use of portable, high-tech Edgertronic cameras that capture pitching at 1000 frames per second. The recordings show in super-duper slow motion how the baseball comes out of a pitcher’s hand and measure how it’s spinning. Pitchers and coaches get immediate, exact feedback from their experiments, including tilt and grip adjustments.
Comments from Reds Pitching Coach Caleb Cotham
For 2019, the Reds hired a new coaching staff for pitchers including Caleb Cotham (31), a former big leaguer who spent most of his career with the Yankees. Cotham had been working with Driveline Baseball, a data-driven pitching lab in Seattle.
We asked Cotham how he looked at spin rates. Cotham was nice enough to answer, careful not to give away their secrets:
Cotham: “Spin rate is one of the ways we help guys understand what they currently do and how they can maximize their talent. The pitchers are so skilled at making the ball do things, looking at spin rates is shining a light on that.”
Cotham stressed that spin-rate instruction isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. Data for each pitcher must be interpreted and integrated with the needs and skills of that player.
Cotham: “It depends on the pitch type. It’s important in a lot of ways and not in others. To get more spin on pitches is tough sometimes and easier in others. It’s important, but not everything. Mastery is a process; an attention to detail is where the magic is. No one ever got worse mastering the basics.
“How guys move, apply force to the ball, grip the ball, etc. all come into play. The body is a very dynamic system. Sometimes it requires a 30,000-foot view to see where the pieces fit. We aren’t dogmatic with one cue or technique. We try to uncover what is best for that player on that day.”
Bobby Nightengale (Cincinnati Enquirer) wrote a terrific article on Cotham last week, explaining how he works with Reds pitchers. Here’s what one, Michael Lorenzen, shared:
“(Cotham) understands the spin rates and he just understands the definition of what each pitch is and exactly what the details are with each pitch. If we’re going to shoot for certain characteristics with a pitch, he knows exactly what we need. As something as little as tilting the ball a little bit, which doesn’t make sense to a normal person at all and it took a while for me to make sense of it through spring training and just constantly talking to him.
“Once I’ve gotten used to him, I feel like, man, they’ve done wonders for me.”
A week ago, the Reds promoted Caleb Cotham to the position of Major League Assistant Pitching Coach and Director of Pitching, with added responsibility in shaping organization pitching protocols. The club also hired Driveline founder Kyle Boddy as Director of Pitching Initiatives/Pitching Coordinators to align best practices throughout the Reds’ minor league affiliates.
Reds Spin Rates in 2019
MLB’s TrackMan radar system collects data on spin rates in every major league park and makes it public through Statcast at Baseball Savant. If you dare look back at the Reds 2016-2018 pitching, the club ranked last in average spin rate [4-seam fastballs, curves and sliders]. The Reds were last in 2018, last in 2017 and 25th in 2016.
Spin rates moved up across the league in 2019 as every team is working on it to some degree. But lo and behold, the Reds passed 26 teams and ranked fourth. Only the Astros, Dodgers and Atlanta pitching staffs were ahead of the Reds.
The single-year jump is due to two factors. First, the Reds acquired a couple pitchers who already had high spin rates. Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer were among league leaders in 2018. But more significant was the near uniform RPM increase Reds pitchers showed from the previous seasons. In some cases, the gain was gigantic. Here are a few examples:
- Sonny Gray 2449 to 2527
- Anthony DeSclafani 2199 to 2249
- Michael Lorenzen 2381 to 2538
- Robert Stephenson 2312 to 2434
- Lucas Sims 2392 to 2641
- Tyler Mahle 2138 to 2161
- Sonny Gray 2710 to 2868
- Luis Castillo 2206 to 2330
- Anthony DeSclafani 2231 to 2315
- Michael Lorenzen 2529 to 2635
- Robert Stephenson 2596 to 2799
- Lucas Sims 2483 to 3004
- Amir Garrett 1748-1832
- Sonny Gray 2852-2988
- Lucas Sims 2826-3120
That’s tremendous team-wide progress in a measurable skill. If you’re looking for explanations for the improvement in Reds pitching, spin rate gains are surely one.
Our understanding of how to win baseball games has skyrocketed in the past 15 years. Technology and physics have produced sweeping change in the development of pitching. Effective coaching has become more science than art and barely resembles that practice just five years ago. Major league front offices have begun to grasp that idea. Even the local one. Especially the local one.
With due respect to Gil Scott Heron, the Reds pitching revolution is being televised. And recorded at 1000 frames per second.