“It’s nice to finally be in an organization that’s on the forefront of player development.”
— Tejay Antone
Tejay Antone has pitched in two games this spring. Across five innings, he’s struck out eight, walked none, allowed three hits and given up no runs. 27 of his 37 pitches have been strikes. In a word, Antone has been dominant. But don’t take my word for it.
- “Very locked in. Focused and determined.” — Reds manager David Bell
- “97 to 99 consistently, an electric fastball and his slider was as good as ever,” — Tyler Stephenson, who caught Antone’s spring training debut.
- “I think there’s a chance Antone is this team’s Josh Hader.” — C. Trent Rosecrans, veteran writer for The Athletic, referring to MLB’s best reliever from 2018-2019.
Antone has been a starting pitcher throughout his minor league career and started a few games for the Reds last year. His impressive spring training performance has spurred interest and for him to be installed in the Reds rotation.
(To answer your question, no, Antone doesn’t play shortstop. Stop it.)
Not so fast
Before we get carried away, let’s keep in mind Tejay Antone has made one-two-three-four, just four major league starts and pitched in only 13 MLB games. Antone has thrown just 35.1 major league innings. Five innings is his longest appearance and it barely counts because it came against the Pirates. Beyond that one start, his longest stint was 4.1 innings, which he did twice. One of those was cleaning up after Wade Miley and wasn’t a start.
This concludes the public service segment of our blogpost.
His spinful ways
We now return to unbridled optimism. In other words, an up-to-date look at Tejay Antone’s pitch portfolio.
Fastball Antone has thrown a fastball on 40% of his pitches for the Reds. Some services categorize this pitch a fastball while others call it a sinker. I call it a fastball because that’s the word Antone uses.
Regardless of what name you give it, the pitch is thrown hard enough to be one of the fastest recorded. It measured in the 86th percentile of velocity (95.6 mph) last season. Beyond pitch speed, Antone’s fastball spin rate was in the 98th percentile at 2625 rpm.
Here’s a representative sample. Antone threw this 97.7 mph fastball by the Twins’ Jorge Polanco. Watch how Curt Casali calls for the pitch up in the zone. That’s not something you see if the pitch is a sinker.
This spring, Antone has thrown his fastball 97-99 mph and it has been reported the spin rate hit 2999 rpm. Yowza.
Slider Tejay Antone’s second pitch is a slider, which he also uses 40% of the time. It’s the one pitch in his portfolio he uses more often against right-handed hitters. Its spin rate of 2674 rpm was in the top-10% in MLB.
As with many pitchers, it’s not always easy to distinguish Antone’s slider from his curve. The best way to tell in his case is by pitch velocity. Antone’s slider is 83-84 mph while his curve comes in at 79-80 mph. When you combine the two pitches, 38 of Antone’s 45 strikeouts last year were on a breaking ball.
Here’s an Antone third-strike slider that Whit Merrifield of the Royals misses by a foot.
This season, Antone expects even better things from his slider. He said in a recent interview: “Based on what I’ve seen this offseason, I think my slider is going to be different this year to say the least. I think it’s going to be game-changing.” (Sheldon)
Curve Antone’s third pitch is a curve, which he throws 17% of the time and more to left-handed batters. It has a nice sharp break due to its spin rate of 2959 rpm that puts him in the 95th percentile. Reports from this spring say his curve has hit 3376 rpm.
Antone proved last season he had the command to throw his curve in the zone. Here, Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is victimized by Antone’s hook located on the inside paint.
Look for Antone to throw his curve more in 2021. “I love my curve, I love how it’s working for me right now,” Antone said. “The usage of it was a little bit lower last year because my slider was working well. ” (Sheldon)
Now, about the quote from Antone at the top of this page. You might think it implies he’s been in another organization until recently. That would be wrong. Antone has spent his entire professional career in the Reds organization, since the club selected him in the 5th round seven years ago.
He’s saying it’s nice for the the Reds to finally be good and helpful at developing pitchers. His stats bear that out. While Antone has put up solid numbers since 2014, his steep trajectory began after David Bell, Derek Johnson, Kyle Boddy and their high-tech crew arrived.
Ask the right-hander where he needed to improve and he’ll start with spin efficiency.
“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. “I wanted to improve the spin metric of spin efficiency. 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.” (Sheldon)
Antone doesn’t sound like a guy who is satisfied with his breakthrough 2020 season.
“There’s always the next level to chase. I’m always going after that 1% improvement,” Antone said yesterday talking with Jim Day. “My fastball is spinning truer. I know what it’s doing, not guessing. The slider is tighter this year. I’ve adjusted the grip on those two pitches.”
Welcome to Spincinnati, Tejay Antone.
The best case for Antone’s bullpen role
Given Antone’s emergence, how should the Reds use him this year?
One role for Antone that seems to have currency on the Reds coaching staff is to use him from the bullpen, but in a specific way. Reds manager David Bell has pointed out Antone’s main assets as a pitcher are his high swing-and-miss rate and his ability to pitch multiple innings. The former is valuable when the opponent has runners on base. Going multiple innings can be a vital bridge between the starting pitcher and the back end of the bullpen, say Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims. That latter quality may be even more important in 2021 when managers are paying close attention to starter workloads coming off the shortened 2020.
In an ideal world, Bell would tailor Tejay Antone’s use to important (high-leverage) situations, maximizing the pitcher’s value. In practice, that means bringing him in tied ballgames, situations where the Reds are one run ahead or behind, or in the middle of a game when several runners are on base. That usage pattern stands in contrast to a classic closer who often enters games for one inning and with two- or three-run leads.
That’s roughly how Bell used Antone last year. Seven of the pitcher’s nine relief appearance were more than one inning. Six were two innings or more.
In theory, a reliever used like that every few days could have quite a lot of value.
Earlier in spring training, David Bell commented on Antone’s role: “That bullpen role is so valuable I almost hope it turns out we can keep him in that role.” (Goldsmith)
Many fans interpreted Bell as saying he wanted to keep Antone in the bullpen. But I think that’s a misunderstanding. Bell didn’t say he “hoped” he could keep Antone in the bullpen. He said he “almost hoped” that would be the case. Bell is acknowledging that conventional wisdom would be that Antone has more value in the rotation. But at the same time, Bell hopes his starting five would be strong enough without Antone that he could save the pitcher for his previous bridge role.
Bell also referred to stats indicating Antone had been much more effective the first time through the opposing lineup. There’s truth to that claim. The second time through the batting order, Antone’s strikeout rate dropped from 35% to 25% and walk rate rose from 10% to 15%. Antone’s xwOBA rose from .238 to .340. Those differences are many times greater than league average.
If Antone does have such a distinct portfolio that batters are at an extreme disadvantage the first time they see him, that strengthens the case for the multi-inning bullpen role as opposed to being a starter.
The problems with the bullpen best case
The simple reason Tejay Antone should be in the starting rotation is that he’s a better pitcher than the alternatives and starters pitch more innings than relievers. Starting pitchers throw 175-200 innings per season. Relievers throw 60-70. That basic math puts a heavy thumb on the scale favoring starter value.
Could the plan David Bell has discussed for Antone rebalance that equation? The baseball season lasts 26 weeks. A reliever who made a couple multi-inning appearances each week could get up to 100 innings. Would 100 high-leverage innings have more value than 180 innings from a starter? That’s a closer call, but 180 is still a much larger number than 100. Swing-and-miss works for starters, too.
Beyond that, the plan to use Antone with surgical precision, only in high-leverage innings a couple times a week, has a fatal flaw. Baseball scores don’t cooperate. As Mike Tyson said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth by actual games.
It’s trickier to target only high-leverage innings than it sounds. Those situations don’t appear with convenient spacing. Short losing or winning streaks would frustrate the plan. Other relievers have to be used. If Antone hadn’t pitched for a few games, Bell would need to use him regardless of the score to keep the reliever from being rusty. Same goes for games where the starter blows it and the pen has to cover 7-8 innings.
At the start of seasons, it’s common for managers to talk about using certain relief pitchers — think Raisel Iglesias — for multiple innings. But by October, those pitchers typically have thrown 60-80 innings, not 100 or more. In 2019, the pitcher Bell used in the bridge role was Michael Lorenzen. In 30 of Lorenzen’s 73 appearances, he pitched more than one inning. But he ended up with only 83.1 innings pitched.
What about the point that Antone’s outcomes have been much worse the second time he faces a batter?
The problem with that reasoning is that it’s based on a super-small sample size. Research by Mitchel Lichtman, who co-authored The Book with Tom Tango where this times-through-the-lineup-penalty was laid out, found that sample sizes had to be more than 1600 (!) innings before a pitcher’s own times-through penalty became more predictive than using league averages. Antone has 35 innings pitched.
“A pitcher’s career ‘times through the order’ patterns have almost no predictive value,” Lichtman wrote. “We can assume that all starting pitchers have roughly the same ‘true talent’ times-through penalty, regardless of what they’ve shown in the past.”
Bell basing his thinking on Antone’s tiny number of major league innings is akin to Dusty Baker setting his lineup based on a batter-pitcher history of five at bats.
Here’s what’s happening
David Bell knows spring training is a lousy setting for position battles.
Players arrive to camp in different condition, readiness and health. Sample sizes are minuscule. 50 at bats or a couple dozen innings are meaningless in predicting how a player will perform over 162 games. Beyond that, the competition is variable — one day players face a major leaguer, other times an A-ball player.
Bell has had the offseason months to study data and talk with his coaching staff. Basing decisions on factors like career numbers from major league games, scouting reports and what the coaches have seen themselves over long regular seasons is more reliable than using a few spring training plays.
You see that at work in Michael Lorenzen expressing a lack of concern that a few spring training pitches will jeopardize his chance to make the rotation. Bell or Johnson has told him otherwise. You see it in Bell all-but-dismissing calls for Dee Strange-Gordon to play shortstop. Bell knows if DSG makes the team it will be as a utility player. He’s seen the numbers.
David Bell knows where roster decisions are headed barring injuries or major developments. That’s not as much fun for fans and doesn’t make for sexy narratives, but it’s smart.
That brings us back to Tejay Antone and Bell’s comments.
For a variety of reasons — veteran status, payroll, familiarity of the pitching coach, major league track record, wanting a lefty in the rotation — Bell started spring training leaning toward Wade Miley for the fifth rotation spot. That’s why Bell is saying things like “almost hope” regarding Antone and “if healthy” about Miley. Because Bell has tentatively decided.
Now, could Tejay Antone knock the door down this month and force Bell and Johnson to change plans?
Absolutely. And it would look like Antone’s first two appearances.
Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1369037881046667267/photo/1