Analyzing Baseball Spin Rate and Training Pitchers

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There is no doubt that the pitching world is being taken over by new information.  MLB’s Statcast system, Trackman radars and Rapsodo cameras and devices are showing up everywhere measuring velocity, baseball spin rates, spin axes, among other things.  And pitchers and coaches are digging in to see how to include all this information in their preparation and training. Before I get into the details, I should say that I completely agree with Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown when he says:

There is a little bit of battle between the art, and the science of baseball…in my opinion you need to have both…

With that said, let’s dig in…Some of the information may surprise you.

The chart below (courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman, writer at Fangraphs) shows swing and miss percentages of the combination of baseball spin rate and velocity. But more specifically, it shows that a fastball at 90 mph (which is lower than the average MLB fastball) at spin rates 2400-2600 produces a greater swing and miss percentage than a 95-mph fastball with a spin rate below 2100 rpm. Imagine that, with all the noise about velocity a 90-mph fastball with more spin is a more effective pitch than a 95-mph fastball with less spin.  I personally found this information very surprising.  But it’s hard to argue with the results.

Spin Rate Chart

Which raises a great question:

Why wouldn’t pitchers just throw with a higher spin rate? The chart clearly shows the higher the spin rate the higher the swing and miss.

The answer is that we have yet to fully understand what causes different spin rates with fastballs, and how to raise or lower it.  The more advanced pitchers are working feverishly to learn how to adjust their spin rates.  And we are learning new things every day. For example, we know that a split finger has very low spin rate, and we know throwing a split finger you would use a wider grip (fingers separated more).  So, folks are working towards throwing a different fastball with a wider grip to induce a lower spin rate.  I think lowering spin rates may be a possibility as we further understand what types of fastballs generate what types of spin rates.

On the other hand, understanding how to intentionally increase your fast ball spin rate is a work-in-progress.

The best position for a pitcher to be in, related to spin rate, would be to be further away from the average, higher or lower. What I mean by that is if the average fastball is a 2100 spin rate, you would desire to be in the 1900’s or 2400’s, which frankly is rare.  So then comes the next question:

Why would I care about spin rates on my fastball if I can’t change it?

Well, this is not a short answer. I can write pages on this subject, but I will try and make it short and sweet. Knowing your spin rates can tell you where to throw most effectively in the strike zone. Here is a simple way to explain this:

A higher spin rate (not including spin axis and spin efficiency and other factors yet because that will make this way longer) gives the fastball a “rise ball” effect. In essence, this means the ball won’t sink as much (or said differently, vertically drop down as much).

A lower spin rate will cause the ball to drop down more.

This leads to two baseline proven facts. The fastball with a higher spin rate will be more effective up in the zone, it will lead to more fly balls, but lead to more swing and misses. The fastball with the lower spin rate with lead to more contact, but more ground balls. There are positives and negatives to both of these end results.  Obviously, more swing and misses lead to more strikeouts, but more fly balls will lead to more home-runs especially as you advance in your career and the hitters get bigger and stronger. The fastball with a lower spin rate will lead to less strike-outs (more contact) but way more balls on the ground.

We recently purchased a Rapsodo machine for the Pitching Lab at RPP.  I am really excited about it because I think our pitchers can benefit a great deal from the information. The Rapsodo machine is going to tell us the spin rate, spin efficiency, true spin, spin axis, vertical drop and horizontal drop and velocity of the pitch all within seconds after it is thrown.  Imagine all that information.  Yes, it can be overwhelming at first.  But if you put it to use in pieces, it can be an invaluable tool in training pitchers.  Below is a sample screen shot of some of the data available from Rapsodo from a single pitch:

Rapsodo - Results 1

Let me explain why this is so key for pitch development. Unlike fastballs, when we throw off-speed pitches we can change spin rates. We do this by altering the grip on the ball, different mental and physical cues, finger positioning and action at release points among other things. So, when a pitcher wants to work on a curveball we will be able to test all these different factors and instantly evaluate what is working best for him. I believe this is extremely valuable because every pitcher is different.  They are not only different in how they throw the pitch, but also different in how mental and physical cues work for them.

For one pitcher, it may be very beneficial to say, “just throw it like a football”.  Whereas for another pitcher it might work better to say, “throw it hard and let the grip do the work”. Also, when a pitcher is working on grips and finger positioning at release point we will be able to see which one actually proves to create the best breaking ball for the player.

Some of the key information that the Rapsodo provides will help us train pitchers develop an off-speed pitch with lateral and vertical movement, evaluate how far from home plate the pitch starts to break (the later the better), as well as spin efficiency and true spin. The instant feedback will provide us with immediate results and the best strategy to really develop an individual pitcher’s off-speed pitch.  It will also provide the best way to attack trying to master them.

With Rapsodo, all the pitching results will be saved and recorded from session to session.  So, over the course of a few sessions with many different grips and mental cues, we should be able to better hone in on developing our pitchers.

Rapsodo - Historical Results 2

There is no doubt that pitchers learn how to improve at their craft by incorporating new information.  An underrated bonus of using a device like Rapsodo is having the back-and-forth with the athlete and finding out which cues and visualization techniques work best for them. Throwing a new pitch is more complex than just a new grip, and different pitchers have different interpretations of the same cue. Using the Rapsodo can create a great feedback loop between what the pitcher feels and what the data says the ball is actually doing during its flight.

Data technology allows us to know if the mechanical changes and adjustments are working while training pitchers.  The instantaneous feedback is so valuable because we can improve on a pitch-by-pitch basis rather than a bullpen session-to-session basis.

By Robbie Aviles (RHP Cleveland Indians, Pitching Lab Coach)

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