Spin rate is one of the newest ways to evaluate pitchers, and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020 had some of the most high-spin pitchers in the league.
In 2015, Major League Baseball introduced a new wave of technology called Statcast. Statcast essentially answers the questions fans have asked for years. How hard does he throw? How fast does he run? How far was that hit? With all the data we have today, the site Baseball Savant has kept a database of all of Statcast’s measures while giving us expected stats based on things like batted ball rates, defense and more. One of the newest introductions to baseball has been spin rates. This is measured in rotations per minute, or RPM, and it’s how pitchers get that rising effect on their fastballs and breaking on their curveballs.
Looking at the leaderboards in spin, the Pittsburgh Pirates last year had a handful of high spin-rate players. It’s definitely something that pitching Oscar Marin should take advantage of if he hasn’t already.
Last year the Pirates had seven players who had fastballs that were in the 80th percentile or better in spin rate and five pitchers who had a curveball spin rate in the 80th percentile or higher. Right-hander Chris Stratton had a breakout campaign with his fastball that had 2627 RPM. Although he didn’t throw all that hard, his spin ranked sixth in all of baseball. His curveball has even more spin with 3088 RPM, which ranks seventh. Notably, his slider has 2889 RPM.
Another high spin rate reliever they used quite often last year was Richard Rodriguez. Taking over the closer role, Rich-Rod had a nice bounceback season after a rough 2019. Though he doesn’t throw a curveball, Rodriguez’s fastball had plenty of spin with 2543 RPM. That ranked the Pirates’ closer 17th in all of baseball and in the top 96th percentile.
The Pirates saw the emergence of a handful of prospects in 2020 and one of them was Cody Ponce. Ponce was formerly a Milwaukee Brewers prospect who was sent to the Pirates for veteran Jordan Lyles. Ponce has two 60-grade pitches, that being his four-seammer and cutter. Ponce’s first fastball averaged 2516 RPM while his cutter averaged 2543 RPM. Since Baseball Savant identified both as fastballs, Ponce is ranked in the top 95th percentile of fastball spin and right behind Rodriguez. He also has a sinker with more than 2500 RPM at 2550.
A fourth pitcher with elite spin was a 2017-2018 off season signee that finally made his Pirates’ debut in 2020, that being lefty Nik Turley. Although Turley didn’t put up the best of numbers in 2020, his two pitches have RPM in the elite range. His fastball averaged out at 2536 RPM and his curveball sat with 2815 RPM. This gives the Pirates another pitcher with a fastball RPM above 2500 and a second pitcher in the 95th percentile. His curveball spin ranked in the 85th percentile, still a very good mark.
A second lefty relief pitcher who showed some promise after being acquired in a small time trade was Sam Howard. The spin on his fastball is what must have intrigued the Pirates to acquire him in the first place. Though he only averaged 92 MPH, Howard’s four seamer had 2431 RPM.
Joe Musgrove has six pitches and three averaged more than 2500 RPM in 2020. Musgrove’s four seam fastball had 2451 RPM, but his cutter had 2513. Musgrove’s best pitch, his curveball was in the 73rd percentile, but still had 2712 RPM. Finally his slider sat with 2677 RPM. Musgrove saw a dramatic increase of usage with his curveball and a small increase with his slider which helped him record a K-rate of 33.1%.
Despite having spin on their breaking pitches, some of the Pirates’ players didn’t have much spin on their fastball. One of their players was Chad Kuhl. Kuhl made a comeback from Tommy John surgery, and his fastball picked up where he left off. His curve had 2777 RPM. Before the surgery he averaged nearly 3000 RPM, so he could potentially have more spin after playing the 2020 season and getting back up to speed.
JT Brubkaer was another prospect who made their debut in 2020. He used a multitude of pitches including a fastball, sinker, slider, curveball and change-up. Out of his five pitches, both of his breaking pitches were great. His curveball showed plus potential averaging 2857 RPM and his slider averaged 2634 RPM. His curveball sat in the top 87th percentile in spin rate.
The Pirates had a few players who are no longer on their team that also ranked high in spin rate. Derek Holland was in the 84th percentile of fastball spin. Another player they gave a chance multiple times to prove himself was relief pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas. His curveball spin was in the top 91st percentile in all of baseball. Though Kyle Crick is still on the team, he only pitched 5.2 innings and his slider averaged over 3000 RPM.
With seven players in the 80th+ percentile of fastball spin and five with a curveball spin rate in the same percentile or higher, the Pirates had more pitchers than any other National League Central team ranking that high. The Pirates have a pretty notable prospect that could join their multitude of notable players. Cody Bolton’s slider averages about 2600 RPM and his fastball has 2450 RPM. While they might not see the majors in 2021, pitchers like Steven Jennings, Michael Burrows and Santiago Florez. Regardless, spin rate seems to be very important for the Pirates’ pitchers and a tool they can use to get the most out of their arms.