Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Roansy Contreras has struggled mightily this season. What has gone wrong?
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Roansy Contreras had what was easily the worst start of his career on Wednesday afternoon. He allowed 7 earned runs in just the 1st inning against a historically bad Oakland Athletics team. In fact, he recorded just one out before being pulled.
All of his metrics and statistics have moved in the wrong direction after what was a fairly promising 2022 rookie campaign. So what’s gone wrong with Contreras? Is there a potential solution?
The major reason for Contreras’ struggles has been the loss of stuff on his fastball. Contreras sat in the 80th percentile of fastball velocity and 85th percentile of fastball spin rate in 2022. Not only was his fastball both plus-plus in both spin and velo, but he used that spin to nearly its fullest potential. His four-seamer sat with around 93% active spin.
Last year, there was only 27 pitchers who were in the 80th+ percentile of fastball velocity, and 85th+ percentile of fastball spin rate. Of those 27 pitchers, only 18 threw a four-seamer with an active spin rate of 90% or greater (min. 100 plate appearances). His four-seamer wasn’t his best offering in 2022, but it graded out around average with a zero run value and RV/100. Those characteristics haven’t been there in 2023
Contreras is now only in the 62nd percentile of fastball velocity and 76th percentile of fastball spin rate. His active spin is down to 89%, a 5% downward movement. So what does this mean? Well active spin is spin that contributes to movement. A high active spin rate on a four-seamer gives it that rising fastball-like action. When someone says a pitcher’s fastball ‘carries through the zone’, they mean that the pitch has high active spin.
His fastball has added about two inches of vertical drop, and has lost over two inches of horizontal movement. Despite the loss of movement, Contreras’ heat maps for his four-seamer remain relatively similar. He’s still throwing his fastball like it has that carry though the zone. Batters are picking it up easier, given that it’s also about a tick-and-a-half slower this year.
When you look at the metrics, his fastball has many of the same characteristics that Mitch Keller’s fastball had in 2021. Two years ago, Keller sat 93.8 MPH (compared to Roansy’s 94.1 MPH) with 2374 RPM (Contreras currently sits at 2350), and 84% active spin. At the time, Keller’s fastball was getting demolished, but now sits as a plus offering. Mitch Keller isn’t Roansy Contreras, and what works for one player might not work for another, but what takeaways can we get from Keller that could be applied to Contreras?
Well the first thing is that Keller didn’t get into elite active spin territory. He is still only sitting at 87%. His fastball velocity and spin have both moved in the right direction as well, now sitting at 95.6 MPH and 2374 RPM. The first thing is Keller adopted a cutter and a sweeper, which has overall made him more effective. But his fastball overall has just been a better pitch. One reason could be spin direction, a change that Keller has seen since 2021 and Contreras has seen this year.
Contreras’ fastball spins on a 12:45 spin-based axis (based on plate location and velocity vector) and a 12:30 observed axis (shown on the initial flight toward home plate). That’s compared to a 1:00 spin-based axis and 12:45 observed spin axis from last season. Overall, it’s significantly different than in 2021 when he had a 1:00 spin-based spin axis and 1:15 observed spin axis. This is another reason his fastball may have lost vertical movement, but added horizontal movement.
Going back to the Keller comparrison, he now has a 1:15 spin-based axis and 1:00 observed spin axis. In 2021, he sat with 1:00 spin-based/12:45 observed axis. He's added more of the carry though the zone, but also throws the pitch with more horizontal movement.
These all might seem like relatively small changes, but even a slight shift in fastball grip can make a major difference. The first thing that he needs to figure out is how to add more active spin to his four-seamer. A 1:30 spin axis is considered the perfect split between horizontal and vertical movement for a back/side-spin fastball, which is a lot closer to where he was sitting in 2021. While his fastball velocity and spin rate are both still above average, it would really help if he were able to get back in the 80th+ percentile of both statistics.
Either way, Contreras needs to make a change. He’s only 23, so calling him a bust, or anything of the sort is a little premature, especially given that this is only his second extended look in the big leagues. Let’s hope he can find something that works out for him soon.