Spin Cycle: Under the radar free agent pitchers

Spin rate
Photo credit: brujuladeportiva.com

While new GM Mike Elias was with the Astros, they coaxed improvement out of a number of pitchers with high spin rate breaking balls by changing their pitch mix and approach to attacking hitters. Last week I wrote about the O’s waiver claim of Austin Brice, highlighting his high spin curveball. I suggested that he might fit the mold of a player who could use his breaking ball more effectively. On Tuesday, the O’s added another player with a high breaking ball spin rate. They signed Gregory Infante to a minor league deal.

I think it’s safe to say that this is a trend. When I posted on the Orioles Hangout message boards about the Infante signing, I was asked an excellent question. To paraphrase, it went “who is next?”. Who are the other cheap, controllable free agents who have high spin breaking balls and could benefit from some better usage?

Here are the criteria I used.

  1. They must have a high spin breaking ball.
  2. They must be someone who’d likely sign for league minimum or a minor league deal.
  3. They must be pre-arbitration, this way if they work out, they can be controlled at a reasonable rate for multiple years.
  4. They must have MLB service time. The reason for this is that I don’t have access to minor league spin data, so I can’t determine whether the pitcher meets the criteria without them throwing MLB pitches.

I found about twelve players who met these criteria, but some of them had notable control issues and a bunch had already been signed (Including Taylor Guerrieri who was on the first draft of this article but signed with the Rangers last night). Here are three pitchers that the Orioles could target.

Johnny Barbato – RHP, 26 years old

Barbato is the youngest and has the best velocity of anyone on this list. His fastball averages 95mph and can t98. His curveball is more of above average spin rather than elite like the other two names on the list, coming in around 2600 RPM. His hard, cutterish slider has been his most effective pitch, so it seems counter-intuitive to change his pitch mix to be more curveball heavy. However, it could work because the curveball will help his fastball play up. His fastball is straight so despite it’s velocity, it gets hit hard. The slider doesn’t help keep hitters off the pitch because it doesn’t have enough velocity and movement separation. The curveball tunnels well with the fastball and it could fuel a performance improvement.

Paolo Espino – RHP, 32 years old

Espino is the oldest guy on this list, turning 32 today. He also has the least velocity, with his fastball just averaging 89mph in his MLB debut in 2017. He is intriguing though because he has basically been a Quad-A type despite using a bunch of below average to fringe average pitches. I see easy improvement just by focusing on his high spin curveball. During his 24 MLB innings in 2017, he got lit up, but his curveball (averaging 2861 RPM, 29th in the majors that year) had a 40% whiff rate and only a 76mph average exit velocity on balls in play. He only used it 23% of the time. He throws a 4S FB, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, and changeup. The curveball is by far the best pitch of the bunch. He can throw it for strikes so I see no reason he shouldn’t use it like Lance McCullers Jr, throwing it 45% or more. He’s been pitching well as a starting pitcher in the Dominican Winter League with a 1.85 ERA in eight starts.

Luke Bard – RHP, 28 years old

Bard was Rule 5 eligible in 2017 and the Angels selected him. He made the opening day roster but got touched up for four HRs in just 11IP and was returned to the Twins. He did miss bats in his brief MLB stint, but the performance isn’t what makes him so interesting, it’s his truly elite spin rates. He averaged 2770 RPM on his 92-95mph fastball (2nd in all of MLB) and 2984 RPM on his slider (4th in all of MLB). He’s not an obvious pitch mix changer, he already throws the slider 30-40% of the time. He’s had periods of dominant performance in the minors though and I think he’d benefit from an improved plan of attack against hitters. He lives in the middle of the zone too much, which worked in the minors because of the elite spin, but it hurt him in the majors.  Also, the slider can just spin like crazy without much movement at times, so there may be an opportunity to change the pitch slightly to improve the spin axis and get better movement. Either way, Bard is a unique pitcher whose talents are worth giving another shot on a rebuilding club.

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Luke graduated from Drexel University and is a former Division I athlete. He now resides in NOVA and watches an obscene amount of minor league baseball. In addition to baseball, he enjoys good coffee, good beer, weightlifting, and spending quality time with his wife and daughter.