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Spinning the Cardinals bet on high heat

When the St. Louis Cardinals ousted incumbent pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, the front office cited a desire to find a coach who understood and embraced modern pitching strategy and analytics. While I’m not aware of the specifics of Lilliquist’s coaching, he appears to have held an old-school view on pitcher roles, especially in the bullpen, and there is evidence (or speculation) that the coaching staff didn’t buy-in to the scouting reports and data delivered by the Cardinals analytics department.

Consequently, despite finishing the 2017 season with the 10th and 11th best team FIP- and ERA-, respectively, the Cardinals decided to make a change. After a three week search, the Cardinals hired their man in Mike Maddux. While Maddux mustache hearkens back to the 1970’s, his approach to pitching aligns more with the expanding presence of data and impact of analytics on the baseball field.

While we may never know what Maddux writes in his notepad while watching a Spring Traing bullpen session, we do know from his comments to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Mike Maddux values the high fastball. Specifically, high fastballs with high spin rates.

Over the past few seasons, Statcast has debuted a number of metrics that change how fans, players, coaches, and front offices evaluate players. In 2015, the focus was primarily on exit velocity. Launch angle took over in 2016. In 2017, Statcast focused on pitcher spin rate.

The first thing we should understand about spin rate is that, in its current state, the measurements are not terribly reliable. We don’t have specific error numbers or confidence intervals, but download any decently-sized spin rate data set and you’ll surely see outliers that, frankly, don’t make any sense.

As a result, most research into spin rate leads to hesitant statements about what might be useful, but also might not be, and generally fails to lead to anything conclusive. One thing we have consistently found, however, is that fastballs with high spin rates located high in the strike zone outperform similar fastballs with lower spin rates, in terms of whiff percentage and batted ball results (as measured by wOBA).

During his tenure with the Washington Nationals, Maddux had the pleasure of working with spin rate star Max Scherzer. In Scherzer’s two years under Maddux, he had the tenth-highest fourseamer spin rate and threw the second-most fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone.

It would make sense, then, if the St. Louis front office’s bet on analytics was that Mike Maddux could leverage high spin rates possessed by the St. Louis Cardinals pitchers to improve the overall effectiveness of the staff. However, if that’s their gamble, it looks like they missed the mark.

Last season, the average spin rate on all fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, sinker, and cutter) was 2227 RPM, while the average on 4-seamers specifically was 2255 RPM. Focusing in on St. Louis, the Cardinals average all-fastball spin rate of 2186 RPM and 4-seamer spin rate 2222 RPM both ranked 23rd among all MLB teams.

Breaking it down individually, the picture doesn’t appear any more promising.

The reference line is set at the league average spin rate for all fastballs of 2227 RPM. The first thing that jumps off the page – the Cardinals lost three of their top four performers by fastball spin rate following the 2017 season. Trevor Rosenthal, who led the team at 2486 RPM, was non-tendered after he required Tommy John surgery during the season, Sandy Alcantara was traded in the package for Marcell Ozuna, and Lance Lynn signed a one year deal with the Twins after curiously receiving literally zero interest from the Cardinals.

Although bullpen acquisitions Bud Norris (2456 RPM) and Dominic Leone (2335 RPM) replace Trevor Rosenthal and Sandy Alcantara (2385 RPM) as the expected team leaders in spin rate, they trail the former Cardinals by an average of 40 RPM – among all MLB teams, 40 RPM was the difference between 10th and 20th. Similarly, newcomer Miles Mikolas will assume Lance Lynn’s spot in the starting rotation but is unlikely to find himself near the top of this leaderboard given the uninspiring movement and velocity profile of his repertoire. Alex Reyes might provide a boost as a key piece after he averaged 2292 RPM on fastballs in his debut season, but Tommy John surgery may limit his ability to spin the ball. Lance Lynn, for example, lost more than 35 RPM on his fastball between the 2015 and 2017 after undergoing elbow surgery in the 2016 offseason.

Looking elsewhere within the division, the Chicago Cubs appear to be embracing a similar philosophy after hiring pitching coach Jim Hickey, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays and advocate of the high fastball. Recently (on Pi Day, no less),’s David Adler identified recent Chicago signee Yu Darvish as a candidate who might reap benefits of the high fastball philosophy.

While Darvish’s fastball possesses a spin rate among the league leaders (above, from Adler’s article), he has never consistently used it up in the zone despite historical success when he has elevated. Another one of the outliers most similar to Darvish’s profile? Tyler Chatwood, another Cubs free agent signing.

The St. Louis Cardinals are betting on Mike Maddux and high fastballs to take the pitching staff over the top and push the team into contention. Do they have the personnel to take advantage of the elevation philosophy? Based on the team’s recent performance, there’s reason to doubt.

*Thanks for reading. It’s been a while since I have published regularly due some expected and other unexpected life changes, and I appreciate those of you who are still around after the ride last season. It’s good to be back.

**Historically, I have been terrible at citing Baseball Savant for making these posts possible. Credit to them for this post, and many more in the past and future, possible.

***Cover photo credit to Chris Lee and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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