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Spin To Win: Baseball's Pitching Strategy Evolution

Rich Hill Bracehemmelgarntwinsgetty
Veteran lefthander Rich Hill went from afterthought to commodity because of his ability to impart extreme spin on his fastball and curveball. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Twins via Getty Images)

One of baseball’s oldest catchphrases is “spin to win.” For most of the game’s history, it referred to the success a pitcher could have with a particularly nasty curveball.

Now, as analytics and technology have found new ways to quantify the various qualities of pitches, the thought is universal: The higher the spin, the bigger the win.

That philosophy is particularly evident in the north-south pitching strategy that has become en vogue across all levels of the game. The theory is simple: Throw a high-spin fastball at the top of the strike zone, then pair it with a high-spin curveball that starts at the top of the zone before diving sharply. If executed correctly, the result should be plenty of swings and misses.

“All this stuff started several years ago in professional baseball. There’s a direct correlation between spin rate and swings and misses—and that’s on fastballs and curveballs or sliders,” said Georgia Tech pitching coach Danny Borrell, who spent years as a minor league pitching coordinator with the Yankees.

“It’s not a secret anymore, but everybody is looking for that high-spin fastball and breaking ball. And then you turn yourself into a north-south pitcher and the faster you spin it, obviously you can live a little higher in the zone. Again, it goes back to analytics, but you get swings and misses up in the zone.”

A pitcher who can throw a fastball with both high velocity and high spin has a higher margin of error. It’s that simple. The best hitters in the world can hit high-velocity fastballs with average characteristics because they’ve seen them many times before and can react accordingly. But because the reaction time is so slim, any wrinkle of deception throws off their timing and gets the ball by them more frequently.

“From a young age, you’re taught to split the plate in thirds or halves, then you want to locate in that lane, down and away and if you miss you’re going to get hit. We’re taught that from age 9,” said Georgia State pitching coach Matt Taylor, who pitched and scouted professionally.

“One of the beauties of these guys who have these special, unique, unicorn fastballs, you don’t have to be as fine. You can focus much more on, ‘Hey, as long as I’m over the plate and it’s a strike out of the hand, if I’m belt-high or up, that hitter’s going to swing.’ ”

On its own, having a high spin rate isn’t enough. To access all the benefits of the additional revolutions per minute, a pitcher has to find the perfect spin axis. Put simply, the better the spin axis, the longer the pitch can resist gravity and hold its line. For a fastball, a pitcher wants a spin axis of something like 12 o’clock. For a curveball, he’d want one closer to 6 o’clock.

If achieved, high spin coupled with an optimized spin axis leads to a pitch that can play better than its reading on the radar gun. Put in plain terms, those are the kinds of pitches that have that proverbial “giddy-up” or “late life.”

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better at evaluating fastballs in the sense of, if you’re 92-95 (mph) with high spin and some (vertical break) and you’ve got plus command, that’s still a 70 fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale),” Taylor said. “It might not be 70 velo, but it’s a 70 fastball because of how it plays.”

So if high-spin fastballs thrown on as close to a 12 o’clock as possible are a path to more swings and misses, then why not just teach every pitcher to do that? Well, it’s not that simple. Some aspects of the pitch can be taught, but others are trickier.

It’s tough for a coach to help a pitcher increase his raw spin.

“You would prefer a guy who has raw spin, essentially a high-spin guy who maybe doesn’t have spin efficiency. I’ll give an example,” Taylor said. “We have a guy who had a spin rate of 2,600 to 2,800 (rpms) when he got here, but he was basically almost throwing a slider.

“It was basically 40-60% spin efficiency with a lot of lateral break and it wasn’t getting a lot of carry because he was almost supinating the baseball the way he would a slider and he was (throwing) 80-83 (mph).

“Some of the adjustments we made with him, they’re just a variety of different things we do in our program, and by the end of the year that guy was 88-91 (mph) with spin efficiency and 20 inches of vertical break. He was basically able to convert that raw spin into true spin, but in terms of teaching it and teaching the raw spin, it’s incredibly difficult and usually you need substances to try to do that, but there obviously are mechanical adjustments you can make with guys.”

Obviously, professional teams have been diving into the data to find hidden gems who could be polished through the optimization process. Sometimes, a pitcher simply changing the way he deploys his arsenal can result in massive benefits.

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The Giants are one of many organizations which believe in the north-south philosophy (though they don’t force all of their pitchers into that strategy if they have repertoires that are already effective). The approach, they believe, is one of the most effective ways to combat an era of hitters who look to elevate pitches as often as possible.

“Part of it is, a lot of hitters now don’t know how to get to a high fastball. They’re trying to scoop low stuff up into the air, so that’s kind of been a general hitting teaching tool for a while now,” San Francisco farm director Kyle Haines said. “That creates more holes at the top of the zone than the bottom of the zone, so you kind of expose some holes in the bat path of certain hitters with a fastball that has more true backspin with life on it at the top of the zone.

“Ultimately, you could try to throw the breaking ball in the same window and try to clip the bottom of the zone because the natural break takes it to the bottom.”

Batters had developed a tendency to “scoop” the ball and uppercut it for power both as a means of maximizing power output and because sinkers and pitches located low and away had become prevalent in the 1990s and 2000s.

The X-factor, perhaps, in all of this is the possible installation of an automated strike zone. The zone, as called by human umpires, has begun to trend more and more vertically. An automated zone that enforces the zone as written would push the north-south trend even further.

Data show that a high-spin fastball thrown on the proper axis at the top of the zone will garner plenty of swings and misses. But if that pitch is now a called strike? Then we could be looking at boom times for pitchers.

“If you ever watched Tom Glavine pitch, or any of these guys who were more successful in that era, they were definitely living off the corners. Now, they’d be forced over more of the heart of the plate,” Haines said. “Now we’re seeing more of the rising fastball (coupled with) a pitch with a lot of depth, whether it’s a curveball or something else that clips the bottom of the zone, as something more beneficial just with the way the zones are being called by umpires and the way TrackMan is calling strikes if they end up going with the automatic zone.

“It’s going to alter, basically, the way our pitchers are developed and also evaluated.”

In other words, the move across the sport to a north-south approach with highly spun fastballs and breaking balls has changed the art of pitching from the top down.

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