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Phil Maton: A study of spin rate

He evidently has a high cutter spin rate, is the deal

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Baseball Savant turning its homepage into an accidental discharge from Homer Simpson’s makeup gun, today I learned a little bit about Phil Maton. Like, for instance, that he was on the Indians in 2019, and pitched more than 12 (though less than 13) innings for the Tribe! Involved in a deal whose only other participant was international slot money, Maton’s arrival in Cleveland was anonymous, his role that of a mop-up man, and since his first appearance for Cleveland came in late August, his experience one of playing out the string.

Maton was pretty good once he came over, posting a 2.92 ERA in that brief stint to bring his season ERA down to 6.14, and struck out 13 batters. One thing that helped, the thing that drew my eye, is that Maton had the fifth highest cutter spin rate among anyone in baseball. The Indians love to collect these weird little superlatives, guys with one thing that’s at the peak of the game. It’s neat, a little silly at times, and shows the trust they have in their ability to develop. Or at least their hope that being amazing at one thing means the player will be able to lean on that one thing to dominate. It’s not perfect logic, but it’s at least fun.

That spin rate, 2844 RPM, also led to a 30.3% swinging strike rate on cutters. It would be higher, but he only throws is 84.4 mph on average, peaking at 88.4 mph. His most average cutter (by spin) looks like this:

Tight, sudden movement, baffling the batter. That’s only 81.6 mph though, so perhaps you could go with this one, at 2836 RPM and 84.4 mph:

The difference is like a 20th of a rotation or something, so it’s not that big a deal. Regardless, the goal is to get strikes, and in the first one the goal was to get a swinging strike. He got the batter, Kevin Newman, to whiff at the first, and in the second - also Kevin Newman, on a different day — he got him to watch what was seemingly a hittable ball cruise right by him.

The thing about spin rate, it’s about getting useful spin, which means spin that makes the ball actually move. There are probably guys in the minors with spin rates to rival superstars, but the spin isn’t doing anything. For instance, a curveball breaks because it tumbles end over end. If it’s rotating on a vertical axis, like a non-Uranus planet, that’s not helping that much. Maton, it seems, is getting the right kind of spin. I know this because in addition to the fifth highest spin rate on his cutter, he also leads baseball in horizontal movement, averaging 7.6 inches of break better than the league average. Vertically it actually drops 8.8 inches less, but in my head, isn’t the cutter actually not supposed to drop, but move like a frisbee? Kind of like a secret slider, right? That’s basically what Maton is doing.

We’ve seen his most average, and it’s pretty neat. It’d be nice if he threw it harder, same with his 91 mph fastball, or threw it more often than 21.2% of the time, but he seems to be learning, based on this chart:

So that’s good. We’re dealing with a guy who, at his best, throws one of the sharpest-breaking cutters in the game. When you’re excellent at something like that, you do it consistently, and Maton does. What about the outliers though, like when he really spins it up, or simply chucks a mortar out there? What then?

The most spin Maton got on a cutter in 2019 was 3294 RPM, on June 23 against the Pirates’ Jose Osuna. He got Osuna to strike out swinging. Take a look:

It’s a damn wiffle ball folks. Maybe not that good, but it’s got the bite of a very good slider, all while looking like a fastball out of the hand. For a guy who doesn’t have elite fastball velo, this is vital.

That’s his best, his most spinniest. What about the worst? There’s actually a couple candidates for this one, including a handful of NULL DATA choices, but the one that actually has real measurements and makes some sense is this one at 2,449 RPM to Alex Avila:

This is what I was hoping to demonstrate. This is just a kind of shitty, slow pitch that doesn’t do much of anything. It almost appears to actually move away from the batter. If this had been in the zone Avila could have hit it like batting practice. We are thrown all these stats that get spun out of the StatCast machine, exit velocties and spin rates that tell us about the process that brings the resultant hits or strikeouts or whatever, I think it’s important to see what that looks like. There’s a reason a player like Maton is actively traded for, even if it was just for international bonus money.

It’ll be nice to see, if we get to, what happens with him in 2020. There’s suddenly a glaring hole in the Tribe bullpen for the next 80 games, and Clase also throws a cutter. If, at the worst, Maton can be a poor man’s Clase, that’s the dream, right? Maton doesn’t do a lot of things at an elite level - his velocity is nothing compared to Clase, and only struck out 20.2% of batters in 2019 - but he does one thing real well, and that’s spin his cutter. It could be a building block. That same pitch has worked for a lot of relievers, albeit not at 84 mph. Hoping for growth and change is allowed though, especially for a reliever. He needs to deliver in 2020 though.