A couple of weeks ago Baseball Savant released new leaderboards for spin direction based on measured movement from MLB’s new Hawk-Eye cameras. A day later, Cleveland traded some guy named Frankie and the direction of Shane Bieber’s spinning curveball suddenly seemed less important to write about.
Now that the dust has mostly settled on that trade, it feels like a good time to look at this new data set and perhaps understand another way to evaluate Cleveland’s stable of excellent pitchers.
So, let’s do that.
Unlike the radar-based TrackMan cameras used previously throughout major league stadiums, Hawk-Eye collects its data using extremely high-speed, high-quality video from a dozen cameras tragically placed around MLB stadiums. Among the many other wonderful things that this optical capture method allows, they can actually pick up the seams on a spinning baseball to get an accurate measure of its direction, axis, and speed.
Dating back to 2015 (also known as the “Statcast Era”), MLB relied on TrackMan for its on-the-field data gathering. While it was great at opening the door to things like launch angle and exit velocity, TrackMan was not able to pick up some of the more intricate details of a baseball in flight, so things like spin direction needed to be inferred based on the ball's movement to the plate.
The result of the change to Hawk-Eye is a sea of new data that can teach us new ways the Cleveland rotation is at the top of the league (and other things, I guess). And perhaps, with a bit more data, we will start to see the values that the front office searches for in their pursuit of the next dozen Shane Biebers. As of right now, the Hawk-Eye system has only been in place for one pandemic-shortened season, but we can still infer some things based on how Cleveland pitchers pitched in 2020.
It’s important to note that there is no one magic bullet when it comes to pitch axis or rotation. Just like there are no perfect mechanics or changeup grips — athletes are just modern marvels at making things work for them however they can. As such, there are a couple of different ways that pitchers can use this data to make their pitches that much better, and probably more we haven’t even seen yet.
Mike Petriello outlined some of them in his write-up for MLB.com. They boil down to three basic groups:
- Spinning two pitches in opposite directions, or “mirroring” their spin directions.
- Making pitches with similar spin directions look identical to each other.
- Creating a gap between where the spin of a ball makes a hitter think it should go versus where it actually goes.
All three are about deception but they go about it in different ways, suited to different pitch repertoires. There are some pitches that are just pure magic in their own category, such as Delvin Williams’ backward changeup, but the most obvious ways of using pitch direction for an edge lands in these groups.
If you think of spin direction like hours on a standard 12-hour clock, a four-seam fastball with a lot of backspin would have what is called a “12:00” rotation as it rotates from the top of the clock to the bottom (looking at it from the pitcher’s point of view, the hour notation is where the rotation is coming from, not where it is going). A hammer curveball with straight topspin would have a “6:00” rotation as the pitcher flicks his wrist and imparts a downward spin on the ball to cause it to break. In-between those you have things like sliders with rotations between 6:00 and 12:00 for righties and changeups somewhere around 12:00 to 2:00 — there are many exceptions, of course, but this is a decent starting point.
James Karinchak, for example, has a clock so beautiful and mirrored that it should be hung in The Louvre. When looking at these charts, remember that the image on the left is what is Hawk-Eye is accurately measuring, and on the right is what is inferred based on the ball’s movement at the plate.
Now the important thing: How does Cleveland use this information?
I won’t go into much detail on Bieber, specifically — seeing as Mike Petrillo already did that and did it better than I ever could — but let’s look at what some of these methods of using spin direction are, and which Cleveland pitchers may be using them based on limited measurements from last season.
The Mirror Boys
Mirroring pitches is the most straightforward to understand, and it’s something Cleveland clearly values. If you have two pitches that are pretty close to opposite ends of the imaginary spin clock (like a fastball and curveball), they can potentially be lined up and “mirrored” so that they look the same to the naked eye. With their seams lined up and spinning in opposite directions, it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart until it’s too late.
Petriello touched on these in his article, but Cleveland has three pitchers that appear to excel at this with fastball-curveball combos with perfect mirrors:
- Shane Bieber: Four-seamer (1:00), Curveball (7:00)
- James Karinchak: Four-seamer (12:30), Curveball (6:30)
- Phil Maton: Four-seamer (12:30), Curveball (6:30)
And then there is Aaron Civale, who technically mirrors everything off his 7:15 curveball, such as a 1:30 changeup and 1:00 sinker, but they are not exact and it’s hard to know if it’s by design or just how he happens to throw those pitches.
It’s probably no coincidence that all three of these pitchers are also excellent at pitch tunneling, or making their pitches stay along the same trajectory until the last possible second before they break in different directions.
For example, one of the images below is a Shane Bieber curveball thrown to Luis Robert, the other is a fastball thrown later in the same at-bat.
Robert, the poor soul, swung and missed at both.
Without Roberto Pérez giving it away by his stance behind the plate, it’s virtually impossible to tell that one of these is a high fastball and the other is a curveball in the dirt a few milliseconds later. At best you would hope to be able to read the spin of the ball and tell which direction it’s going. But by mirroring the rotation on both pitches, Bieber (and others) take away even that from opposing hitters.
It’s a wonder how hitters are able to make contact with anything this man throws.
Crouching Curveball, Hidden Slider
Pairing a fastball and curveball with opposing spin rates makes sense, but what if you don’t have a dominant fastball and curveball? What if you’re stuck with a curveball and a slider? Or what if you’re Shane Bieber and you can do both because the world is just your own personal Matrix and human limitations don’t apply to you?
In either scenario, you can design pitches that naturally spin on a similar axis but break in different directions. Maybe not as dramatic as the difference between a fastball and a curveball, but it can equally effective at deceiving batters.
Is that a curveball? Is it a slider? Or — ope nevermind the catcher has it now.
Bieber makes this list again, and he’s one of only a handful of pitchers in baseball to have both mirrored pitches and these similar-looking spinners in his arsenal.
- Shane Bieber: Curveball (7:00), Slider (7:30)
- Triston McKenzie: Four-seamer (12:30), Slider (11:30)
- Oliver Pérez: Four-seamer (10:30), Slider (10:15)
I know, I know, Oliver Pérez is not currently on the Cleveland roster anymore and he’s not likely to return. But not many Cleveland pitchers qualified for this one, and Pérez’s tilted spin axis on his four-seamer and slider are nearly identical. The wily silver fox is a man of many arm slots and rarely throws in the same one twice, but — at least in 2020 — he spun these pitches on nearly the same axis. Maybe that’s part of the reason he has stayed as an effective starter-turned-reliever approaching his 40’s? It’s a shame that we didn’t have these kinds of measurements throughout his entire career — he would be a fascinating player to watch develop and change under the all-seeing Hawk-Eye.
Triston McKenzie’s one-hour gap might be stretching things to make him qualify for this, but his four-seamer is an absolute dart, and his slider has more north-south movement than a traditional one. Maybe there is something to them looking similar until the slider drops off the table — or at least something that can be developed as he grows in the league.
While the Hawk-Eye measurements are great for accurately tracking spin direction, it doesn’t mean the inferred (also called “observed”) spin rates are going away entirely. They still tell the useful story of how a pitch should move based on other variables.
Remember, inferred spin rates are saying something along the lines of “this pitch arrived at the plate with the break of a slider on this axis, therefore it probably spun like a slider on this axis.” If you can create a gap between what the measured spin axis is (what the hitter likely sees out of the pitcher’s hand) and the inferred spin axis (how the pitch actually breaks at the plate), you just throw it in a pot and baby, you’ve got a stew going.
Petrillo highlights Lance Lynn as someone who does this exceptionally well. Lynn practically only throws fastballs, but the difference between their spin rate as measured by Hawk-Eye out of his hand and the inferred spin rate as they’re measured by the time they reach the plate are wildly different. What this essentially means is that, while a hitter may pick up the spin out of Lynn’s hand and be able to identify where they think it should go — it’s not likely to do that by the time they can get their bat to it. Forget creating deception between two pitches — this is pure one-pitch witchcraftery.
- Cal Quantrill: Slider measured (9:30), Slider inferred (8:15)
- Zach Plesac: Slider measured (12:30), Slider inferred (11:15)
- James Karinchak: Curveball measured (6:30), Curveball inferred (5:30)
- Phil Maton: Four-seamer measured (12:45), Four-seamer inferred (12:00)
- Dominic Leone: Four-seamer measured (1:00), Four-seamer inferred (12:30)
Among any pitch Cleveland hurlers have thrown at least 25 times, Cal Quantrill comes the closest to maybe falling into the Lance Lynn School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You can see the difference in perception versus reality for his sliders, which often look like they’re coming from the 6:00 to 9:30 range, but more often than not are in the 8:00 to 11:30 range.
Lynn’s average gaps are a little more significant but don’t sleep on Maton becoming a Statcast darling once we get a full season’s worth of Hawk-Eye measures.
Looking at the chart above, most of Maton’s fastballs spin on an axis somewhere between 12:00 and 1:30, while they are observed more in the 11:30 to 1:00 range.
I have no idea how you even start to teach something like this, but if Hawk-Eye setups start to find themselves in lower levels of the minors, it’s something to pick up on for a potential diamond-in-the-rough reliever who gets by on just one pitch. Or perhaps something to help a struggling multi-pitch starter shift to a more deceptive fastball or slider and fewer wonky changeups.
No matter what anyone’s pitch direction does or doesn’t do, it’s always important to keep in mind that this is just one very small taste of what a pitcher can do to deceive hitters. Someone pitchers may get by purely on great command, or a cutter that is simply impossible to hit, others may have perfected tunneling and mirroring pitches. Having a good or bad grasp of spin direction is not going to make or break most pitchers, but it’s something new and fun to look at it.
If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading Petriello’s piece linked above, and you should take some time to get acquainted with the leaderboards over on Baseball Savant.