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A look at some of Cleveland’s changing spin rates

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The investigation into Trevor Bauer’s use of substances raises questions for all teams

Toronto Blue Jays v Detroit Tigers Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

As far as former Cleveland players go, perhaps none has made himself so easy to say goodbye to as Trevor Bauer. For all his talent, he has always been a petulant and fussy personality. Perhaps my feelings about it are best summed up by Terry Francona’s last on-field words to him (probably, I’m not a perfect lip reader):

“What the f--- is wrong with you?”

So, when Bauer was singled out to be inspected for using foreign substance on the baseball last week, I had a good chuckle. But that chuckle was short-lived because, as Eno Sarris wrote at The Athletic, “Your favorite pitcher is probably cheating.

It’s an open secret that pitchers use something(s) to help their grip. As Grant Brisbee wrote, “Pitchers (used to) load up on sticky, technically forbidden substances in front of reporters. Some batters even half-jokingly said they were OK with it because extra grip made it less likely for pitchers to uncork an accidental beanball.” Now baseball is starting to enforce its own long-standing law, and it’s making Bauer the first high-profile case. While that was funny for a moment, is there reason for Cleveland to be concerned?

The 2021 season is a mere infant, but a jump in spin rate should be evident even in small sample sizes. With that in mind, I looked at the past couple of seasons to see if anyone has seen their average spin rate jump in any meaningful way, as of Monday afternoon.

Average Spin Rates

Pitcher 2019 2020 2021 2021 minus 2020 2021 minus 2019
Pitcher 2019 2020 2021 2021 minus 2020 2021 minus 2019
Clase 2573 -- 2566 -- -7
Maton 2683 2657 2505 -152 -178
Stephan -- -- 2481 -- --
Bieber 2256 2346 2465 119 209
Karinchak 2461 2376 2435 59 -26
Shaw 2378 2433 2410 -23 32
Civale 2501 2476 2357 -119 -144
Quantrill 2035 2180 2259 79 224
McKenzie -- 2215 2182 -33 --
Pérez 2223 2153 2160 7 -63
Allen 1863 2156 2142 -14 279
Wittgren 2184 2147 2082 -65 -102
Plesac 1974 1989 1944 -45 -30
Average spin rates

According to Driveline Baseball, the average spin rate on a 92 mph fastball can range from 1800 to 2400 rpm. So, it makes sense that flamethrowers like Emmanuel Clase sit atop the Cleveland spin rate leaderboard. Most Cleveland pitchers live within the average range specified by Driveline. Likewise, most have seen their average spin rate change within just tens of rotations per minute in the last two years, which is just noise. There’s nothing to conclude from those variations other than random variance from weather and whatnot.

A few pitchers have seen their spin rates move appreciably higher, however, and those are quite interesting. In the link above, Driveline defines Bauer units as spin rate over velocity, and it is so named because of the eponymous pitcher who admittedly toyed with substances to see how it affected his spin rate (to make a point about the Astros cheating, which was one of his good instances of petulance). Average fastball spin rate is 2278 in 2021 and velocity is 93.9 mph, which makes league-average Bauer unit 24.26; in 2020 it was 24.17; and in 2019 it was 24.1.

In the chart above, the difference between 2019 and 2021 spin rates for two pitchers in particular really piqued my interest: Logan Allen has spun the ball 279 rpm greater in 2021 than he did in 2019 and Cal Quantrill has spun it 224 rpm greater over the same span. The difference in Bauer units for Allen is 3.13 and for Quantrill is 2.05; their BU+ (where 100 is league average) for 2021 and 2019, respectively, are 101 and 89 for Allen and 101 and 93 for Quantrill. This is interesting to me because Allen pitched 25.1 of his 27.2 major league innings in 2019 with the San Diego Padres; similarly, Quantrill threw all 103 innings in 2019 in San Diego.

The other change that stood out to me was from Cleveland’s Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber. In 2019 Bieber’s spin rate was 209 rpm fewer than in 2021; in Bauer units he went from 25.6 to 27.7 and in BU+ he went from 106 to 114. Unlike Allen and Quantrill, Bieber did not switch organizations. So perhaps the change between 2019 and 2021 is entirely related to these individuals growing as pitchers and finding ways to improve on the mound.

As a noted pitching factory, coaches in the Cleveland organization have clearly figured out something meaningful to teach young players. Is that related to spin rate? I can’t say. I also can’t say whether the organization has some research and development devoted to substances.

When Eno Sarris, one of the smartest and best connected baseball writers currently working, says that your favorite pitcher is probably cheating I am inclined to think something is going on. Where there’s smoke and so on. What it means going forward is anyone’s guess, though. Whether the Bauer investigation enough to scare other pitchers into discontinuing substance use remains to be seen, but if it does we can almost guarantee it will result in a decrease in spin rate.

A decrease in spin rates means less “rise” to fastballs and potentially less effectiveness in the upper reaches of the strikezone. For guys like Bieber, whose heatmap shows his fastball living in those areas, this could be significant, whereas those who work down, like Allen, and sinker-ball pitchers, like Quantrill, may not feel the effects the same. We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.