Friday, July 14, 2017

Sean Newcomb, Rich Hill, and Spin Rates

Chris Blessing - Follow on Twitter
As we’ve entered the Statcast era of baseball analytics, we now have the ability to look at specific parts of the game with much more clarity. We can quantify how hard a player hits the ball, what angle the ball comes off the bat, how many feet a center-fielder covers to make a play, how quick his first step was and on and on and on. Among these new tools is one metric that’s changed how we measure pitchers and the effectiveness of their pitches: spin rate.

If you were paying attention last year, you know one of the best stories of 2016 was Rich Hill. He tore through the NL last year for a few reasons but there were two main ones; he had a great curveball and he threw it a ton. Hill led all of baseball last year throwing his curve a whopping 42% of the time with an average spin rate of 2837 RPMs which was good for 3rd among all LH starters, per Baseball Savant.

So just out of interest, I wanted to see how he was doing in 2017 and sure enough once again he leads all LH starters with a CB spin rate of 2792 RPMs. 

But what was interesting was who was sitting there in second place: Sean Newcomb. Newcomb is spinning his CB at 2791 RPMs, almost identical to Hill’s.

Ok. I knew it was a good curveball but Rich Hill good? Ok.

For those of you still new to the spin rate concept, the faster you can spin the ball, the harder the ball will move in the direction it’s spinning. For instance, a fastball has back spin when you throw it so the more spin you put on a FB the longer it repels gravity and stays up. Curveballs, of course, have front spin as the ball rolls over the index finger so the faster you can spin it, the harder it’s going to move downward.

And these concepts are confirmed by their resulting batted ball data. High spinning fastballs stay up longer and therefore result in more fly balls while low spinning FB succumb to gravity faster resulting in more groundballs.

With curveballs, it’s the exact opposite. High spinning CBs move downward a greater rate and therefore result in more groundballs while low spinning CBs, or hangers, lead to more fly balls. And as evidence from the “elevate and celebrate” revolution taking over baseball right now, pitchers want groundballs. Well they want no contact at all but the next best thing is getting grounders. You get it.

Overall, Newcomb is only posting slightly above average groundball rates right now, around 45% but a big reason for that is his high fastball usage. Newcomb throws his fastball almost 64% of the time, per Brooks Baseball and when hitters put it in play, they hit it on the ground 41% of the time. So that’s going to hurt his overall groundball rate.

But when hitters put his curveball into play, that’s when we see that spin rate effect. When batters make contact with Newcomb’s CB, which he throws 24% of the time, they put it on the ground 58% of the time and only have .200 batting average against. Hitters, in generals, just aren't making optimal contact against it.

It’s not just ground balls either. Newcomb gets swing-and-misses on almost 16% of his curveballs compared to 10% with his fastball. (It’s 20% with his change-up but that’s another post for another day)

The biggest difference I see with Hill and Newcomb's curveball is Hill is able to control his better at this point in their careers. It makes sense, Hill is much older and has thrown thousands more CBs in his career, but that's where Sean can see the most gains with his. Being able to drop it in for a strike or bounce it in the dirt on command will force hitters to respect it at a greater level than they do now. But that just comes with repetition. He'll get there.

You didn’t need me or this post to tell you Newcomb has a good curveball, but it wasn’t until I dove into the data that I realized how good it actually was. This is the part of the post where I feel compelled to remind everyone, and myself, that we're still dealing with relatively small samples and the prudent thing to is wait and see.

But it's hard to have fluky spin rates. You either have the ability or you don't.

Like many of you, I’ve wondered when Sean is going to start featuring his change-up and slider more in games, especially against good teams. But perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps the question we should be asking is when is Newcomb going to make his curveball his featured weapon.

Hey, it worked for Rich Hill.

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