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A (Way Too Early) Look at Cardinal Pitch Velocity and Spin Changes

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There are some red flags from the first week of action

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals have put one week in the books. There’s been some good (Jack Flaherty, two crisp wins to open the season, major thump from Tyler O’Neill and the two Pauls), some bad (Harrison Bader’s offensive performance, a big chunk of the rotation), and some ugly (outscored 14-4 in the last three games). Every year, we talk about chasing the small sample size dragon in the early going, but eventually sample sizes pile up and we can put more confidence in the sustainability of certain stats. Unfortunately, this season only has 60 games- even less when/if teams continue to have to be paused for days and weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks. We’re going to be chasing that dragon all year. Instead of fighting it, let’s take a look today at how the velocity and spin of Cardinal pitches have changed since last year. Which pitchers look different? Are there any red flags or signs of encouragement?

Before I continue with this, I must loudly point out- this data is from a hilariously small sample. Just because Freddy Fastball’s velocity took a dip doesn’t mean it’s permanent. It’s more of a slight cause for concern, something to watch in the future. Similarly, enhanced spin or velocity isn’t automatically a sign of a pending breakout. It’s something to monitor to see if it can be repeated.

Four-Seam Fastballs

With that caveat out of the way, we’ll start with the bread and butter for most pitchers- the four-seam fastball. What you’ll see here is each pitcher’s gain or loss (difference) in MPH compared to 2019, and the same for spin in RPMs. I’ve also given them percentiles compared to other pitchers around the league to help add context. The lower the percentile, the more spin or velocity they’ve lost. The higher, the more they’ve gained.

Four-Seam Fastballs, Velocity and Spin, 2019 v. 2020

Pitcher Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Pitcher Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Wainwright 0.3 -54 73.28% 32.76%
Ponce de Leon 0.3 76 73.28% 83.05%
Helsley 0.1 70 68.82% 81.90%
Webb 0.1 31 68.82% 72.13%
Hudson 0 65 65.95% 81.03%
Flaherty -0.3 -69 56.32% 27.73%
Gallegos -1.4 -7 27.73% 52.30%
Miller -1.8 -8 17.24% 51.15%
Gant -2 -15 13.22% 47.56%
Martinez -3.7 1 1.44% 55.89%

For Gallegos and Hudson, we’re talking about 3 and 4 pitches, respectively, in 2020. That’s insignificant even for a sample riddled with insignificance. The bulk of the staff is holding firm or even improving their velocity. However, Carlos Martinez and John Gant have screaming red flags. Their loss in velocity from 2019 to the first week of 2020 ranks as some of the biggest drops in all of baseball so far. Andrew Miller’s drop is pronounced as well. Those are huge red flags.

Daniel Ponce de Leon, Ryan Helsley, Tyler Webb, and Dakota Hudson have all shown a decent bump in their spin rates. It’s worth noting that for Hudson, that may not be a good thing- a higher spin rate usually means less sink. It’s a great thing for the others, though. Ponce and Helsley especially can rack up strikeouts if they can hold on to or even expand their spin increase.

Sliders

Here’s how the info looks for sliders:

Sliders, Velocity and Spin, 2019 v. 2020

Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Hudson 1 -19 78.60% 50.78%
Flaherty 0.4 34 65.95% 68.09%
Fernandez -0.2 -400 55.84% 1.56%
Gallegos -1.3 311 29.96% 98.83%
Miller -1.9 20 20.23% 63.42%

For Junior Fernandez and Giovanny Gallegos, we’re talking about four and three sliders, respectively. In Gallegos’ case, we know that he has two sliders that he throws and the increased spin and smaller velocity leads me to believe we’ve only seen him throw one kind thus far. In other words, nothing to see here with those two, though that huge spin difference for Gallegos is fun to see.

Hudson has a smidge more heat on his slider so far but basically the same spin rate. I suspect Bauer Units (spin/velo) might tell us more about effectiveness, but it’s too early to even begin speculating. The biggest red flag here is that Miller’s velocity is down 1.9 mph. Combined with the 1.8 mph drop on his four-seamer, that’s a bad trend to monitor.

Cutters

Here’s the cutter table:

Cutters, Velocity and Spin, 2019 v. 2020

Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo Pctile Spin Pctile
Gant -5.6 0 2.11% 65.26%
Ponce de Leon -2.5 144 14.21% 92.11%
Helsley -1 54 48.95% 77.90%
Wainwright 1 -20 90.00% 53.68%

Considering there are only four pitchers with enough cutters thrown last year and this year to qualify, there’s a lot to deduce here. First and foremost, there’s John Gant with a dip in velocity again. It’s alarming, particularly coupled with his drop in four-seam velocity. However, we’re talking about a single cutter in the data for 2020. It’s scary, but with no good reason. In other words, ignore Gant up there.

Adam Wainwright has added a mile per hour to his cutter so far, which is handy. The bigger story is Daniel Ponce de Leon. We heard this off-season that he’d worked with Driveline and that they liked his cutter. That work, if repeated, is pretty clear thus far. The velocity is down a little but the spin is way up- one of the biggest spin gains on cutters across baseball so far. It’s going to be fun to see how this changes him as a pitcher.

Curveballs

The curveball data:

Curveballs, Velocity and Spin, 2019 v 2020

Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo pctile Spin pctile
Player Velo Diff Spin Diff Velo pctile Spin pctile
Ponce de Leon 0.9 118 75.65% 88.70%
Hudson 0.5 112 69.35% 87.39%
Helsley 0 -120 61.52% 22.61%
Flaherty -0.3 -20 51.52% 55.22%
Webb -1.1 -21 27.83% 54.35%
Wainwright -1.2 5 25.44% 63.91%
Gant -1.7 -239 17.39% 5.65%

Most of these are insignificant, though yet again we see Gant with a drop in velocity. In this case, it’s only two pitches, but it’s adding up on him. His velocity is down across the board. Beyond Gant, Wainwright’s velo was down but his spin was up, which is actually a good thing. It gave him some of the most vertical break that we’ve seen out of him in years.

We also see Ponce getting more spin again. He really put in some effort this off-season and I’m excited to see how it translates.

Sinkers

This isn’t worth a table. Only three pitchers have thrown one in both 2019 and 2020. One of those, Adam Wainwright, has only thrown one so far this year. Dakota Hudson’s has been very close to identical so far.

Key Takeaways

  • It’s only 2.2 innings, but John Gant has experienced a troubling drop in velocity across the board. I didn’t show two-seamers, but his velocity there has dropped too (3.7 mph). His changeup is the only pitch that hasn’t lost two or more mph since last season.
  • Carlos Martinez put up some ugly velocity on his four-seamer the other night, and that’s a huge cause for concern. As I mentioned in the comments of stlcardsfan4’s article yesterday:

Brooks Baseball has [Martinez’s] game by game velo averages, by pitch. The other night was 92.6 on the four-seamer, his lowest ever. He’s had three other times under 94:

-9/25/15, right before he went on the DL and missed the 2015 playoffs. He only made it 0.1 innings that day.

-6/5/18. This was the first game back after a month on the DL, and he’d be back on the DL 6 weeks later.

-8/24/18. His second game back after coming off the DL for the second time that year.

It’s one game, and only one game, but you really want to see him rectify that the next time out.

  • Andrew Miller, like Gant, is showing some major decline in velocity in admittedly short samples. His fastball and slider are down nearly two miles per hour from 2019.
  • Daniel Ponce de Leon looks like he remade himself. He’s showing a newly designed cutter and more spin all around, along with some higher velo on everything but the cutter. He’s someone to watch all year long.
  • Adam Wainwright’s curve looked a bit more like vintage Waino, with more vertical drop than we’ve seen since 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if it was a one-off game where he was just feeling it on the pitch or if this is an adjustment he’s made.