Atlanta Braves: Drew Smyly and the new spin rate

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly -- leaving a game. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly -- leaving a game. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Braves acquired Drew Smyly over the Winter in large part due to his analytics.  That’s now a sticky topic as MLB checks for contraband.

Changes are afoot, no doubt.  And with this particular topic, more eyes than usual are peering in the direction of Atlanta Braves starter Drew Smyly to see how his pitches will fare in this new era of “no foreign substances”.

Certainly, all MLB pitchers are clearly taking notice of the new protocol:

The questions we have, though, are these:

  • How close to home are these numbers?
  • Did they seem to matter?

For answers, let’s turn to Drew Smyly and some of his recent outings:

  • JUNE 20 vs. St. Louis
    • AVG spin, 4-seam fastball:  2028 RPM (spin rate down 128 RPM from season average)
    • AVG spin, Cutter:  1920 RPM (down 129 RPM from season average)
    • AVG spin, Curveball:  2063 RPM (down 82 RPM from season average)
    • OUTCOME:  5.2 innings, 1 hit, 3BB, 5K, 0 runs allowed.
  • JUNE 13 vs. Miami
    • AVG spin, 4-seam fastball:  2063 RPM (down 93)
    • AVG spin, Cutter:  2016 RPM (down 66)
    • AVG spin, Curveball:  2211 RPM (up 66)
    • OUTCOME:  5.0 innings, 6 hits, 1BB, 6K, 2 runs allowed.
  • JUNE 8 vs. Philadelphia
    • AVG spin, 4-seam fastball:  2140 RPM (down 16)
    • AVG spin, Cutter:  1949 RPM (down 100)
    • AVG spin, Curveball:  2117 RPM (down 28)
    • OUTCOME:  4.1 innings, 5 hits, 3BB, No K, 2 earned runs allowed.
  • JUNE 2 vs. Washington
    • AVG spin, 4-seam fastball:  2240 RPM (up 95)
    • AVG spin, Cutter:  2090 RPM (up 41)
    • AVG spin, Curveball:  2156 RPM (up 19)
    • OUTCOME:  5.2 innings, 7 hits, 2BB, 6K, 3 runs allowed.

Okay, that’s enough for now:  I went back a couple more starts and all of those stats showed spin above the season averages.  You don’t need to see those numbers.

In short, the only recent outing in which Smyly showed any statistically significant deviation from his normal pattern was Sunday’s game against the Cardinals… with markedly lower spin rates for all of his pitches.

[ While the June 8 and 13 numbers were indeed under his averages, they weren’t that unusual — excepting perhaps his June 8th Cutter (which was only thrown 15 times) and June 13 fastball ]

And yet… on June 20th Smyly dominated St. Louis in a Braves victory.

Is this all some sort of mind over matter, then?  Smyly had a game with significantly less spin on his pitches, and yet he performed better.

Maybe — and then again we don’t know what else played a part:  the temperature had dropped to around 82-83 degrees, but with humidity close to 70% after the Saturday rains.  Mercifully, there was a nice breeze of 10-12 mph, but maybe the weather conditions helped him?

So maybe it doesn’t matter?

A 78 mph curveball travels 114.4 feet in one second, and thus takes 0.52 seconds to reach home plate (not accounting for Smyly’s actual release point or the fact that the ball slows down during its flight… figure something between .52 and .6 or so).

So at 2063 RPM (avg on June 20) vs. 2145 RPM (season avg.), this drop of 82 RPM represents less than one additional revolution of the baseball during that flight to the plate.

Here are a couple recent anecdotal stories on the subject:

Then there’s this:

"Yu Darvish was checked for illegal foreign substances and passed before his start yesterday, but the spin rate of his four primary pitches was dramatically reduced. He still had a stellar outing, though.  [ed. note:  6 IP, 1 ER, 2 hits, 11K, 1BB vs. Dodgers ]"

So yes:  Drew Smyly hasn’t been the second-coming of Cy Young for the Atlanta Braves this season — his current ERA of 5.11 says volumes there — but he has been improving… noticeably.

  • ERA in May:  4.24
  • ERA in June:  3.26

So if indeed he is being impacted by the dreaded long (and non-sticky) arm of the MLB law, it’s coming (a) as he’s getting his throwing figured out overall, and (b) while his best outing of the year was happening.

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So maybe… there’s nothing to see here? For now, that’s how we’re gonna spin it.