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How did Yankees pitchers fare on spin efficiency leaderboards?

Maximizing active spin with the right pitches has mostly worked for the Yankees as an organization

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Part of the Yankees’ recent focus on using tech resources to get their pitchers to improve — the “Gas Station” in the Tampa complex, for example — is centered around taking advantage on concepts that have been around for quite some time, but have gradually become more important with each passing year. Two of those concepts are spin efficiency and spin axis.

Sometimes, fans pay too much attention to raw spin rate, as if it was the only thing behind the “rescue” or “revival” of a pitcher. But truth be told, that’s not necessarily the case because the efficiency of that spin rate is much more important.

Spin efficiency, also referred to as “active spin,” is the spin that contributes to movement. Pitchers don’t want a flat fastball that catches too much of the plate, so the closer the spin efficiency is to 100 percent, the better it will generally be. That’s because it will create the so-called “rising” effect.

The ball doesn’t actually change its trajectory upwards. What happens is that at 100 percent efficiency or close to it, the drop caused by gravity is delayed, so it makes it look like it’s actually going up in the eyes of the hitter. A high active spin helps avoid natural cut or sink action.

Of course, there isn’t only one avenue towards success. Andrew Heaney ranked 16th among 654 pitchers in fastball active spin with 99.3 percent, but he was bad with the Los Angeles Angels (5.27 ERA) and even worse with the Yankees (7.32 ERA). Other factors influence a final stat line, of course: command, health, mental approach, strategy, additional pitches, luck, defense, etc.

However, in the last few years, many pitchers have found that maximizing spin efficiency can lead to excellent results, especially on their fastballs. It’s an additional weapon to work with, and the Yankees, as an organization, have understood and embraced the concept.

If we take a long look at the Statcast leaderboards for fastball active spin, we find a few current Yankees on the list. Albert Abreu ranked 48th with 98.7-percent spin efficiency, but the pitch didn’t generate good results overall (.365 xwOBA). It worked, however, for Gerrit Cole (70th, with 98.3 efficiency, .295 xwOBA) and Nestor Cortes Jr. (232nd, with 93.8 percent efficiency, .265 xwOBA despite middling velocity).

Somewhat surprisingly, a few Yankees who ranked higher didn’t find good, consistent results with their high efficiency fastballs. Of course, two of them — Nick Nelson and Deivi García — didn’t have a particularly large sample and faced plenty of other issues anyway, and Wandy Peralta is more of a changeup-sinker kind of pitcher.

Here is what Rapsodo says about curveballs and spin efficiency:

“12-6 curveballs should spin opposite of four-seam fastballs. These curveballs are typically thrown with less spin efficiency than those fastball types (MLB average was around 78 percent); increased efficiency will increase the vertical drop of the pitch, thus making them a great complement to “rising” four-seam fastball. In order to best utilize the topspin profile of the pitch, gyroscopic spin should be minimized as much as possible.”

Lucas Luetge is the perfect example of how pretty a 12-6, high-spin curveball looks. He completely overhauled his stuff in the “Gas Station”, adding RPM to nearly all of his pitches. In 2021, the left-hander was the highest-ranked pitcher on the Yankees in the curveball spin efficiency leaderboard, ranking 59th with 85.8-percent active spin. The statistical results? A 51.4-percent whiff rate and a .086 xwOBA. Here are the visual results:

Cole, Jameson Taillon, and Clay Holmes also appeared in the top half of the leaderboard for curveball active spin, in addition to García, Nelson, and Clarke Schmidt. Sweeping curveballs’ ideal spin efficiency should be between 65 and 75 percent with an 8:00-9:00 spin direction.

Sliders should be treated differently; they usually require more gyroscopic spin than “active” spin in order to be effective. “Gyro sliders need to have spin efficiencies lower than 10 percent. This allows the velocity, pitcher’s release point, grip, gravity, and partial sidespin imparted on the ball to dictate the ball’s movement pattern,” per Rapsodo.

This was true for Cole and Holmes. Both of their sliders were excellent bat-missing weapons (37.8 and 40.4 percent whiff rate, respectively) and ranked near the bottom of the ranking in spin efficiency, with 20 and 26 percent.

Changeups, however, depend more on velocity differential off the fastball and feel rather than spin efficiency. As a proof of this, we have Jordan Montgomery succeeding with a 99.3-percent active spin on his changeup (39.2-percent whiff rate, .283 xwOBA), while Corey Kluber and Domingo Germán showed good numbers with their lower-efficiency changeups. Now a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Klubot had 76.6-percent active spin, a 40.2-percent whiff rate and a .213 xwOBA with the pitch; and Germán’s 85.5-percent efficiency cambio earned him a 31.6-percent whiff rate and a .276 xwOBA.

Every pitch has a different relationship with spin efficiency. And the Yankees, as an organization, are clearly working with their pitchers to maximize the effectiveness of their best weapons.