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Mike Minor spins his way to success

The Royals lefty doesn’t throw very hard, but his spin rate has made him an exceptional reliever.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
He’s the latest pitcher to become great out of the Kansas City ‘pen.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

While the Statcast revolution has had some negative effects — it’d be nice if we had all the data, or if that data were more reliable — the transition has been a boon overall. We’ve seen so many cool metrics, from exit velocity and launch angle for hitters to spin rate and perceived velocity for pitchers, that have changed the way we look at the game. We can now take a more in-depth look at players such as Mike Minor to figure out what makes them great.

Remember Minor? He used to be a hot name, in nerdy baseball circles. Before the 2011 season, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus named him one of the top 100 prospects in baseball. While he bounced between the minors and majors for a few years, in 2013 he put it all together, twirling a 3.21 ERA and 3.76 DRA in 204 23 innings for the Braves. At age 25, he seemed like a star in the making.

That would end up as Minor’s peak — in Atlanta, at least. The next year, he labored through shoulder inflammation en route to a 4.77 ERA and 4.90 DRA in 145 13 innings. He never made it onto the diamond in 2015, undergoing surgery on that shoulder in May. After winning the World Series with the help of another former Braves pitcher they picked up off the scrap heap, the Royals took a flyer on Minor in the offseason. He spent 2016 recovering from the surgery and pitching on the farm.

Now it’s 2017. Four years removed from his breakout campaign, Minor has made his comeback — but this time, as an ace reliever. His strikeout rate has surged to 26.1 percent, while his walk rate has remained a healthy 5.8 percent; he’s also allowed one of the lowest exit velocities in baseball, at 84.6 mph. Through 18 frames for the Royals, he’s put up a 2.50 ERA and 2.34 DRA.

As many pitchers do when moving to the bullpen, Minor has thrown a lot harder this year. His velocity is up across the board:

Image via Brooks Baseball

For the most part, though, that velocity is nothing to write home about. Out of the 219 pitchers who have thrown 100 four-seam fastballs this year, Minor ranks 89th, with an average velocity of 94.0 mph. His 88.4-mph slider improves on that, placing 20th in a 192-pitcher sample; still, that alone won’t accomplish much.

*According to Brooks, he’s thrown both a slider and a cutter this year, but the velocity and movement on the two are pretty similar; Savant classifies them as one pitch, and I’m going with that.

But Minor stands apart in another area. It’s something we’ve only recently been able to quantify, and it’s something you’ll have predicted if you read the title of this post. Spin rate — for lack of a better word — is good. Spin rate is right. Spin rate works. Just look at this chart:

Other variables obviously have a hand in pitcher performance, but all else equal, more spin is beneficial. So it’s great to see this:

Four-seam spin rate leaders — 2017

Rank Player Four-seamers FF Spin Rate
Rank Player Four-seamers FF Spin Rate
1 Carl Edwards Jr. 143 2670 RPM
2 Mike Minor 109 2594 RPM
3 Max Scherzer 360 2577 RPM
4 Edubray Ramos 128 2561 RPM
5 Justin Verlander 423 2561 RPM
6 Matt Bush 159 2558 RPM
7 Cody Allen 144 2531 RPM
8 Rick Porcello 271 2520 RPM
9 Aroldis Chapman 159 2508 RPM
10 Yu Darvish 283 2506 RPM
Ranking among 219 pitchers with 100+ four-seamers thrown in 2017. Data via Baseball Savant

And while high spin does different things for a slider than it does for a heater, it’s also great to see this:

Slider spin rate leaders — 2017

Rank Player Sliders SL Spin Rate
Rank Player Sliders SL Spin Rate
1 Adam Ottavino 129 2884 RPM
2 Sergio Romo 133 2866 RPM
3 Jaime Garcia 69 2818 RPM
4 Cam Bedrosian 52 2801 RPM
5 Marcus Stroman 81 2784 RPM
6 Felipe Rivero 54 2735 RPM
7 Brad Peacock 59 2714 RPM
8 Mike Minor 84 2688 RPM
9 Frankie Montas 36 2676 RPM
10 Brad Hand 129 2670 RPM
Ranking among 192 pitchers with 50+ sliders thrown in 2017. No, I don’t know why Hand is on there, either. Data via Baseball Savant

Both of Minor’s primary pitches are among the major-league leaders in spin rate. And each of them uses it differently. For the fastball, the spin manifests as a rising action that tails in on righties:

GIF via MLB.com

For the slider, the spin bears down and away on lefties, usually landing around the strike zone yet making it hard for them to square it up:

GIF via MLB.com

It shows up in his results, too. Among those 219 pitchers with 100 four-seamers, Minor ranks 27th in whiff rate (13.8 percent). While his slider doesn’t get as many swinging strikes, its strike rate (70.6 percent) places 24th among those 192 pitchers with 50 such pitches. And both the four-seamer (81.0 mph) and slider (81.4 mph) have low exit velocities against. Minor uses the heater to rack up strikeouts, and the breaking ball allows him to avoid free passes; that makes for a pretty deadly combination.

Now, this might not be a new thing for Minor. Statcast data doesn’t go beyond 2015, so we can’t see any numbers from his previous stints in the majors. Perhaps he’s always had high spin on his pitches, and his newfound velocity has dovetailed with that to make him elite. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear the spin has helped Minor take a step forward this year.

In an ideal world, MLB wouldn’t be so arcane with Statcast, and we’d get a better idea of what the metrics are and what they tell us. Still, we can learn a lot from the data we do have (and some brilliant people are working on it, so it should only get better). For a pitcher struggling to get by, follow in Minor’s footsteps — put some extra spin on your pitches. It could be the difference between a Quad-A type and a dominant reliever.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.