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Digging into the Data: Astros Spin Rates

The Houston Astros have the highest spin rates in baseball, whether it be by design or “something else”.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In the month of April across Major League Baseball, more strikeouts were recorded than hits. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1913. The Houston Astros’ MLB-leading 315 strikeouts were tops in baseball during the first month of the season.

Anchored by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, the Astros feature a lot of swing-and-miss stuff in their pitching staff. This season, Houston has an MLB-best 13.9% swing and miss rate, which seems to be by design.

Trevor Bauer isn’t buying it. On Monday, he took to Twitter to air his theory about why Astros pitchers are racking up so many strikeouts.

He went on a subsequent rant about the Astros’ sudden uptick in spin rate on their pitches and insinuated they’re getting a little help from “something else”.

Bauer isn’t completely wrong. The Astros were baseball’s strikeout kings in late March and the month of April, collecting a league-best 315 strikeouts. The spike in strikeouts shouldn’t come as a surprise because Houston’s pitching staff has a lot of swing-and-miss arms on their team.

Bauer isn’t buying it, though. In a series of follow-up tweets, he hints the Astros are getting a little bit of help, which may explain the Astros increased spin rate and strikeouts. This much is true; the Astros lead baseball since the start of the 2017 season in average spin rate on their pitches.

Data via Baseball Savant

For the most part, the Astros have a lot of high RPM spin rate pitchers by design. Charlie Morton (2426 RPM), Collin McHugh (2462 RPM), Lance McCullers Jr. (2448 RPM) and Brad Peacock (2487 RPM) are big contributors to Houston’s breaking ball brigade. Verlander and Cole are big proponents of the breaking ball movement as well. They’ve seen noticeable upticks in spin rates since coming over to Houston.

This is what Bauer alludes to - guys like Verlander (2645 RPM) and Cole (2398 RPM) are suddenly getting more spin on these pitches once they put on Astros uniform. Again, Bauer is correct; many of the pitchers the Astros have acquired over the past few years have higher spin rates in Houston than their previous teams.

Data via Baseball Savant

Since arriving in Houston, Verlander and Cole along with Charlie Morton, Ken Giles and Hector Rondon have experienced an increase in spin rate. Morton, in particular, saw a big spike; averaging a 2220 spin rate with the Phillies and Pirates before skyrocketing to a 2936 spin rate with the Astros.

However, the Astros are known for going after pitchers with high spin rates. Colin McHugh and Morton are perfect examples of that; Houston is an organization driven by data and analytics, so it’s no accident the front office targeted those particular kinds of pitchers.

GM Jeff Luhnow made an off-the-board move by signing Morton a two-year $14 million deal in the winter of 2016. He had the seventh-highest spin rate on his curveball in the 2016 season and the Astros seemed comfortable giving him that contract because he Morton’s skill set fit in with their philosophy.

It gets into dangerous territory when players like Bauer make unsubstantiated remarks and suggestions about another MLB team doctoring baseballs. In this tweet, he says he did some tests with altered baseballs and the ones with pine tar on them averaged 350 RPM when the ball was thrown at approximately 70 MPH.

First of all, why is he doing independent tests with doctored baseballs? What exactly is he trying to prove with that exercise? Secondly, he’s taking a huge leap by even suggesting another team is cheating by altering baseballs.

Substances like pine tar and sunscreen have long been suspected in baseball as giving pitchers a competitive edge. A tackier baseball gives the pitcher a better grip and a better grip and according to Bauer’s research, foreign substances also increase the spin rate on the baseball. That makes it harder for hitters to square up the ball.

Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball – someone Bauer works closely with – claims he can prove this with the results of the independent tests they’ve done at their facility. No one really doubts the validity the effect of foreign substances, it’s the fact that Bauer is trying to blow the whistle on Astros pitchers.

It probably isn’t a sheer coincidence that so many pitchers in Houston see their spin rates spike in an Astros uniform. That could be a marching order from pitching coach Brent Strom. In this interview with Baseball Prospectus, he said: “I’ve always wanted to see how balls spin, how to make balls spin better.” Under the tutelage and guidance of Strom, it’s entirely possible he’s shown his pitchers how to secure a better grip for the breaking balls. That would easily explain the boost in spin rate.

Not only could it be an organizational philosophy to throw more breaking balls, but the front office seems to target certain pitchers who fit that pre-existing mould for the Astros; players like the aforementioned Morton, Verlander and Cole.

By inducing a high rate of swing-and-miss, the Astros are on pace to strike out nearly 1,900 batters this year. However, this isn’t just an isolated incident as strikeouts are on the rise throughout baseball. For whatever reason, this evidence raised a red flag for Bauer, which was enough for him to essentially call out an entire organization for cheating.

The Crawfish Boxes would like to thank Ian Hunter of Blue Jay Hunter for contributing this piece that has obviously sparked the attention of writers and fans across Major League Baseball.

Ever since Jose Bautista ended the hopes and dreams of Arlington Rangers fans everywhere with that miraculous postseason home run and bat flip, the Astros community has grown to respect and admire the Blue Jays. Thank you Ian!

You can follow Ian Hunter on Twitter here: @BlueJayHunter