C.J. Wilson on Spin Rate, Arm Angles and Exploiting Weaknesses

C.J. Wilson doesn’t have a simple approach to pitching. The 33-year-old Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lefthander throws everything but the kitchen sink at opposing batters, and there’s a reason behind each pitch. That reason could be based on a weakness or it could based on feel. And the pitch may not come from the same arm angle as the one that preceded it. In all likelihood, it will have a different spin axis, which is a subject Wilson knows better than most big-league pitchers.


Wilson on his mindset: “When I throw a really good game, I feel like I’ve pulled off a master heist. I’ve stolen their ability to win that day with a well-thought-out, totally under control, non-emotional, logical plan. I knew exactly how much time I had before they called the cops on me.

“We all have different personalities. Some guys literally grip it and rip it. They throw as hard as they can every single pitch. They just stare at the catcher and try to throw the nastiest slider they can throw. I’ve never pitched that way. I was a control pitcher before I had Tommy John surgery. I was crafty. I modeled myself after Tom Glavine, who I watched growing up. I wish I had Pedro 1999 stuff, but I don’t and never have.

Felix Hernandez is able to change speeds from 90 to 96. It’s a different gear. David Price can throw 97 if he feels like it. Tommy Millone throws 88. You have to understand where you are on the continuum. I feel I have to be the criminal mastermind on the mound if I want to win.”

On spin rates: “Spin is a big thing. It’s like swing planes for hitters. Hitters who have certain swing planes may have what we call bat lag – the way they bring their hands through the zone, the barrel kind of drags a little bit. That allows them to stay inside the ball more and hit for a higher average. They don’t hook balls and roll over, they’re able to cover a wider speed variety.

“Spin control is sort of the same thing. You’re trying to create the illusion of a white baseball. The faster it spins, the whiter it’s going to look. Most hitters assume that if it’s white, it’s a fastball. Therefore they’re going to swing at the very top of where that ball is going to go – in their mind, where they think the ball is going to go. A perfect curveball is going to have exactly the opposite spin of a fastball, but if it comes out white the hitter is going to react to it like it’s a fastball.

“Some guys will throw a changeup that has side spin. Good hitters, once they recognize the ball has a little side spin, kind of freeze. They have a momentary freeze pause, and that allows them to slap the ball the other way. They don’t take as powerful of a swing, but they still have enough accuracy. They have enough time, based on how bad the spin is. It’s called loose spin. If the ball spins really slow, and sideways – perpendicular to the normal spin you have on your fastball… you want all of your spin axis to be as parallel as possible.”

On PITCHf/x and his repertoire: “One thing I do that’s different than a lot of guys is actively change my arm angle, depending on the situation or how I’m feeling. To some guys I’ll throw pitches that are completely sidearm. If I’m throwing a sidearm pitch, it’s going to have side spin on it, which is totally different than my four-seam fastball, which is going to have backspin. My data is harder to get information from than other guys’.

“I throw five or six pitches and it’s all shades. Literally, my spin axis is… I cover something like 270 degrees. I don’t have under spin, because I don’t throw underhand, but I create different kinds of spin from different types of angles. I’ll throw a sidearm curveball and an overhand curveball. Those are 90 degrees away from each other. If someone is trying to scout me off my spin data, they’ll be like ‘aah, I don’t know.’ One thing I’ve seen is that my offspeed pitches spin harder than my fastball does. It has a higher RPM. That’s what the data showed when I looked at it a month and a half ago.

“PITCHf/x sometimes doesn’t read my pitches accurately. My pitch types are kind of malleable. Sometimes I create extra break on my slider and turn it into a curveball. I throw cutters anywhere from 85 to 91 and have gotten misreads on it. I throw a split and I don’t think they recognize that. They did get the knuckleballs I’ve thrown this year. I threw one to Brandon Guyer and he grounded out. I threw another to Jesus Guzman of the Astros and he took it for a ball.

Koji Uehara has different directions on his split-finger. If he throws a cut split, is it misread as a slider, or is it always a split? Unless they’re reading the catcher’s signs, how are they going to know what the pitch is? Someone like me who changes arm angles is going to create different spin vectors all the time.”

On two-seamers and four-seamers: “Two-seamers sink because they’re aerodynamically unstable. Four-seam is going to carry the ball more, because it has more active seams, directionally, compared to the flight of the baseball. The spin is directly parallel with the flight of the ball, so it creates more lift. A two-seamer is going to drop with some guys and tail with other guys, depending on what their wrist angle is and the spin angle itself.

“Basically, the reason a two-seamer moves, from a physiological standpoint, is that you pronate it a little earlier than you do your four-seam. You have less active seams against the air. But it depends, because everybody throws their two-seam differently. There are really only two ways to throw a four-seam fastball. You can hold your four-seam fastball where the horseshoe is on the inside of your hand, or you can throw it where it’s on the outside of your hand. If I throw a four-seam fastball and my index finger is on the closed part of the horseshoe, the ball is going to tail. If I throw it so my index finger is on the open part of the horseshoe, then it’s going to cut.

“With a two-seam fastball, some guys throw it where they have their fingers on the seam, or one finger on the seam. They might throw it almost like a cutter, where they have two fingers on one seam, or fingers on separate seams. Tyler Skaggs and I throw our two-seamers opposite. He throws the outside of the ball to try to get a diagonal spin, and I throw it to try to create almost a slider spin – like an opposite slider.

Jered Weaver throws one where he doesn’t have any fingers on a seam. He throws it in the middle. They call it a no-seam ball, but it’s basically a two-seamer where his hand is in the middle of the whole ball with no seam spin. He’s not throwing a knuckleball, it’s just that the spin axis is different.”

On video and tipping his pitches: “I’ve been filming my side sessions with my GoPro to make sure my body position is the same with everything. Earlier this year I was tipping my pitches. I found that out by watching video. When I don’t tip my pitches I have good games. When I was tipping my pitches I had bad games. If you know something is coming, you can lay off anything close. If you have guys who have walk rates that are preposterously low and all of a sudden they’re in 3-2 counts and taking super-close pitches, they know what’s coming. There’s no other explanation. You don’t spontaneously get a Ted Williams concept of the strike zone, mid-season, when you were basically swinging at the rosin bag before that. I looked at video and thought, ‘there’s no way that guy should have taken that pitch.’ Then I watched the video again with a more analytical mind and saw I was doing something different with my changeup.”

On having a diverse repertoire: “I throw everything. I’ve thrown everything in a game, now that I’ve thrown a knuckleball. I’ve thrown a screwball this year. I learned it from watching a Pedro Martinez video on YouTube. He threw an opposite side spin changeup. If you watch his arm angle, it was low enough that he could curve over the top of the ball, and flick the top of the ball. He threw a changeup with topspin, which is a screwball by definition.

“You practice every day. This is my life. It’s like a hedge fund trader knows the difference between a bull market and a bear market. They also know the difference between a rally that’s built on beating forecasts versus matching forecasts. There are also currency inflation-deflation factors. It’s a three-dimensional picture. There are a lot of things that influence what’s going on.

“I would be a lot better pitcher if I could throw 100 mph. I’d be a lot better pitcher if I had an unhittable slider. I wasn’t born with either of those skills and you can’t learn that stuff. You can’t throw 100 if you have physical limitations. Some guys just have better bodies. Giancarlo Stanton can hit the ball farther than other guys. Would he be a better hitter if he couldn’t hit the ball 500 feet? I don’t think so. You want to have the maximum physical ability you can. What allows me to go out there and limit teams’ damage against me is my ability to create movement on the ball that is unexpected.”

On exploiting weaknesses: “I talk to my catchers every day. We talk about hitters. The way my memory works, I’m very good at analyzing hitters. I pitch to weak points. I want to know if a guy can’t hit a down-and-in pitch because geometrically his swing extends past where he’d have to go. If he extends his arm over the strike zone, he can’t hit a waist high inside pitch. He’s going to have to hit it so far out here that his barrel is going to be pointing at the dugout and he’s going to hook it foul by 75 degrees. If I know that, I can exploit that weakness, or I can exploit the adjustment he makes to that weakness. If you lead the hitter in one direction, then you’re opening a hole somewhere else.

“Some guys are better at floating. Michael Young was one of the best guys I’ve ever seen at that. If he got fooled by an offspeed pitch he could float on his front foot and keep his hands back. He’d flick the ball to right field. That’s why he got 200 hits a year. Vladimir Guerrero was the same way.

“Vlad was such an anomaly. You were better off just pitching him hard, in and playing the shift. We’re seeing that with a lot of guys now. They’re pounding guys inside, because it’s hard to hit that ball fair. And if you do hit it fair, it’s hard to get underneath it and drive it, therefore a lot of guys are rolling it over. Ian Kinsler is right on top of the plate and he spins on his back foot really well. That’s why, in Texas for so many years, he drove the ball to left field. But he also led the league in fly ball rate. He hit a ton of fly balls. He had a steep swing and would get under everything. This year he’s a little more off the plate and is floating, and hitting the ball to right center way better.

“It’s funny, some guys are so good at crafting their swings in order to stay inside the ball that they lose the ability to take an easy swing at a middle pitch. They over-swing when they see it, because they’re like, ‘This is what I’ve wanted my whole life.’ So they pop it straight up.”

On changing things up: “I’ve thrown a higher percentage of changeups this year than I ever have. That’s helping me create new possibilities within a game – and in my career. I’m not a guy who is ever going to be pharmaceutically enhanced, and I’ve never thrown 100 mph anyway. I’m going to have to change speeds even more. It’s something you saw guys like Glavine do to extend their careers. He had a great changeup, which is one of the reasons he had such a great career. I feel if I’m able to transition from a fastball-slider guy to a fastball-changeup guy, that’s going to create a whole new dynamic for me. Plus, it’s a lot healthier on the arm.

“I throw a four-seam change, but I’ve also thrown some splits. I had a game against the White Sox earlier this year, in Anaheim, where I threw 15 or 16 splits. That was crazy. I’d never done that before, but it was working. I could throw it right down the middle and it would drop enough that guys would swing and hit it to third base. But the next game I pitched, against Cleveland, they didn’t swing at any of them. So it was, ‘OK, the magic is over on the split.’

“Sometimes not thinking too much is the best medicine. If it’s working, why make an adjustment? But I’m always working on things. The more you do something, the better you get at it. If you throw a pitch often enough, you’re able to get a little creative inspiration and do different things with it.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

37 Responses to “C.J. Wilson on Spin Rate, Arm Angles and Exploiting Weaknesses”

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  1. DD says:

    This is fantastic. Great job David.

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  2. Marcus Tullius Cicero says:

    Amazing interview, David. It’s always interesting to hear the players talk about playing the game in just detail (and even more interesting when they actually know the technical details of what they’re talking about!).

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  3. Curacao LL says:

    Really useful interview-Well done. Thank you.

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  4. munchtime says:

    I thought his comments on spin were particularly interesting. I never really considered that the spin on a curve and fastball were exactly opposite, and could aid in the deception of the pitch. Or even that orientation of a 4-seamer in your hand would affect rotation.

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  5. Chris from Bothell says:

    Holy cow, he is scary-smart. Filing this away with other great theory-and-mechanics-of-baseball articles I’ve seen lately. Great interview.

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  6. hscer says:

    But what does he have to say about the benefits of Head and Shoulders shampoo?

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  7. bobmarleydied says:

    Pretty sure that a two-seamer is still aerodynamically stable and it sinks because of the spin that’s on it, but this is a fantastic article. It’s fun to know there are pitcher out there that are thinking about all of this.

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    • Oblarg says:

      Actually, the two-seamer doesn’t “sink”, per se. It simply rises less than the four seamer.

      This is to be expected, because backspin creates an upward force (the physics of this aren’t really too hard to understand).

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    • Jianadaren says:

      I think he was referring to the fact that the rotation is “weighted” on a two-seamer.

      With a four-seamer, the seams interrupt the laminar air flow regularly every quarter-revolution (that’s why it’s called a four-seamer – there are four seams parallel with the axis of rotation and so the seams break the laminar flow four times per revolution ) this creates in a relatively even and constant turbulent flow around the ball. Turbulent flow has less drag and this makes the ball fly far and fall slowly.

      With a two-seamer, there are only two seams and they’re spaced unevenly. The spin goes: quarter-revolution, seam, 3-quarter-revolution, seam, repeat. This (1) results in a lot more laminar flow, increasing drag, and (2) creates an unbalanced (“unstable”) pattern of turbulent and laminar flow and drag. It’s almost like throwing a hammer – the uneven flow creates uneven drag which is like if the spin were weighted.

      That extra, unbalanced drag will cause the ball to sink and (depending on the axis of the spin) tail

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  8. pft says:

    That was awesome. Rarely do players talk baseball anymore like that, most just reading from a script and a lot of cliche’s.

    Pitch f/x algorithms head probably exploded though

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  9. DSC says:

    Just goes to show you don’t need advanced stats to do your job correctly.

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  10. MGL says:

    Honestly, I think he is a little full of himself. I am not sure that even 50% of what he says is accurate. He surely has no idea what he is talking about with respect to finance.

    From the way he describes his knowledge of pitching, you would think that he is one of the best pitchers out there, rather than the rather mediocre starter that he has become.

    The interesting thing is that he somehow transitioned from a very good reliever into a very good starter while losing a couple of miles on his fastball (which is to be expected when going from reliever to starter). However, he is now, as I said, a very mediocre starter.

    If he is so smart and knowledgable, why has his pitching declined so much the last few years without a corresponding drop in velocity?

    The way that he talks, he is fooling batters left and right with all of his many pitches. Yet, he has a 4.32 FIP and 4.45 ERA with rather pedestrian BB+HP and K rates. He also has a crap load of WP the last couple of years.

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    • Hater says:

      I had a nice long rebuttal written out and then reminded myself that arguing with a fool proves there are two. So I digress.

      Your comment is the biggest load of shit I have ever read. And the worst part is, you’re not even a troll.

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    • I did not wake up today expecting to defend C.J. Wilson at any point, but here goes.

      Wilson had two pretty darn good fWAR years as a starter in Texas. In 2010, he didn’t allow any homers. In 2011, his K rate ticked up and his BB rate dropped a bunch. From 2012 to now, Wilson’s xFIP has been 4.01, about the same as his 4.06 from 2010. It sounds like Wilson had a lucky year in 2010, an outlier year in 2011, and for the past three years, he’s been much the same guy as he was in 2010, only with a higher HR/FB%. It’s not that his pitching has declined; he just wasn’t all that amazing in the first place. A better investigation would concern why his peripherals were so good in 2011.

      Of course, this makes a ton of sense. As a starter, Wilson has never been a guy who goes out and pounds the zone. He’s a finesse pitcher without enough control to be an elite finesse pitcher. The book on Wilson is two words: “Don’t swing.” (He has the lowest swing rate in the majors this year, and it’s not close.) As a result, even if Wilson manages to fool a batter into thinking a curveball is a fastball, the batter might suspect that the fastball probably won’t hit the zone anyway, so Wilson won’t get the whiff he’s looking for. Fooling hitters doesn’t necessarily manifest in the form of whiffs, especially if the pitcher is known for having control issues.

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    • McNeilDon says:

      I tremble to challenge an expert, and I do actually agree with most of what you said, but can’t we appreciate that a professional athlete will go on the record acknowledging that he examines and interprets data? Yes, I understand that inaccurate and self-serving interpretations of data are undeserving of praise in a vacuum, but I am prefer this to derisive dismissals of analytics on the part of the players. No, he might not have gotten this right, but at least he is thinking rather than attributing results to mystical forces and The Will To Win. Yes, he is very full of himself; but isn’t that par for the course for professional athletes? I don’t mean to suggest that this interview represents the gold standard, but I feel that it’s a good thing that a Major League Baseball player thinks, speaks, and acts as such rather than reverting to tired cliches and unconcealed contempt for analysis, which is still the norm.

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    • Johnston says:

      “From the way he describes his knowledge of pitching, you would think that he is one of the best pitchers out there, rather than the rather mediocre starter that he has become.”

      C.J. Wilson

      10 years in the MLB

      3.69 career ERA, 3.78 career FIP in 1264.1 IP

      Two-time All-Star

      I think that’s a man whom I want to pay attention to when he talks about pitching.

      Your mileage may vary.

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    • Ron says:

      It’s almost as if knowing what to do and being able to actually do it correctly are two different things…

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  11. MGL says:

    While I am sure that any MLB pitcher knows 1000 times more than you and I about pitching, who do you really want to listen to about the nuances of pitching? Brian Bannister, Ross Ohlendorf, and CJ Wilson, or Kershaw, Sale, and Wainwright?

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    • Josh M says:

      How bout listening to who is actually willing to talk about pitching mechanics?

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      • tz says:

        Actually, I’d love to hear how a smoke-and-mirrors pitcher like Livan Hernandez goes out there and wins with a kitchen sink full of junk. C.J.’s performance-to-stuff ratio has generally been OK, but a guy like Livan had no business being in the bigs at all for the last 5 or so years of his career with the crap he was throwing.

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    • PackBob says:

      Being able to do something well doesn’t mean you understand how you do it well or can explain it adequately to others.

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    • Art Vandelay says:

      MGL — knows very little about statistics, and absolutely nothing about pitching. But he won’t let that stop him! He’s Internet Tough Guy! Mitchell, here’s some unsolicited advice — go back to school, learn some statistics, then speak.

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    • SoftballGuy says:

      What’s Kershaw gonna tell us? How you first bust someone in at 97, then throw the best curve in the major leagues away? Gee, so much nuance.

      The big leagues are littered with failed pitchers who became outstanding pitching coaches precisely because they understand the craft of pitching even if they couldn’t actually do it. Don Cooper, Mark Wiley, Carl Willis, Mike Maddux, Jim Hickey. Dave Duncan wasn’t even a pitcher.

      I’m also sure that any MLB pitcher knows 1000 more than you and I about pitching, so when one speaks up about it, I listen instead of dismiss it outright. God, what an insufferable series of comments.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Having actually talked to many of these guys, I’ll often take the marginal guy. Listen to what Wilson says here: he’s not blessed with great velocity or a great slider, so he has to work as hard as he can to even be a marginal pro. The best often just do it, and are terrible interviews with little to say. I say this as I prepare again to talk to Mike Trout, perhaps one of the worst interviews out there. But! Mike Trout! Let’s listen to his platitudes!

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  12. JKA says:

    So much for those who seem to think Wilson is a airhead or a flake….many Angel fans complain that he nibbles too much and doesn’t get deep enough into games, but it’s clear he always has a plan and tries to get the max from his ability.

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  13. theboyqueen says:

    From the way you describe your knowledge of everything, you would think you were some combination of Willie Mays, Warren Buffett, and Archie Karas.

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    • theboyqueen says:

      That was directed to MGL, in response to his quote:

      “From the way he describes his knowledge of pitching, you would think that he is one of the best pitchers out there, rather than the rather mediocre starter that he has become.”

      In case it wasn’t clear.

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  14. Johnston says:

    I hate to go against MGL, but I think the interview was great. Really talented pitchers don’t have to think or plan or analyze this much. Wilson does, and I’m delighted that he was willing to share it all with us. I found the article to be both entertaining and educational and would like to see more like this.

    And I’d like to second the request to find out just how Liván Hernandez does it. Ditto how Jamie Moyer did it. I know what I’ve seen, and I know what their records are, but I’d really like to read about the internal processes.

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  15. Phantom Stranger says:

    Some really interesting thoughts from a MLB pitcher. I wonder if he “reads” swings like other crafty Lefties?

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  16. Tim says:

    Wilson is supposedly great with fans, and is very well-spoken and thoughtful. Sure, he’s a bit narcissistic, but he will make a terrific broadcaster some day.

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