Finding the Next Collin McHugh With Spin Rates

The Astros apparently listened to their analytics team when they acquired Collin McHugh. You see, McHugh’s spin rate on his curveball is exceptional. Maybe it’s not quite that cut and dry, we’ve talked about his move to the four-seamer over the two-seamer was great for him. But read this newest snippet on McHugh and you’ll see that spin rate was huge for his acquisition:

The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch—and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. “We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value,” says David Stearns, the team’s 29-year-old assistant general manager.

So let’s just fire up the database machine and see who else has great spin on their curves and might be interesting to us. The full top 25 is below (minimum 100 thrown), but we’ll attack the sleepers first because that’s what we’re interested in.

Jarred Cosart
I’ve long been suspicious of Cosart because there hasn’t really been a change worth pointing to in the National League. He didn’t change his release point, his spot on the rubber, or his pitching mix with the Marlins, and yet his results started to improve. And it doesn’t help too much to point to his curveball, because we know his cutter/curve combo is decent from a stuff standpoint. But if a pitching-starved team let Cosart go, even if the return was decent, it does throw some shade on his upside. Especially since that command has been so bad for so long. But! Nice curve! Despite the below-average whiff rate (7.4%)!

Roenis Elias
I’ve long liked Elias for his mix. An above-average curve (14%) and change (16.8%) and a compelling backstory (he eliminated some of his release points to improve his command) made him a deep league pickup in my mind. Once again, though, we’re finding a bad fastball sleeper. A 5% whiff rate is not super. But! 93 mph velocity is well above-average for a lefty. Perhaps he could focus a bit more on one of his fastballs to make it better. His four-seamer only gets 6% whiffs and his two-seamer only gets 47% ground balls. If either of those numbers can improve, Elias will see a jump in production this year. We know his curve is good.

Miles Mikolas
If there seems very little to compel you in Mikolas’ peripherals, remember that McHugh once had terrible numbers in the easier league. So, yeah, Mikolas doesn’t have a good swinging strike rate (7.5% career), nor does he have a great ground-ball rate (44%). He has shown the upside for great command in the minors, and he did improve his command this year. And now this, his curveball is interesting. An 8.8% whiff rate on the pitch may improve with better sequencing. His slider has a 17% whiff rate so far but he only threw it 100-plus times. And with a four-seamer that gets 7.3% whiffs and a sinker that only gets 41.5% ground balls, he’s actually primed for the same conversion that McHugh underwent. Drop the sinker! Throw the slider more! Never mind the homers.

Brandon Maurer
Both Maurer (first) and Aaron Sanchez (13th) showed up on the list without the minimum 100 thrown, so they deserve some love. The difference between Maurer’s spin rate (2319) and that shown by Garret Richards is larger than the difference between Richards’ and McHugh’s (5th with 2011). So Maurer’s curve has something special going on. In terms of results, the 252 he’s thrown have gotten a 10% whiff rate, which is about average. But a glance at his pitch peripherals suggests that Maurer is a sleeper for reasons other than the spin rate on his curveball, too. His change (11%) and slider (16%) are average or better. And though his fastballs don’t get great whiffs (5% combined), they do hum along at 92. Maurer’s story is not yet fully written.

Pitcher avg(pfx_z) Velocity Spin Rate Count
Garrett Richards -11.8 79.0 2164 150
Felix Hernandez -9.9 80.2 2093 557
Charlie Morton -7.3 78.0 2078 617
Jeremy Hellickson -9.3 75.8 2069 221
Collin McHugh -8.9 72.9 2011 579
Alex Cobb -9.9 80.7 2009 162
Jarred Cosart -9.9 78.7 1999 755
Adam Wainwright -9.4 74.4 1977 895
Carlos Torres -9.7 78.7 1953 206
Clay Buchholz -6.9 77.4 1950 442
Jose Veras -5.2 76.3 1947 224
Corey Kluber -2.8 82.5 1945 548
Jesse Hahn -8.2 74.2 1941 361
Jesse Chavez -7.3 75.3 1932 333
Yu Darvish -10.4 68.7 1925 104
Roenis Elias -8.2 78.9 1925 594
Sonny Gray -5.6 81.3 1913 907
Miles Mikolas -9.9 74.6 1873 109
Nick Masset -8.8 78.6 1872 125
Ricky Nolasco -7.4 74.0 1872 372
Odrisamer Despaigne -7.2 75.8 1845 164
Josh Fields -9.8 78.9 1831 122
Mike Fiers -11.6 72.2 1828 192
Tom Wilhelmsen -9.0 78.2 1825 180
Danny Farquhar -7.7 75.7 1819 179

PITCHf/x spin rate is extrapolated, where TrackMan’s number is observed — it’s just how the technology works. TrackMan’s regular season numbers are proprietary and only available to teams, but I’m working on getting AFL numbers so that we can work this mojo on a few young pitchers. After all, AFL pitchers are usually available, it’s not traditionally where you send a great prospect unless he needs innings. So if these names aren’t deep enough for you, wait until November!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Thanks, Comcast
Thanks, Comcast

“But if a pitching-starved team let Cosart go, even if the return was decent, it does throw some shade on his upside.”

I don’t think “pitching-starved” is a very accurate characterization of the Astros. Certainly not in the rotation, at least.

More likely, the Astros (for better or worse) tend to evaluate pitchers on DIPS rather than batted ball outcomes and the ability to generate weak contact. I think that trading him was more a product of organizational priorities and sheer value.