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Peter Fairbanks’ slider is slower, trickier, and more dangerous than ever

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And he’s getting better results on his fastball because of it

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Rays acquired reliever Pete Fairbainks during the 2019 season, we already knew he had a putaway major league slider. Playing off of his high 90’s fastball, hitters whiffed on 42.7% of swings against the pitch.

From a run prevention standpoint, though, Fairbanks had a rough go in his partial first season with the Rays. Hurt by a ludicrous 27.8% HR/FB (league average was 15.1%), he pitched to a messy 6.86 ERA and 5.07 FIP. The issue wasn’t the slider. Rather, hitters teed off on his fastball, blasting it for a .558 wOBA.

Even if you prefer the much lower xwOBA of .460 against his fastball, that still means that every hitter was Mike Trout when Fairbanks threw a heater. But it’s 2020 now and both of Fairbainks’s pitches are getting great results.

*note: all data collected before start of play on 9/10

Pete Fairbanks Pitch Metrics

Year Pitch Velocity wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
Year Pitch Velocity wOBA xwOBA Whiff%
2019 Fastball 97.4 .558 .460 21.1%
2020 Fastball 97.3 .317 .347 31.5%
2019 Slider 89.9 .239 .284 42.7%
2020 Slider 87.1 .224 .238 43.7%

Interestingly, while Fairbanks is hiding the ball better which could conceivably help his fastball play up, and from a movement and velocity standpoint it’s mostly unchanged.

His slider, on the other hand, is new and improved

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the improvements Jalen Beeks made to his fastball in turn made his other pitches better as well, primarily by creating better movement separation. It appears the same concept could be happening with Fairbanks.

Pete Fairbanks Pitch Movement

Year Pitch Velocity Vertical Break (in) vs Avg Horizontal Break (in) vs Avg
Year Pitch Velocity Vertical Break (in) vs Avg Horizontal Break (in) vs Avg
2019 Fastball 97.4 13.2 -0.7 2.4 -4.0
2020 Fastball 97.3 12.5 -0.5 0.3 -5.2
2019 Slider 89.9 34.5 3.6 4.0 0.6
2020 Slider 87.1 40.7 5.1 2.8 0.5

So his fastball is a little straighter, but the headliner here is that Fairbanks has added about 6 inches of drop to his slider. Additionally, it’s about 3 ticks slower, down to 87.1 MPH from 89.9. Not only has he added separation with movement, but separation in velocity as well.

Let’s remember that the 2019 version of Fairbanks’ slider was already a plus pitch — thrown hard with good vertical drop. The 2020 version retains these attributes; however the relatively slower velocity and the added vertical drop compared to average sliders in its class, make it seem to pair better with his fastball.

Like Beeks, can this also be attributed to some mechanical adjustments? A slight change in release point perhaps? A difference in spin?

The answer is yes.

Let’s look at the video, shall we?

First is a real time sync of two sliders thrown by Fairbanks, one in ‘19 (left) and one in ‘20 (right).

Watching just the baseball with the naked eye, you can see the significant increased drop. Both pitches start with similar trajectories, but while one dips just below the strike zone, the other one hit the dirt.

But increases in movement like this don’t just... happen.

Mechanical adjustments

In 2019, Fairbanks starts with his hands higher, as well as with his his front foot closer to third base than his back foot. Additionally, his shoulders start slightly counter-rotated. In 2020, his feet and shoulders run more nearly perpendicular to the target.

To be clear, neither one of these setups is better than the other. Either way, Fairbanks can dial it up to triple digits. When it comes to mechanics, sometimes it’s about velocity, but sometimes it’s about intention.

Going into leg lift, we see Fairbanks much more upright in ‘20.

I have talked a lot in past posts about linear energy, and this seems to be a theme in mechanical adjustments made by Rays pitchers. When Fairbanks starts his drive toward home plate, we see a little less forward lean, and a little less counter-rotation in ‘20.

As a result, when he gets from drive to release, we can see some other changes.

Stopping at release, notice how Fairbanks’s release point is higher and more centered than a year ago.

And with the adjustment he has made to be more linear, Fairbanks is also getting more extension, meaning he is releasing the ball closer to home plate.

Pete Fairbanks Release Point

Year Vertical Release Point (ft) Extension
Year Vertical Release Point (ft) Extension
2019 6.68 6.42
2020 6.82 6.77

That’s what he’s done with his body. There’s also some changes with the ball.

He’s also also added “active spin”

In my Beeks deep dive from a few weeks ago, we discussed how “active spin” on a fastball refers to the efficiency of backspin, which is one of the factors that contributes to the illusion of rise.

On a breaking pitch, active spin retains its meaning, but refers to topspin rather than backspin, relative to its axis.

In other words, 0% active spin refers to a pitch that falls at exactly the speed one would expect due to gravity (what I would call a perfect gyro spin gravity ball), and 100% active spin is a perfectly tight 12-6 breaking ball with sharp downward bite.

Now, this explanation is incomplete, since there are other factors to consider, and other axes of spin and force, that impact what a breaking ball ultimately becomes. For example, some breaking pitches with high active spin get called sliders (Chaz Roe) and some breaking pitches with low active spin are classified as curves (Nick Anderson), but for the purposes of Fairbanks, this is a good working definition.

With that said, coinciding with his mechanical adjustments come an increase in active spin.

Pete Fairbanks Slider Active Spin

Year Pitch Active Spin Vertical Break (in) vs Avg Horizontal Break (in) vs Avg
Year Pitch Active Spin Vertical Break (in) vs Avg Horizontal Break (in) vs Avg
2019 Slider 25.0% 34.5 3.6 4.0 0.6
2020 Slider 32.6% 40.7 5.1 2.8 0.5

It’s a small increase, but combined with his higher release point and better extension, and with lower velocity, it becomes more significant. With the added active spin, so comes added downward Magnus effect. The higher release point and extension create a sharper original downward vector for the pitch. The lower velocity gives gravity more time to act on the pitch.

In total, every small change Fairbanks has made has caused the ball to fall quicker by the time it reaches the batter. And the increased drop in the slider has crated greater separation from the fastball.

To further illustrate the difference, here are sliders from each year overlayed with his current fastball.

First, 2019.

Next, 2020, overlayed with the same fastball.

The whole story lives within these two gifs.

Conclusion

When Pete Fairbanks came to Tampa Bay, the Rays knew what they were getting — a high-octane fastball and a wipeout slider. Still, it seems that he, the Rays coaching staff, or a combination of the two felt there were improvements to be made.

On the surface, he has added movement, thanks to some mechanical adjustments as well increased active spin and a small decrease in velocity. Underneath the surface, the changes in movement and velocity have created separation from his fastball, making it a much improved pitch combination.

And the result of that work is that Fairbanks has emerged as a reliable high leverage arm for the Rays.