Many Rays fans were left scratching their heads when the team traded catching prospect Ronaldo Hernandez to the Boston Red Sox for two pitchers who were recently designated for assignment in Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs.
Both Mazza and Springs are similar in that they are older than you would expect considering the bodies of their respective major league contributions. Despite that, the Rays see both of them as arms who could be asked to get important late inning outs as the team looks to defend its American League Pennant
Where they differ, aside from their handedness, is their approach. While Mazza works east-west from the right side, Springs works north-south from the left side. And while Mazza will throw hitters everything but the kitchen sink, Springs has more of a two-pitch approach, depending on what side of the plate the hitter is on.
The misclassified fastball
According to Baseball Savant, Springs’s primary pitch is a sinker that doesn’t sink.
Sometimes that happens, after all pitches do not exist in a vacuum. But digging deeper into his usage and movement, one might find a few more signs that there’s more to this fastball. One, Springs clustered his fastball high in the zone in 2020—not a typical characteristic of a sinker. Second, the pitch has about 10 inches of vertical rise—also atypical for a sinker.
So one of three things could be happening here. Either springs just has terrible command, he is changing everything we know about how a sinker moves and should be used, or it’s actually a four seamer. And if we compare it to other four seamers, we see some very interesting comps as far as movement.
In the chart below from Texas Leaguers, we have Springs on the left and elite Brewers lefty Josh Hader on the right. Since they scrape data directly from Baseball Savant, the same classification error is present for Springs.
Moves like a duck, spins like a duck, right?
If it is the case that Springs’s fastball is indeed a four seamer, which is the most likely one, than the Rays have another weapon in its bullpen with a plus pitch. Though it only comes in at roughly 92 MPH and a spin rate that won’t blow you away (37th and 38th percentiles, respectively), hitters recorded a 40% whiff rate on the pitch. What it lacks in velocity and spin rate it makes up for with 98% active spin.
Had the pitch been classified correctly, that whiff rate would have been good for seventh best among major league four seam fastballs in the 2020 season. Here is the pitch in action:
To go along with his
sinker four seamer, Springs features a changeup that he mostly throws to righties and a slider that he mostly throws to lefties. With both, he can be quite effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. For the ‘20 season, righties struck out more than lefties by a four percentage point gap.
Against the fastball, Springs coaxed swings and misses from lefties on a healthy 36.6% of total offerings. That’s slightly lower than his overall whiff rate on the fastball, but still elite. When he threw the slider, lefties had a 25.8 Whiff% while managing just a .246 xwOBA when they did make contact.
Overall against southpaws, Springs threw the fastball and slider 50.3% and 44.4% of the time, respectively, with his changeup the remaining 5.3%. This is a pretty big adjustment from 2019 when he threw his fastball over 62% of the time, with his slider and changeup showing a near equal split of the remaining 38% difference.
Because of the change in mix, Springs’s aggregate underlying results against left handed hitters improved drastically, with his Whiff% shooting up to 30.8% from 21.6% a year ago, and his xwOBA against lefties plummeting from .393 to .296.
Against righties, the fastball got respectable results as well. Though hitters walloped it to a .418 xwOBA, they made very little contact overall, whiffing on 42.3% of their swings. That’s quite a bit more than his already elite mark against lefties. The changeup is the go to, here—and it’s a good one—recording one of the highest rates of swings and misses in all of baseball.
When Springs did not have the platoon advantage, he threw the changeup almost as much as he threw the fastball in 2020 —41.0% vs. 44.4% of the time.
Against the changeup, righties whiffed on a whopping 57.4% of their swings and recorded a pedestrian .253 xwOBA against the pitch.
As far as aggregate results, Springs put up respectable numbers against righties with some signs of bad luck—which is a positive outlook for the new Rays reliever. Righties had a .354 xwOBA against him which isn’t great, but is a considerable gap between the .424 actual wOBA righties put up against him.
On the surface, it is easy to look at Springs’s 7.08 ERA in ‘20 and want to quickly click away from his FanGraphs page, but there are some reasons to see why the Rays front office brought him in.
Springs brings a plus fastball that gets swings and misses in bulk from both right handed and left handed hitters, and he did a good job of better tailoring his pitch mix for both types of hitters in ‘20, with his changeup rating among the best in baseball in results, particularly against opposite-handed hitters, a rare trait and promising trait that could provide the Rays further versatility in the bullpen.
Projections buy into his increased ability to miss bats, as well as the theory he had bad luck on batted balls in ‘20, with many of them spitting out roughly league average ERAs and FIPs, a considerable improvement over what he produced a year ago. His 3.70 xFIP from ‘20 can provide some further context that the Rays may see even more potential than that.
Springs would be valuable to the Rays for his handedness alone, but coupled with his ability to get out righties with his change, Springs could become the next chapter in the Rays saga of taking interchangeable pitchers from other squads and making some solid major league contributions. If nothing else, he will at least be a name to keep an eye on this spring.