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MLB Trade Deadline: Follow the pitches

An exercise in scouting stuff, and a tool.

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants
Is this the Nationals pitcher you’re looking for.
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Trade deadline talk is dominated by the big names — Max Scherzer! Kris Bryant! Trevor Story!

But we know that the Rays Way goes beyond bidding for All-Stars.

In recent years Rays “big” moves have been trading for guys like Pete Fairbanks or Cody Reed; interesting pitchers who fly under the radar. These moves seem to come out of left field but there’s a method to it, because one thing we know about the Rays is that they scout stuff, and they’re not afraid to go get a player with interesting and unusual stuff, even if he doesn’t yet have the results to match.

It’s obvious that Nelson Cruz can hit, and clear that he makes the team better. But the way the Rays front office gets an edge, if they get an edge, continues to be by finding that special pitch, trading for the guy who throws it, and then empowering him to do the thing he already does so well.

But what makes a pitch good? What makes it unique? How do you find it?

To help answer these questions and to better understand three-dimensional pitches in league context, I’ve built a visualization tool using data from the Pitch Info Leaderboards on FanGraphs.

Pitch Shapes, 2021
Data from Pitch Info on FanGraphs

You can explore the visualization for yourselves here. This will run best on a full desktop or laptop computer with a decent sized screen. My best results have come in Chrome, although yours may vary.

Click here (coming soon) for a fuller explanation of pitch tracking data and how to interpret it. Here’s the brief rundown of how to use the tool:

  • Pitch movement is presented from the catcher’s perspective, in relation to the theoretical movement of a spinless pitch with no drag forces. That means that a pitch in the upper left of the graph (like a fastball from a right-handed pitcher) rises and moves armside more than the theoretical spinless benchmark, while a pitch in the lower right drops and moves armside (like a curve from a righty).
  • The colors are plotted based on the speed of the pitch with relation to the average speed of that pitch, per Pitch Info classifications (the back end average calculation is clunky, don’t pay too much attention to the exact number). That means that a red fastball is faster than the average fastball, while a blue fastball is slower than the average fastball. A red changeup is faster than the average changeup, even though it may be slower than those below-average blue fastballs.
  • You can filter the graph based on year (2020 or 2021), handedness, team, player, pitch type, or pitch measurements, but note that the color scheme is calculated dynamically off of the included pitches. Therefore to maintain the scale, there’s a “team” called MLB and a set of “players” called “Average, Minimum, and Maximum LHP and RHP.” To keep the velocity colors in league context, you’ll want to keep the MLB team selected even while you filter other teams and players out.

The Pitch(er) Targets

There’s a lot of exceptional pitches in the league to sort through, so let’s start out with a few potential targets that might be available at the deadline.

Sam Clay, LHRP, Washington Nationals

Yeah yeah yeah, Max Scherzer is the big prize on the Nationals, and he would make every team in baseball better, including the stacked Rays. But other than a healthy ace starter, the other thing the Rays lack right now is a true lefty specialist out of the bullpen, and Sam Clay of the Nationals has the tools to fit that billing.

The one steady Rays lefty, Jeffrey Springs, is running a reverse split this year, and his changeup is his best pitch, while Ryan Sherriff may or may not be good enough to crack a potential playoff roster. Clay also may or may not be good enough — he’s a 28 year old rookie with a 5.13 ERA — but what he has shown is one of the best left-handed breaking balls in the league.

Sam Clay Breaking Ball
Pitch Info via FanGraphs

The pitch, which is called a curve here but is really more of a slurve, has above average speed for a MLB slider to go with both a ton of gloveside run and more drop than almost any other slider in baseball. Only Tyler Matzek, Scott Alexander, Jose Alvarado, James Karinchak, and Drew Pomeranz get that type of drop at that speed or better from the left side — it’s equivalent to what Pete Fairbanks throws from the right — although Clay gets a lot more run than any of them.

Clay mixes his extraordinary breaking ball with an average sinker and intriguing changeup, and has options and service time. He would not need to be squeezed onto the major league roster immediately, but has the potential to make an impact out of the bullpen in a lefty-specialist role.

Paul Fry, LHRP, Baltimore Orioles

While we’re talking lefty-breaking balls, don’t forget Orioles reliever Paul Fry, who also has options and service time remaining, but unlike Clay has already established himself as a back-end bullpen arm.

Paul Fry Breaking Ball
Pitch Info via FanGraphs

Called here a slider, this pitch actually has both more speed and more run at a similar depth as Clay’s “curve.”

Fry complements his slider it with an iffy straight fastball and a hard changeup that can plays something like a sinker. He’s actually run fairly significant reverse splits over the first 150 innings of his career, but I have a hard time believing those will continue over the next 150. Simple tweak: throw that slider more.

In-division trades are rare but possible, and Fry should be available if the Rays are interested.

Joely Rodriguez and Daniel Norris, LHRPs, Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers

Sticking with lefty relievers but looking instead for the top sinkers, there’s one very obvious pitcher who fits the Rays mold of having an unusual combination of speed, run, and sink: Cody Reed. Womp womp. The Rays went out and got Reed last year, but he’s out for the rest of this season after having thoracic outlet surgery. So who else throws a similar sinker?

Joely Rodriguez.

Cody Reed, Joely Rodriguez, and Daniel Norris
Pitch Info via FanGraphs

The Rodriguez version sinks a little bit less, but it also gets a ton of run for its low-to-mid-90s velocity. Unlike Reed, the slider Rodriguez pairs that sinker with is fairly mediocre, but when he returned from playing in Japan, Rodriguez did bring back one of the best diving changeups in the game. He’s not an ideal lefty-killer, but he’s a very good pitcher.

Then of course, one can’t talk lefty changeups without mentioning Daniel Norris, who you can think of as something like a lefty J.P. Feyereisen, and would probably be a short-term incremental upgrade on Springs. Here’s the full stuff from the three of them.

Springs:

Jeffrey Springs
Texas Leaguers

Norris:

Daniel Norris
Texas Leaguers

Rodriguez:

Joely Rodriguez
Texas Leaguers

Is there room in this bullpen for more than one left-handed changeup artist? If they’re good enough, as Norris or Rodriguez are, should the Rays make the room?

Conclusion

I’ve only scratched the surface here of the potential targets. Major league baseball is full of incredible pitchers throwing incredible pitches, and you can be sure that the Rays have a rating on each of them. Sam Hentges? Never really thought about him before, but we all probably should.

The tricky thing with the 2021 Rays is that the team is already very good, with both the bullpen and the lineup full of quality players. Finding affordable upgrades is not easy. Relievers are generally the easiest players to acquire at the trade deadline, but not many are both likely to be traded and will also definitely improve the Rays as they currently stand. In some ways, a big-name target like Scherzer makes more sense.

But if there is a major move, especially one that forces the Rays to clear roster space, pay attention to what else that opens up. Look for the pitchers the Rays acquire on the margins, and scout the stuff.