I make it a point to people relatively more informed about the Rays than myself, and when then conversation turns to minor league relievers, one name that consistently comes up is Brad Schreiber.
Previously drafted in the 42nd round in 2009, and the 40th round in 2012, Brad Schreiber spurned both opportunities to join a major league team and went to college instead. He went undrafted in 2013. The Rays signed him as a free agent out of Purdue, and in the span of two seasons he has blossomed into a highly-rated closer in the minor league system.
Rays director of player development Mitch Lukevics recent spoke about Schreiber with milb.com's Danny Wild, who named the reliever an "Organization All Star" for 2015:
"He's a self-made man. Think about it, a non-drafted free agent -- good for Brad Shreiber," said Lukevics. "He's a sinker-slider guy, he has a little deception in his delivery and he throws a heavy ball."
It's that heavy ball has translated into success on the mound.
Graduating to High-A and then Double-A this season, Schreiber tallied saves in more than half of his appearances -- although not all appearances were save opportunities -- and in eleven appearances he pitched more than one inning, topping out at three.
Across his career, Schreiber has demonstrated the ability to get groundouts in more than half of plate appearances and has earned strikeouts at a respectable clip (25.2%). Both are driven by that heavy fastball.
What is a heavy ball?
There are three main components that the pitcher has control over that affect the action of a baseball: velocity, spin direction, and spin rate. This is a simplified way of looking at it, but you can think of spin direction as deciding which way the ball moves, while spin rate decides how much it moves.
For fastballs, which are rising pitches, less spin means that they rise less, and rising less than average is what baseball players perceive as "sink".
Here's an explanation of what makes a fastball "heavy" from former Yankees pitcher Zach Day, writing for Baseball Prospectus:
Two pitchers who throw 95 MPH can have drastically different spin rates. One may have a fastball with a spin of 2500 RPMs, while the other gets 1800 RPMs. Lower-spin fastballs work against gravity less, causing them to sink at a higher rate than high-spin fastballs.
Have you ever played catch with someone who throws a hard and heavy ball? A low-spin fastball will sink more than you expect and hit your glove closer to the palm of your hand, while a high-spin or even average-spin fastball will more likely hit your glove in the web. . .
. . .This could at least partially explain why using spit or Vaseline on a ball can be an advantage. Vaseline would take spin off a fastball, causing it to drop.
The abnormal movement results in batters swinging over the baseball, which drives a ton of foul balls and results in the majority of batters faced grounding out.
Brad Schreiber pitched this last year in the Arizona Fall League, so let's take a look at the stuff he showed there (pitch classifications by Ian Malinowski).
And here's the numbers on the pitches:
|Speed||Vertical Movement||Horizontal Movement||Spin Rate|
Editor's Note from Ian: Based on previous looks at the AFL this year, the cameras seem a bit juiced, vertically. Schreiber's two-seamer may sink more than is reflected here.
The average spin rate on a fastball is around 2200 rpm, and with both his two-seam and his four-seam checking in around the 2000 range, Schreiber does have some of that deceptive sink. It's probably not quite as heavy a ball as masters of the low-spin rate like Bartolo Colon, Doug Fister, or J.A. Happ, but it's enough to matter. The result on his two-seam fastball is movement pretty similar to that of John Lackey.
The "heavy ball" is the opposite of the recent trend in the "Rays Way" of throwing high rising fastballs with tons of spin, as we've seen over the last couple years, but that doesn't mean that it's something the Rays don't value.
In fact, throwing a heavy fastball doesn't mean the fastball can't be elevated, but the effect will still result in batters swinging over the top of the ball. Day's example in his write up is Jake Westbrook, who was a master at getting batters to ground out sharply in front of the mound:
His article even calls out a few prospects with a similar heavy ball, including new Rays prospect Garret Fulenchek, acquired from the Braves this season.
The heavy ball isn't currently in vogue with this Rays roster, but it could become an important part of its future as the Rays Way continues to evolve.