A Conversation With Louis Head, Who is Having a Storybook Season

Louis Head has had a storybook season. Without a team during last year’s pandemic summer, the rookie right-hander was working a sales job, his dreams of reaching the big leagues seemingly in the review mirror. Nearly a decade after being taken by Cleveland in the 18th round of the 2012 draft, he thought his career was over. Then the Tampa Bay Rays came calling.

Head was signed off the scrap heap this past February, and on April 25, two days after celebrating his 31st birthday, he made his major league debut. The Katy, Texas native has gone on to appear in 20 games with the Rays since then — he’s also seen action in 24 games with Triple-A Durham — logging a 2.93 ERA and a 3.53 FIP over 27-and-two-thirds innings. His slider has played a big role in his Cinderella ascent. Developed since joining his new team, the pitch has helped fuel one of the better success stories of the 2021 season.

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David Laurila: You’re a 31-year-old rookie. How were you able to finally take that final step and reach the big leagues? Was pitching development part of it?

Louis Head: “I think it was mostly about there being an opportunity here. We had some guys get hurt early on in the season, and it opened up some doors for me. That didn’t really happen in the past with other organizations. I felt like I had thrown well in the past, especially for Cleveland, and I could have been a guy they brought up. But those opportunities never happened.

“Development-wise, when I did get here, working with the analytical team, and with [pitching coach] Kyle Snyder, we were really able to develop my slider into a major weapon. Before, it was just kind of a get-me-over pitch. Now it’s a legit put-away pitch, and that’s made a world of difference. Them having confidence in me has been a huge part of my success, as well.”

Laurila: Why were you able to turn the corner with your slider here, and not with Cleveland, the Dodgers, or the Mariners?

Head: “It was the information being relayed back to me being told in a way that made sense. From where my arm slot is… my slider was more of an up-and-down curveball shape in the past, and teams were trying to get me to go up-and-down with it to match a fastball that I would ride to the top of the zone. When I got here — this was after two or three bullpens — they were like, ‘No, with your arm slot you need to sweep that slider.’ Getting more horizontal break on it, and less vertical break on it, has really just made a world of difference. It goes off the plane of my fastball better; hitters see fastball out of the hand. When it was more up-and-down, they were able to dive down and get it. Now when they try to dive down to get it, it’s going away from the barrel.”

Laurila: Your arm slot was a big part of their thought process…

Head: “Yes, and not my pitch profile. When you’ve got guys that carry to the top zone, they usually have a little bit higher arm slot, and curveballs do typically play better off that. But I’m a low approach angle guy; I come from a low angle. There aren’t many guys… you’ve got guys like Jacob deGrom and Joe Ryan — I’m not trying to put myself in the same category as them, but it’s similar in that I come from a low angle and can ride a fastball to the top of the zone. But since I do come from that low angle, the curveball isn’t necessarily the best pitch for me. The slider plays better from that low approach angle slot.”

Laurila: How did the grip on your breaking ball change?

Head: “It’s actually the same exact grip that I used before. It’s more about my wrist position. Before, I would always try to get my wrist position on top, and now it’s about getting it on the side of the ball and trying to create sidespin, versus topspin.”

Laurila: What about the spin profile?

Head: “I think it spins a little less now, but from what the organization tells me, and from what I’ve been starting to learn, spin rate isn’t as important as people think. It’s more of the movement that you create on the pitch, and the separation you can create between your two pitches. There are plenty of guys out there that have really good spin rates, but when you look at their plots, everything is kind of close together. So it’s not necessarily about the spin so much as it is the direction and the shape that you create. That’s what creates more deception to the hitters, and better quality stuff.”

Laurila: How many inches of horizontal are you getting?

Head: “On average, it’s in the 14-17 range, but I have gotten it up there to about 24-25 inches horizontal. On a good day, it will mostly be 20-22.”

Laurila: Are you trying to throw it the same way every time, or do you vary it?

Head: “It’s a little of both. It kind of depends on the count, the hitter, and the swing. I try to read swings. With lefties, I’ll maybe try to get a little bit more depth, and with righties I’ll try to sweep it more to get it away from their bat. I’ll also try to change it up by not giving a hitter two of the same sliders in an at-bat, since I’m a two-pitch mix guy. Because I used to be more up-and-down, like a curveball, I’m able to manipulate the baseball and move it a little bit in different directions when I need to. I’m trying to give hitters different looks and different shapes, so they can’t just sit on one pitch and guess where it’s going to end up. I want it to end up in different spots, with different shape.”

Laurila: Where is your slider in terms of velocity?

Head: “It’s anywhere from 82-84 [mph], so it’s slower than your typical slider, but that plays to my advantage because it creates that separation from my fastball, which is around 93-94. I don’t throw as hard as I used to. At the same time, when my velocity was creeping up a little bit earlier this year, my carry wasn’t as good. That 93-94 range seems to be my bread-and-butter when it comes to carrying the fastball at the top of the zone. When I start throwing it harder, I kind of lose my mechanics and my ball starts tailing a little bit, as opposed to staying straight and true.”

Laurila: What might have happened had the Rays not suggested you rework your slider? Would you be in the big leagues right now?

Head: “Probably not. I’ve always believed that I’d be a big leaguer — I’ve always believed that I had the stuff — but making it just a little bit better, and gaining more confidence, is a big reason why I was able to make it up here.

“Looking back, I have to imagine that I was pretty close with Cleveland in 2016 and ’17 with the way I was performing. But at that time they had the best bullpen in the big leagues. They were in a World Series one of those years. So it just wasn’t the right timing for me. I imagine that I was high up on their list, but the phone call never came.”

Laurila: How did you end up in the Dodgers organization?

Head: “I was released by Cleveland. I was hurt for most of 2018 and released by them in August. I then signed with the Dodgers as a free agent that next year.”

Laurila: After not getting an opportunity with Cleveland, you signed with a team that was even better…

Head: “I didn’t exactly put myself in a better situation. So, the next year I went to Seattle and was like, ‘Hey, I’m going from one of the best organizations to baseball to another good organization, but one that should present more of an opportunity.’ I knew that the Mariners were making a lot of good strides with their player development, and with their analytical teams. A guy I knew from Cleveland, Matt Weiner, was there as pitching coordinator, so I knew that they were making all the right moves. I thought it was going to be a good fit, but they wanted to go in a younger direction in 2020, so I ended up finding myself out. Of course, I ended up landing with another World Series-contending organization.”

Laurila: One last thing: With all those years in the minors, did you ever seriously consider calling it a career?

Head: “After I got released from Seattle, I didn’t get any phone calls. I trained that whole season while everybody was playing in the bubble, and nothing. So I actually went into solar sales. I was doing really well with that, so I thought I was retired. My wife and I thought I was done playing. I was really happy with life.

“Obviously, I still had dreams of playing baseball. I was training here and there. Then, about two weeks before spring training, I got a phone call from Tampa. The rest is kind of history. It’s kind of like a movie, really. I went from released to sales to playing in the big leagues. It’s been a crazy year.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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