Brooks Raley on Being a Pitching Nerd

Brooks Raley
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Brooks Raley has been an effective reliever since returning to MLB in 2020 after five seasons as a starter with the KBO’s Lotte Giants. He’s been especially good for the past two. Taking the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2021 and for the New York Mets this past season, the 35-year-old left-hander has logged a combined 2.74 ERA and a 3.21 FIP over 126 relief appearances. Moreover, he’s allowed just 81 hits and fanned 122 batters in 108.1 innings. Working primarily in a setup role, he’s been credited with a pair of wins and nine saves.

Raley is also a bona fide pitching nerd. That wasn’t the case when he got cups of coffee with the Chicago Cubs in 2012 and ’13, but then came a career-altering adoption of analytics when he was overseas. Looking to optimize his talents, the Texas A&M University product schooled himself on how his pitches played best, and what he could add, subtract or tweak in order to attack hitters more effectively. The result was a successful return to the big leagues, and not only has he put up a good FIP and a solid SIERA, but he also knows exactly what those acronyms mean.

Raley discussed his analytics-influenced evolution as a pitcher when the Mets visited Fenway Park this summer.

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David Laurila: You played five years in Korea. What was that experience like?

Brooks Raley: “I loved it. I learned a lot. We’re talking analytics, and I went over there not very polished. I was a starter but didn’t have a changeup or a cutter, so I started watching YouTube videos of all the different shapes, spin rates, tilts, extension — all that stuff. For a little bit, I tried to throw like Chris Sale. I kind of leaned over and tried to create some different angles and see what kind of shapes I could get. I really got into that side of the sport. I found my cutter, found my arm slot, and then the sinker got better. My slider also got better. That all happened when I was in Korea. It’s how I got back [to MLB].”

Laurila: Why hadn’t you gotten into analytics and begun making changes prior to going to the KBO?

Raley: “I wouldn’t change anything about my career, but coming across analytics and what defines your strengths better… when I was coming through the minors, it was ‘sinkers down and away are safe’ and ‘ground balls over strikeouts.’ But I actually and naturally pitch better inside. That’s to both sides. To righties, I throw the cutter and the slider and have the changeup and sinker to keep them honest. To lefties, I’ve got the running sinker. It’s been inconsistent this year, I can’t really figure that out, but it’s been between 14 to 19 horizontal and probably anywhere from eight to two vertical. It’s kind of a unique pitch because it spins 2,400 [RPMs] or so. It’s got some life and late dart to it.

“I always struggled with changeups before I went over there, because I’d always try to throw the 10 miles an hour off [from the fastball]. Now I throw a Viulcan change, so I don’t really kill spin but I put it on the horizontal axis. I get around 19 and I’m either on the line or under the line. Basically, I found some unique shapes to really broaden my left and right, because I can throw a slider at 22 inches of horizontal and a changeup at 20 [in the opposite direction].”

Laurila: How much spin are you getting on the your Vulcan? I think of that as a pitch with low spin.

Raley: “I wish I could kill spin. I mean, sometimes they’re 1,900, sometimes they’re 2,100. I just have a high spin rate. I always have. My slider is 2,900–3,000. My cutter is 2,600–2,700. To try to kill spin, you want to put it on this axis and have gravity kind of pull at it.”

Laurila: What about your fastball? You throw a two-seamer and not a four.

Raley: “I don’t get much carry. If I throw a four, it’s probably 14. But I also throw from a low three quarters to try to create angle [and] deception. I throw on the first-base side, so I kind of create some unique angles. When I throw in to righties, it comes all the way across.”

Laurila: These are things you didn’t really know when you were a young pitcher.

Raley: “Right. I started to experiment, especially when teams started taking all the left-handers out of the lineup and I was facing nine righties. I really had to learn how to get in, throwing the cutter. They were covering my two-seam and my slider down, so I had to learn how to get something up and in on their hands. That elevated my game.

“Then I started throwing the Vulcan. My strikeouts didn’t really go up, because I didn’t really know how to use the pitch. It wasn’t until I went to Houston [in August 2020] and then to Tampa [in November 2021], where they were like, ‘That’s a great pitch, you should throw that.’ I had the repertoire, I just needed someone to help me organize the percentages and usage.”

Laurila: Houston and Tampa are great places for learning a lot about pitching.

Raley: “Again, I just needed someone to organize what I knew about myself. I had the shapes. I knew I could sink it. I knew I had a good slider. Brent Strom asked me in our first meeting how far I could sweep my slider. I’d always been trying to create depth for chase, strikeouts were always supposed to be below the zone, but I could never bounce breaking balls. They were like, ‘You don’t have to. How far can you sweep it?’ I went from throwing 12–13 inch [horizontal] sliders to 20–22 sliders. My strikeouts went up. I started getting really bad contact just because of the silly uniqueness.”

Laurila: Circling back to you playing in the KBO, I assume that was a matter of opportunity and a better contract than you’d get from an MLB organization.

Raley: “100 percent. I was labeled a 4-A player. I threw 180 innings each year [in the KBO] and proved what I wanted to. I felt that I had an opportunity to come back, I just needed someone to give me that chance.”

Laurila: How did that come about?

Raley: “It was actually kind of wild. My wife and I found out we were going to have our second and third child, we were having twins, and we were like, ‘We can’t live in a high-rise here with me traveling around the league.’ That would have been very tough on her. We loved it there [Busan, Korea], but I also thought I could play in the big leagues again. If I went to spring training and was told, ‘You’re not good enough,’ I was going to be okay with that. But I was going to give this a try, and fortunately it’s worked out.”

Laurila: What about the process itself? Who did you talk to?

Raley: “There were several teams. The Reds. San Diego wanted me. With Cincinnati, I ended up signing a two-year split [contract], then made their Opening Day roster after all the COVID stuff and the shortened season. I was designated [for assignment] probably nine days in after throwing in four games. The Astros traded for me, and the rest is history.”

Laurila: Things went pretty well for you in Houston.

Raley: “Yes. In 2020, I played in the postseason, and then in 2021 we made it to the World Series. I think I ended up with a 4.80 ERA that year, but my FIP was around 3.00 and my SIERA was good. My underlining stuff was really good, and that’s how I got the deal with Tampa.”

Laurila: Not many pitchers bring up FIP and SIERA.

Raley: “I mean, I think that’s a great way to evaluate a player. It’s not everything, right? Especially now. I don’t know what’s going on with the ball this year, but I’ve seen sliders and hop-fastballs not having the effect they’ve had in recent years. The movement profiles are shortening. I think that’s why you’re seeing splits and changeups have more effect, because whatever is happening to the balls is making those pitches benefit. If it’s less drag or more drag…. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it.”

Laurila: How is it affecting your stuff?

Raley: “I’ve changed my sinker grip a couple times, trying to find something that works. I’ve thrown a seam-shifted wake and… last year, I could consistently throw it 14 to 20 and from five to one. This year in spring training, I was throwing it 10/9. I had to alter things to get the shape back.”

Laurila: How were you able to create that with a grip change?

Raley: “The Edgertronic camera has changed everything for me. I’m a visual person and a visual learner. When I saw my hand being kind of here, it was like, ‘Man, if I could have the ball come out in this position…’ I could tell that I was kind of cutting the ball. Really, to create seam-shifted wake, most people think cut. I think like, ‘push the ball to cut,’ and it will go down.”

Laurila: It sounds like it wasn’t a grip change so much as how you were releasing the ball.

Raley: “100 percent. My grip didn’t really change, it was the thought process of how my hand finished to get the ball to do what I wanted it to do. It was all the Edgertronic, seeing in slow motion how your hand actually lets go of the ball. When you’re on the mound, you never actually see your hand. You’re just looking at a target.”

Laurila: Do you happen to know what your BABIP has been in recent years?

Raley: “I think it’s been in the .260 to .270 range. I think shifting is interesting. It’s obviously more limited now, but shifting is based off of somebody’s full body of work, not the type of pitcher, where they stand on the mound, or even the velocity. For instance, coming from Tampa, Colin Poche throws perceived cut at 20–23 inched of carry. We’re polar opposites. We’re both left handed, but he has almost seven feet of extension and I’m at like five-[foot]-nine. So him and me throwing to the same left-handed hitter, in my opinion, will have two very different outcomes based on how the ball is thrown. But we’d play overall the same standard shift because of that player’s at-bats against left-handed pitching. I think you can build another tier into the data and tune up your shifts to another degree.”

Laurila: The same could be said for pitching.

Raley: “Exactly.”





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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David Klein
6 months ago

Great interview David! Glad Brooks will be back in 2024.