C.J. Wilson on Spin Rate, Arm Angles and Exploiting Weaknesses

C.J. Wilson doesn’t have a simple approach to pitching. The 33-year-old Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lefthander throws everything but the kitchen sink at opposing batters, and there’s a reason behind each pitch. That reason could be based on a weakness or it could based on feel. And the pitch may not come from the same arm angle as the one that preceded it. In all likelihood, it will have a different spin axis, which is a subject Wilson knows better than most big-league pitchers.


Wilson on his mindset: “When I throw a really good game, I feel like I’ve pulled off a master heist. I’ve stolen their ability to win that day with a well-thought-out, totally under control, non-emotional, logical plan. I knew exactly how much time I had before they called the cops on me.

“We all have different personalities. Some guys literally grip it and rip it. They throw as hard as they can every single pitch. They just stare at the catcher and try to throw the nastiest slider they can throw. I’ve never pitched that way. I was a control pitcher before I had Tommy John surgery. I was crafty. I modeled myself after Tom Glavine, who I watched growing up. I wish I had Pedro 1999 stuff, but I don’t and never have.

Felix Hernandez is able to change speeds from 90 to 96. It’s a different gear. David Price can throw 97 if he feels like it. Tommy Millone throws 88. You have to understand where you are on the continuum. I feel I have to be the criminal mastermind on the mound if I want to win.”

On spin rates: “Spin is a big thing. It’s like swing planes for hitters. Hitters who have certain swing planes may have what we call bat lag – the way they bring their hands through the zone, the barrel kind of drags a little bit. That allows them to stay inside the ball more and hit for a higher average. They don’t hook balls and roll over, they’re able to cover a wider speed variety.

“Spin control is sort of the same thing. You’re trying to create the illusion of a white baseball. The faster it spins, the whiter it’s going to look. Most hitters assume that if it’s white, it’s a fastball. Therefore they’re going to swing at the very top of where that ball is going to go – in their mind, where they think the ball is going to go. A perfect curveball is going to have exactly the opposite spin of a fastball, but if it comes out white the hitter is going to react to it like it’s a fastball.

“Some guys will throw a changeup that has side spin. Good hitters, once they recognize the ball has a little side spin, kind of freeze. They have a momentary freeze pause, and that allows them to slap the ball the other way. They don’t take as powerful of a swing, but they still have enough accuracy. They have enough time, based on how bad the spin is. It’s called loose spin. If the ball spins really slow, and sideways – perpendicular to the normal spin you have on your fastball… you want all of your spin axis to be as parallel as possible.”

On PITCHf/x and his repertoire: “One thing I do that’s different than a lot of guys is actively change my arm angle, depending on the situation or how I’m feeling. To some guys I’ll throw pitches that are completely sidearm. If I’m throwing a sidearm pitch, it’s going to have side spin on it, which is totally different than my four-seam fastball, which is going to have backspin. My data is harder to get information from than other guys’.

“I throw five or six pitches and it’s all shades. Literally, my spin axis is… I cover something like 270 degrees. I don’t have under spin, because I don’t throw underhand, but I create different kinds of spin from different types of angles. I’ll throw a sidearm curveball and an overhand curveball. Those are 90 degrees away from each other. If someone is trying to scout me off my spin data, they’ll be like ‘aah, I don’t know.’ One thing I’ve seen is that my offspeed pitches spin harder than my fastball does. It has a higher RPM. That’s what the data showed when I looked at it a month and a half ago.

“PITCHf/x sometimes doesn’t read my pitches accurately. My pitch types are kind of malleable. Sometimes I create extra break on my slider and turn it into a curveball. I throw cutters anywhere from 85 to 91 and have gotten misreads on it. I throw a split and I don’t think they recognize that. They did get the knuckleballs I’ve thrown this year. I threw one to Brandon Guyer and he grounded out. I threw another to Jesus Guzman of the Astros and he took it for a ball.

Koji Uehara has different directions on his split-finger. If he throws a cut split, is it misread as a slider, or is it always a split? Unless they’re reading the catcher’s signs, how are they going to know what the pitch is? Someone like me who changes arm angles is going to create different spin vectors all the time.”

On two-seamers and four-seamers: “Two-seamers sink because they’re aerodynamically unstable. Four-seam is going to carry the ball more, because it has more active seams, directionally, compared to the flight of the baseball. The spin is directly parallel with the flight of the ball, so it creates more lift. A two-seamer is going to drop with some guys and tail with other guys, depending on what their wrist angle is and the spin angle itself.

“Basically, the reason a two-seamer moves, from a physiological standpoint, is that you pronate it a little earlier than you do your four-seam. You have less active seams against the air. But it depends, because everybody throws their two-seam differently. There are really only two ways to throw a four-seam fastball. You can hold your four-seam fastball where the horseshoe is on the inside of your hand, or you can throw it where it’s on the outside of your hand. If I throw a four-seam fastball and my index finger is on the closed part of the horseshoe, the ball is going to tail. If I throw it so my index finger is on the open part of the horseshoe, then it’s going to cut.

“With a two-seam fastball, some guys throw it where they have their fingers on the seam, or one finger on the seam. They might throw it almost like a cutter, where they have two fingers on one seam, or fingers on separate seams. Tyler Skaggs and I throw our two-seamers opposite. He throws the outside of the ball to try to get a diagonal spin, and I throw it to try to create almost a slider spin – like an opposite slider.

Jered Weaver throws one where he doesn’t have any fingers on a seam. He throws it in the middle. They call it a no-seam ball, but it’s basically a two-seamer where his hand is in the middle of the whole ball with no seam spin. He’s not throwing a knuckleball, it’s just that the spin axis is different.”

On video and tipping his pitches: “I’ve been filming my side sessions with my GoPro to make sure my body position is the same with everything. Earlier this year I was tipping my pitches. I found that out by watching video. When I don’t tip my pitches I have good games. When I was tipping my pitches I had bad games. If you know something is coming, you can lay off anything close. If you have guys who have walk rates that are preposterously low and all of a sudden they’re in 3-2 counts and taking super-close pitches, they know what’s coming. There’s no other explanation. You don’t spontaneously get a Ted Williams concept of the strike zone, mid-season, when you were basically swinging at the rosin bag before that. I looked at video and thought, ‘there’s no way that guy should have taken that pitch.’ Then I watched the video again with a more analytical mind and saw I was doing something different with my changeup.”

On having a diverse repertoire: “I throw everything. I’ve thrown everything in a game, now that I’ve thrown a knuckleball. I’ve thrown a screwball this year. I learned it from watching a Pedro Martinez video on YouTube. He threw an opposite side spin changeup. If you watch his arm angle, it was low enough that he could curve over the top of the ball, and flick the top of the ball. He threw a changeup with topspin, which is a screwball by definition.

“You practice every day. This is my life. It’s like a hedge fund trader knows the difference between a bull market and a bear market. They also know the difference between a rally that’s built on beating forecasts versus matching forecasts. There are also currency inflation-deflation factors. It’s a three-dimensional picture. There are a lot of things that influence what’s going on.

“I would be a lot better pitcher if I could throw 100 mph. I’d be a lot better pitcher if I had an unhittable slider. I wasn’t born with either of those skills and you can’t learn that stuff. You can’t throw 100 if you have physical limitations. Some guys just have better bodies. Giancarlo Stanton can hit the ball farther than other guys. Would he be a better hitter if he couldn’t hit the ball 500 feet? I don’t think so. You want to have the maximum physical ability you can. What allows me to go out there and limit teams’ damage against me is my ability to create movement on the ball that is unexpected.”

On exploiting weaknesses: “I talk to my catchers every day. We talk about hitters. The way my memory works, I’m very good at analyzing hitters. I pitch to weak points. I want to know if a guy can’t hit a down-and-in pitch because geometrically his swing extends past where he’d have to go. If he extends his arm over the strike zone, he can’t hit a waist high inside pitch. He’s going to have to hit it so far out here that his barrel is going to be pointing at the dugout and he’s going to hook it foul by 75 degrees. If I know that, I can exploit that weakness, or I can exploit the adjustment he makes to that weakness. If you lead the hitter in one direction, then you’re opening a hole somewhere else.

“Some guys are better at floating. Michael Young was one of the best guys I’ve ever seen at that. If he got fooled by an offspeed pitch he could float on his front foot and keep his hands back. He’d flick the ball to right field. That’s why he got 200 hits a year. Vladimir Guerrero was the same way.

“Vlad was such an anomaly. You were better off just pitching him hard, in and playing the shift. We’re seeing that with a lot of guys now. They’re pounding guys inside, because it’s hard to hit that ball fair. And if you do hit it fair, it’s hard to get underneath it and drive it, therefore a lot of guys are rolling it over. Ian Kinsler is right on top of the plate and he spins on his back foot really well. That’s why, in Texas for so many years, he drove the ball to left field. But he also led the league in fly ball rate. He hit a ton of fly balls. He had a steep swing and would get under everything. This year he’s a little more off the plate and is floating, and hitting the ball to right center way better.

“It’s funny, some guys are so good at crafting their swings in order to stay inside the ball that they lose the ability to take an easy swing at a middle pitch. They over-swing when they see it, because they’re like, ‘This is what I’ve wanted my whole life.’ So they pop it straight up.”

On changing things up: “I’ve thrown a higher percentage of changeups this year than I ever have. That’s helping me create new possibilities within a game – and in my career. I’m not a guy who is ever going to be pharmaceutically enhanced, and I’ve never thrown 100 mph anyway. I’m going to have to change speeds even more. It’s something you saw guys like Glavine do to extend their careers. He had a great changeup, which is one of the reasons he had such a great career. I feel if I’m able to transition from a fastball-slider guy to a fastball-changeup guy, that’s going to create a whole new dynamic for me. Plus, it’s a lot healthier on the arm.

“I throw a four-seam change, but I’ve also thrown some splits. I had a game against the White Sox earlier this year, in Anaheim, where I threw 15 or 16 splits. That was crazy. I’d never done that before, but it was working. I could throw it right down the middle and it would drop enough that guys would swing and hit it to third base. But the next game I pitched, against Cleveland, they didn’t swing at any of them. So it was, ‘OK, the magic is over on the split.’

“Sometimes not thinking too much is the best medicine. If it’s working, why make an adjustment? But I’m always working on things. The more you do something, the better you get at it. If you throw a pitch often enough, you’re able to get a little creative inspiration and do different things with it.”

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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9 years ago

This is fantastic. Great job David.