Padres reliever Ryan Buchter has been around — playing for five organizations since 2008 — which really only means that teams haven’t agreed on his value. For every team that’s passed on the left-hander, another onehas seen something. That’s the life of a reliever, sure, but this one is doing well right now, and took a while to find his way to San Diego.
The lefty is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses in the minds of those organizations, since he heard different directives from each development team. He’s a fastball guy who doesn’t feature great secondary pitches, those coaches have told him, if not in those exact words. But along the way, Buchter has developed his own view on what makes his style effective. And it’s not just his elite spin rate.
To illustrate his case, Buchter brought up Chris Hatcher, who was brought into Dodgers camp at the same time as the lefty. Both had strong spin rates and “that’s what the Dodgers were looking for” — to an extreme point. “You don’t have to give them a name,” Buchter said of the pitchers Los Angeles brought into camp. “You just bring in the numbers from the TrackMan, give them 10 guys and they’ll pick off of their stats. They don’t care what they look like or anything.”
But while the Dodgers picked Hatcher and his slightly superior spin rate, Buchter was granted his release from their Oklahoma City squad. He caught on with the Cubs for a bit, and then ended up signing a minor-league contract with the Padres, forcing his way onto the roster with a tiny ERA and a big stinking strikeout rate. “That’s the thing about spin rate,” Buchter said, “It only gets you so far. Him and I have the same spin rate.”
|Pitch||Ryan Buchter Spin Rate||Chris Hatcher Spin Rate|
So what makes Buchter more than his spin rate? “Arm action has a lot to do with it,” thought the pitcher. “A lot of guys that have that spiral, flip arm action, they end up being more of a spin rate type of pitcher.” That’s something for which teams look, as well, Buchter hypothesized. Watch him bring up the ball in his delivery to get a sense of what he means.
But that’s just how he got the spin. Why’s he having the success he’s having despite throwing one pitch over 80% of the time? Despite having a worse changeup and overall worse secondary stuff than his compatriot in spin on the Dodgers?
Buchter thinks it might be about his reluctance to give in. And that’s in more ways than one.
For one, he wasn’t willing to give in and throw more of his secondary stuff just because teams wanted it. “All the years I’ve had success, they’ve let me throw fastballs,” Buchter said of his past. “The times I’ve been unsuccessful has been when they’ve come to me and said, ‘Alright, you’re doing great, but we need you to throw more breaking balls, because if you’re going to get to the big leagues, you’re going to be a lefty specialist.’ But then I’d throw breaking balls and fall behind more. No matter what you have, if you fall behind, they have the upper hand.”
So Buchter has that great fastball, and he throws it a ton — more than everyone in baseball except for Tony Cingrani. “Like anyone that has a good pitch you throw it a lot, like Adam Wainwright’s curveball, he throws it a lot,” thought Buchter. “I’m lucky enough that mine is a fastball.”
|Player||Results||Avg Spin Rate|
|Justin Verlander||1212||2562 RPM|
|Max Scherzer||1251||2552 RPM|
|Jose Fernandez||1020||2432 RPM|
|Danny Salazar||1063||2406 RPM|
|Archie Bradley||1027||2394 RPM|
|Ian Kennedy||1242||2386 RPM|
|Bud Norris||775||2385 RPM|
|J.A. Happ||1128||2382 RPM|
|Jordan Zimmermann||764||2374 RPM|
|Adam Conley||1278||2356 RPM|
|Kevin Gausman||1167||2320 RPM|
|Vincent Velasquez||960||2308 RPM|
|Jon Lester||1105||2302 RPM|
|Chris Tillman||1259||2300 RPM|
|Madison Bumgarner||978||2298 RPM|
|Ryan Buchter||761||2295 RPM|
|Nathan Eovaldi||950||2285 RPM|
|Matt Moore||1088||2282 RPM|
|Robbie Ray||1254||2279 RPM|
|Jacob deGrom||846||2279 RPM|
Why should he throw other pitches? “I throw the fastball and they’re late,” the lefty says of the reactions he gets on a four-seamer that features top-15 ‘ride.’ “That’s one reason I don’t throw a lot of other stuff,” he continued. “If they’re late, I’m not going to throw something to speed them up and give them a chance to catch up. If someone pulls my fastball foul down the middle, then I know that I have to change it up. But if they hit it over the dugout, I know I can throw it again and I just have to be fine with it.”
So everyone knows that a fastball is coming. It’s not as much a curse as you might think. “Everyone knows I’m throwing a fastball, but that helps me and hurts me in the same sentence,” said the lefty.
I asked him to explain, because I figured knowing a fastball was coming would only be a boon for hitters. “I throw a lot of fastballs and everyone in the clubhouse knows I throw a lot of fastballs, so the ones at the top of the zone, they know I’m throwing it, but they just can’t get to it when they swing,” Buchter explained. “It opens doors for me. I’ll get a lot of fastball swings out of the zone, because everyone knows I’m going to throw a fastball and what does everyone want to hit? And what do they want to do with those fastballs?”
And that’s another way Buchter doesn’t give in. He’d rather give up the walk than the home run, basically, and because he’s throwing fat-looking fastballs just outside of the zone in fastball counts, batters are swinging for those home runs. It’s something we’ve heard before from Ryan Vogelsong and others.
When he’s stuck in a bad count, the lefty digs in. “I just pick out a spot and throw a ball just out of the zone,” he says. “To right-handers, I miss off the plate away. I’m not going to give in. I’m not going to throw the ball down the middle and hope it works out. It’s not like I’m wild. I’m not throwing fastballs to the backstop or in the dirt. I’m just not giving in to hitters. If I’m throwing outside, I’m just throwing outside. Even if it’s a lefty up and a righty on deck, and I fall behind, I don’t give in. That’s my game.”
And you can see that he’s right: Buchter is among the league leaders in avoiding the non-competitive pitch, the pitch that’s 2.5 feet from the center of the zone and is a ball 97% of the time.
By throwing a fastball in a fastball count but not in the zone — “I’ll come in with a guys on base where most guys will spin a breaking ball so they don’t let the run in, and I’ll throw a fastball out of the zone and get a lot of swings at it” as he put it — Buchter gets a decent amount of swings and misses on his fastball. Or whatever you call 14th-best among four-seamers thrown more than 700 times this year.
If you want to try and get spin and ride like Buchter, you could try to mimic the mechanics on bringing the ball up, and also long toss with intention. “Before spin rate was a thing,” the Padre said, “I tried to get the ball there with the least amount of effort as possible. Pulling down on the seams was part of that. When I play long toss, it’s nice and relaxed and stay behind it, spin the ball backwards, and let the backspin carry it to the destination.”
But that spin won’t be everything. You still have to be aggressive with your pitches, understand your strengths, and refuse to give in if you find you’ve got something special. That’s at least the path Ryan Buchter found to his current success.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.