Ryan Buchter on Spin Rate and Its Limitations

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.”

Ryan Buchter vs. Chris Hatcher Spin Rate
Pitch Ryan Buchter Spin Rate Chris Hatcher Spin Rate
FF 2296 2387
FC 2225 2411
SL 2206 2266
CH 2228 1582
SOURCE: Statcast
Trackman observed spin rate.
Average spin rates: four-seam (2226), cutter (2185), slider (2090), change (1746).
Higher spin rate = more ride, better for four-seam.
Lower spin rate on change = more drop, better for changeups.

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.”

MLB’s Top Four-Seam Spin Rates
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
SOURCE: Statcast
Trackman observed spin rates. Minimum 750 fastballs.

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.

Noncompetitive Pitch Leaders
Pitcher count(*) noncomp NC%
Pedro Baez 820 8 0.98%
Rich Hill 1300 15 1.15%
Bartolo Colon 1880 23 1.22%
Hector Santiago 2222 29 1.31%
Aaron Nola 1796 28 1.56%
Steven Matz 1924 31 1.61%
Danny Duffy 1715 28 1.63%
David Price 2491 41 1.65%
Matt Cain 1303 22 1.69%
Chris Sale 2225 39 1.75%
Julio Urias 902 16 1.77%
Jameson Taillon 775 14 1.81%
Steven Wright 2315 42 1.81%
Kendall Graveman 1983 36 1.82%
Miguel Gonzalez 1608 30 1.87%
Phil Hughes 903 17 1.88%
Max Scherzer 2430 46 1.89%
Jered Weaver 1941 37 1.91%
Joakim Soria 832 16 1.92%
Mike Leake 1969 39 1.98%
Jordan Zimmermann 1562 31 1.98%
John Lamb 1259 25 1.99%
Ryan Buchter 901 18 2.00%
Martin Perez 2175 44 2.02%
Corey Kluber 2164 44 2.03%
Minimum 750 pitches thrown, N=234
Non competitive pitch = 2.5 feet from center of zone.

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.

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The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
7 years ago

Eno, Eno what’s good

This article is awesome. Thank you.