Tejay Antone Talks Pitching

Tejay Antone had a strong rookie season in 2020. Working as both a starter and out of the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, the 27-year-old right-hander logged a 2.80 ERA and fanned 45 batters in 35-and-a-third innings. He came into the current campaign with designs on being even better.

He’s done just that. As a matter of fact, he’s been downright scintillating. Armed with a new-and-improved attack plan, Antone has made seven relief appearances and allowed just four hits and one run in 13-and-two-thirds innings, with 20 punch outs. Power and adept sequencing have driven that success. Antone’s heater averages 97 mph, but it’s not the pitch he relies on the most. As a matter of fact, he considers it his third-best weapon.

Antone talked about his repertoire, and his Driveline-influenced approach, over the phone yesterday afternoon.


David Laurila: What do you know about pitching now that you didn’t just a few years ago?

Tejay Antone: “A lot. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the fastball gets harder, I’m starting to spin the ball more. That seems counterintuitive, because you would think that if you’re throwing harder, and your fastball is getting better, you’d want to throw it more. But for me… and I’ve seen some other guys with really good fastballs actually kind of pitching backwards. One is Aroldis Chapman. He’s obviously one of the hardest throwers in the league, and he’s spinning the ball a lot. That protects his fastball; it makes it that much better, because they still have to respect the velocity. We’ve lived in a fastball-driven society lately, but I think it’s starting to kind of flip. We’re seeing the percentage of off-speed pitches go up.”

Laurila: You’re throwing more off-speed this year [35.9% curveballs, 32.1% sliders, and 32.1% fastballs]. Has that been data-driven, or is it more intuitive?

Antone: “It’s more intuitive than data. But yeah, data does play into it, because you see — at least I see — batting-average-against on certain pitches, swing-and-miss against on certain pitches. I do look at that. It’s, ‘OK, I’m getting way more whiffs on my curveball,’ or ‘I’m getting lower exit velocity every time I throw a curveball, compared to when I throw a fastball.’ I mean, any smart human being would be like, ‘OK, let me throw the curveball more so that I can have more success.’ At the same time, you can’t throw it every single pitch. That’s where the game plan comes in: how do we execute, use, and sequence all of our pitches?”

Laurila: Has your fastball improved?

Antone: “Yes. Velo training. Moving more efficiently. Trying to move faster. So I have seen my velocity climb each year, for probably the past three years. Last year, I had some pretty poor spin efficiency. I was cutting the ball. The tilt axis and gyro degree was causing the ball to actually sink; it was like a cutting sinker. The ball looked like it was cutting, but it was actually sinking, which in itself could be a little effective. But it wasn’t.

“I was trying to throw fastballs up, because I had velocity. I was trying to go top-shelf, and the ball wasn’t riding true through the zone. One of my goals this past offseason was getting better spin efficiency on my fastball so that it would ride better. While it’s not perfect — it’s still work in progress — I think it has been a lot better this year.”

Laurila: Your four-seamer had been getting cut and sink?

Antone: “Correct. It was not very good ride at all. It was actually sinking a little bit.”

Laurila: Basically, the spin orientation was off…

Antone: “That’s exactly it.”

Laurila: What have you done to correct that?

Antone: “I had to make a grip adjustment. And then, with that grip adjustment, just a slight… kind of the thought as I’m throwing. I did that throughout the offseason, so I don’t really have to consciously think about it anymore. I can just throw it.

“We had a game plan going into the offseason. I asked our coaches — Caleb Cotham, at the time, and EJ [Eric Jagers] — ‘What do I need to improve on to be better next year?’ They both agreed that my fastball was something to be worked on, and we developed a game plan. As soon as I started throwing in the offseason, I was attacking that.

“It clicked way faster than I thought it would. I thought I was going have to spend eight months to really get it figured out, but it ended up being a month. Playing catch consciously, and working on it while playing catch, it cleaned up as soon as I got on the mound.”

Laurila: Is your fastball your best pitch?

Antone: “Oh, no. Not at all.”

Laurila: What is?

Antone: “Statistically, I think it’s my curveball. Confidence-wise, and being able to throw it in any situation, any count, it would be my slider. So when I’m really trying to get a swing-and-miss to put a guy away, I’m wanting to lean on my curveball. But in terms of knowing exactly where I’m throwing this pitch, I throw my slider — which is also a put-away pitch. Those two breaking pitches are, for sure, my best pitches.”

Laurila: Have you always had both?

Antone: “Yeah. I’ve always had a decent curveball and a decent slider. I went to Driveline a few years ago and did a pitch-design session on the slider. Since then, it’s only improved. They helped me a ton with that, and just getting the feel for it over the years, and being able to command it… and then the curveball has always been there.

Trevor Bauer being with us last year… he had a 12-6 curveball that he drops in quite a bit for a strike. My curveball is very sweepy, very lateral. I couldn’t really figure out how to get my hand out front, so he kind of gave me some mechanical cues to get it out front, and to get my shoulder out front, so that the ball is coming out in the same spot every time. That helped a ton. It helped me be able to get on top of it, and get better spin efficiency, which makes the ball move, too.”

Laurila: Was it a mechanical cue, or a mental cue?

Antone: “It was definitely mechanical. I’m trying to like get my shoulder — my throwing shoulder — out front. I’m not really thinking about my hand at all. So I guess it is a mental cue too, because I am thinking that. But I’m actually getting… my release point is a couple inches further out front.”

Laurila: Has anything changed with the grip?

Antone: “No, same grip. I throw a conventional slider and a conventional curve. I’ve tried the spike, but it’s just not comfortable in my hand. I hurt my finger and was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to throw this.’”

Laurila: Looking at your player page, I saw that you’re throwing twice as many curves this year.

Antone: “I’m throwing way more curves.”

Laurila: Why?

Antone: “I had a lot of success with it last year, and I’m also able to throw it for strikes more this year. I’m trusting it way more. Last year, my trust with it wasn’t 100%. It was a good pitch and it moved a lot, but I couldn’t throw it 0-0 or 2-0; I couldn’t throw it in the important counts, or land it to where now the hitter has to respect that pitch for the rest of the at bat. I wasn’t able to do that last year, and now this year I am. The usage is going to go up whenever you start trusting a pitch more.”

Laurila: I talked curveballs with Russ Stripling recently, and he said it’s difficult to throw a big-breaker over the plate.

Antone: “Oh, yeah. Very. It moves so much that you’re just… I mean, you have an aiming point, but you’re kind of playing a guessing game and just hoping it drops in there.”

Laurila: Do you have conventional aiming points?

Antone: “Yeah, but I actually just made an adjustment to my curveball in my last game, which allowed me to put guys away a little bit better. I just moved… I was throwing it to the same aiming spot every single time, whether it was an 0-0 count or 0-2. Now I have a better aiming spot for 0-2, so that I’m not just throwing a waste pitch or bouncing it halfway there. It’s still a very competitive pitch. It’s in the shadow, like near the zone.”

Laurila: How much break do you get on your curveball?

Antone: “I know it’s one of the better spinning curves in the league, but I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head just how much movement it is.”

Laurila: And it’s not a 12-6, right? You said it’s kind of sweepy.

Antone: “I do get more sweep. My arm slot is a little bit lower, so I get more horizontal than vertical.”

Laurila: Going back to the challenges of locating a big-breaking curveball, I asked Stripling why doesn’t he a throw a shorter version that he can command better?

Antone: “For me, I don’t want to be taking away from swing-and-miss. If it gets shorter, tightens up the movement… it really just depends. If you’re taking away movement for more velocity, that could be a good trade off, but I have this arm slot, and this arm speed down, so I’m just going to stick with the big-moving curveball.

“I’m looking it up now, and I’m getting like negative 19 inches of horizontal on the curve, and then anywhere from negative 11 to 13 vertical. I’m spinning it like 3,000.”

Laurila: You want the swing-and-miss…

Antone: “Oh, for sure. I mean, that’s what runs the game. In spring training, Nick Castellanos asked me, ‘Do you try to strike out every single person you face?’ I said ‘Absolutely.’ There’s no other choice. I’m trying to strike out every single person, in every situation. He asked me, ‘What about being efficient?’ I mean, you can go down a rabbit hole and talk about individual situations all day, but I’m trying to strike out every single person, no matter what.”

Laurila: Would you have said the same thing a few years ago?

Antone: “Nope. I sure wouldn’t have. I used to throw sinkers, and I wanted to go seven innings every single time; I wanted to be efficient and try to have 10-pitch innings. The game is changing, and I want to evolve with it.”

Laurila: What is your greatest strength as a pitcher?

Antone: “Probably the ability to spin the baseball. Over the years I’ve started to figure out how to leverage the ball in my hand a little bit better, to add more pressure to my middle finger, which allows the ball to spin better. But I’ve always been able to manipulate the ball and shape it how I want to.”

Laurila: To close, here’s a question I often open interviews with: Do you view pitching as more of an art, or as more of a science?

Antone: “Ooh, that’s a good question. To me, it’s more of a science. It’s more of a science in preparation, and then when I’m in the game, it’s an art. But I’m definitely science-y in my preparation. I communicate with Kyle [Boddy] quite a bit, and we have Jagers now, plus I’ve done the Driveline certification. I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on, and how to coach myself.”

Laurila: Actually, one more: Is pitching fun?

Antone: “It’s fun when you’re having success. It’s not fun when you’re giving up home runs.”

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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Awesome interview. Pitchers who plan on going to college these days might be wise to major in physics or engineering or something along those lines given how advanced they are getting at the pro level. These pro guys are showing that you can’t just be physically blessed to pitch at a high level these days….you also need to be very smart and able to process all this data/information and incorporate it into your approach on the mound.