(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)
There are 270 relievers that have pitched more than an inning of professional baseball this year. There are roughly 240 relief pitchers actively on major league rosters at any given time. Aside from the closers and premier setup men, it is a position group comprised of many little-known players, and many little-known commodities. If you are not a Los Angeles Angels fan or have not watched the team this year, Luke Bard is likely not on your radar. He has not done anything to deserve to be on your radar. There is only one reason I have any idea who Luke Bard is. He appeared in a Fangraphs article in February that you may have read. David Laurila learned this from Bard:
“I was a sinkerball pitcher all through college and for my first several years of pro ball, and I got a lot of ground balls, but I never got the swings and misses. I would see guys who didn’t throw as hard as me and go, ‘How are they getting swings and misses on their fastball?’ Then I started learning about spin rate and realized I was throwing high-spin sinkers.”
Bard talked about spin, a prominent pitching theme discussed in the Statcast era. Bard may know a thing or two about spin. He sits at the top of the spin rate leaderboard for 4-seam fastballs and sliders. Bard’s fastball has averaged 2769 RPMs in 2018. In second place, Carl Edwards Jr. sits over 100 RPMs behind at 2646. He talked about sinkers in the quote above, but now it’s about 4-seam fastballs, so what happened? According to Bard, this:
“I went to camp and threw all four-seamers. Any time I got ahead I would throw at the belt instead of the knees. I started getting a ton of swings and misses, so I stuck with it. Last year, I struck out more guys than I ever had.”
Bard made this transition in the spring before the 2017 season. Looking at his 2015-2016 minor league numbers compared to the 2017 numbers, the transition to a high-spin 4-seamer literally made him unrecognizable:
This resulted in easily the lowest ERA and FIP of his career in 2017, posting marks near 2.50 in both categories. In 2018, though in only 8.1 innings, much of Bard’s new profile remains:
A 1.08 ERA highlights a great start to the season, but the fact that he has not given up a home run boosts both that figure and his FIP. That has resulted in a 4.91 xFIP. The tick up in strikeouts is still ticked up from 2015-16, but Bard is also struggling with walks. The 8.1 inning of great long relief are not exactly backed by great peripherals, but the results are not important right now. I’m here to crown the new king of spin rates in baseball.
I mentioned the ridiculous 2769 rate on his fastball that is pacing the majors, but Bard also leads the league with an average of 2986 RPMs on his slider. The fastball spin would be the highest in the short spin rate era (since 2015) for a season and the slider spin would be the third highest. I know you are waiting on the GIFs.
That pitch produces a negative result. It’s pretty clearly above the strike zone, so Bard is now left down in the count 1-0. But just look how it pops out of his hand. No human is actually capable of throwing a fastball that rises, but heaters with a lot of spin can create the image of a “rising fastball.” With the absurd spin that Bard places on a baseball, the pitch above appears to rise. Obviously, not possible, but the movement is still amazing.
This Bard slider evaporates. He creates an incredible amount of sharp bite on the pitch because of the high spin. He has already induced nine whiffs on 56 attempts this season, even when throwing it in the strike zone nearly 60% of the time. But again, this is not about impressive or unimpressive results, just raw wow factor at the amount of spin Bard gets on his pitches.
We know spin does not always lead to success. It is a quality that most pitchers would like to have more of on their pitches, but the lack of it doesn’t doom anybody either. Bard had a lot of spin and he decided to pitch in a different way to maximize that spin. He was never a prospect on the map, but the change in approach created dominance in the minor leagues. We are yet to see what it creates in the pros, as Bard has pitched barely eight innings of low-stress situation baseball. I’m not making any predictions about what the future holds for him. I am telling you that there is a new leader of the spin rate movement, and that is Luke Bard.