Over the offseason, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the Cincinnati Reds‘ starting rotation. Now that Anthony DeSclafani has signed elsewhere and Trevor Bauer is potentially gone, they’re going to have to do some work to maintain it. Luis Castillo is great. So is Sonny Gray. You may know I’m a fan of Tyler Mahle, too. Since Wade Miley appears to have the #4 spot in the rotation locked up, my eye has been on that last spot. Michael Lorenzen is ostensibly going to be taking it, but Tejay Antone could get his share of starts too. In the interim, Antone might try and flex his skills as something of a multi-inning relief ace.
According to Roster Resource, the Reds will pencil in Amir Garrett at closer, with Lucas Sims next in line. While Antone may be a fun option to close games, the Reds may prefer to go with the surer thing(s), but also, it may be a blessing in disguise that he’s freed up to do what he did last year. That is, if the starting pitcher can make it five or six innings, Antone can serve as the bridge to the closer.
On the surface, Antone may not seem like all that much. Garrett’s 18.1% swinging-strike percentage dwarfs his 13.0%, and between him, Garrett, and Sims, Antone’s fastball CSW is the worst by far. But there a few things to consider!
Given that Antone started a handful of games, I was expecting to find some velocity differences between his starts and relief appearances, as is common. That didn’t hold up, with his average velocity sitting at 95.6 mph and 95.7 mph, respectively. Given this, I was a little surprised to find that his sinker CSW was 31.3% in relief and 20.2% in his starting appearances. I’m not sure I would take those two numbers too seriously, given the limited sample, but I wouldn’t doubt that Antone can throw more sinkers for strikes as a relief pitcher — even without the extra velocity. That’s one thing!
If a shaky sinker and command are what are holding Antone back, then his slider is what’s propelling him forward. I was delighted to find that, outside of Yu Darvish (because of course), Antone’s slider has the highest CSW of all sliders thrown 100 times or more in 2020. That’s quite the feat, and it’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Here it is in action:
A slider in the zone called for a strike. It may seem ordinary, but this is, in part, where Antone has set himself apart. Notice Kris Bryant’s body language here. He was with the pitch the entire way, before ultimately hinging forward after giving up on it. Antone’s nowhere near elite in terms of drawing whiffs with his slider—he does just fine, but that’s not where he excels. Antone is extraordinary at earning called strikes, where he ranks in the 97th percentile. Sustainably earning called strikes is something that we should be wary of in general, but it’s something that I’ve been coming around on as of late.
Two reasons to believe in a pitcher’s ability to sustain called strikes are strong command or a deep repertoire. Given that command isn’t exactly Antone’s strong suit, I’m not sure that’s it. And his repertoire is certainly deep for a reliever, but two of his pitches make up 80% of his pitches thrown. For me, the most compelling answer is deception.
I suppose there are several ways to go about this, and no one way is perfect, but one way that I’ve historically viewed a pitcher’s deception is taking their zone-swing percentage and subtracting their chase percentage (Z-O%). The idea is that pitches are most hitter-friendly in the zone, and they’re the least hitter-friendly outside of the zone. Again, this isn’t perfect because there are several factors at play, but it’s what we’ve got! Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about this if Antone didn’t grade out well here.
Consider Antone by Z-O%:
He’s not the best, but he’s one of the best! Of all pitchers with 20 or more innings in 2020, Antone has the 15th-best Z-O%, which means that, by Z-O%, Antone is one of the more deceptive pitchers. It’s not that hitters chase an inordinate amount; the bulk of his Z-O% is derived from hitters not swinging at pitches in the zone. What’s interesting is that Antone throws inside the zone about as commonly as anyone — he ranks in the 51st percentile in zone percentage — it’s just that hitters don’t swing. He ranks sixth-lowest in the sample by zone-swing percentage, good for 98th percentile in terms of converting pitches in the zone into takes.
As I mentioned, Z-O% isn’t perfect. Several factors go into the process of hitters taking pitches, and also why they swing at other pitches. Another way to consider the issue at hand is by looking at pitches in two-strike counts.
There isn’t any reason for a hitter to purposely take pitches for called third strikes because, well, it’s a called third strike. There are only a few reasons a hitter would take a pitch for a strike in a two-strike count. The first is that the pitch looked like a ball, and then it dropped in for a strike. Duh! Another reason is that the hitter froze up—think Randy Johnson’s slider, Mr. Snappy, or simply getting a fastball when you were looking for another pitch. Whatever it may be, it mostly speaks to the pitcher’s deception, vaguely speaking.
Again, Antone fares well here!
% of two-strike pitches that go for called strikes: 9.1%
% of two-strike sliders that go for called strikes: 10.0%
By the former, Antone ranks seventh-best in MLB, or in the 93rd percentile. By the latter, Antone ranks sixth-best, or in the 94th percentile. If you think that the latter too heavily skews the former, when we consider all pitches and omit sliders (Antone’s best pitch), he still ranks in the 52nd percentile. To put into simpler terms: generally speaking, Antone is one of the more deceptive pitchers with two strikes.
Among all sliders, Antone’s appears to be one of the most deceptive, and of all non-slider pitches, Antone is about average. The lattermost figure speaks mostly to his sinker, given he throws it with the most volume, and I’m sure if he threw his curveball more, his overall percentage of called strikes would increase even more. That might be the next step for Antone moving forward: bump up his curveball usage, throw a few more changeups, and fade his sinker even more.
Leaning on called strikes may not seem like a sustainable approach, but plenty of pitchers do it. Jhoulys Chacin feels like a pertinent example. So does Carlos Martinez. Now it seems an awful lot like Antone should be able to flip pitches in the zone for strikes, too. So long as he’s throwing his slider at least as often as his sinker, he’s got plenty of potential—and that’s nothing to say of a potential weapon in his curveball and a changeup with some intrigue.
For now, he’s a pain in the neck for hitters, even when he pitches inside the zone. But if he ever develops more of a chase pitch, he could be a nightmare.
Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)