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MLB trends: Joey Gallo thriving against reduced spin rates; White Sox starter enjoying breakout year

The All-Star break is next week and the chaos of the trade deadline is only three weeks away. I know it feels like the 2021 MLB season is just getting started, but we’re in the thick of it now. We reached the halfway point of the season last week and the dog days of the summer are right around the corner.

Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look one hitter benefitting from the foreign substance crackdown, a young pitcher coming into his own, and a young hitter giving his team a lift. Last week we broke down Albert Pujols’ role with the Dodgers, Cedric Mullins’ breakout, and the league-wide decline in spin rate

Gallo benefitting from reduced spin

We are more than two weeks into MLB‘s official foreign-substance crackdown, though it’s been more than a month since word got out the crackdown was coming. Spin rates across the league have declined and offense has gone up since then, and while it’s not a total coincidence, it’s difficult to unravel all the different factors. For example, offense always ticks up in June because the weather warms up.

Several pitchers have seen their performances slip since the crackdown. On the flip side, several hitters have gotten hot since the new foreign-substance enforcement rules took effect, including Rangers slugger Joey Gallo. Gallo hit .216/.367/.398 with nine home runs in April and May. In June alone, he hit 10 home runs with a .263/.434/.671 batting line, and he’s gone deep twice more in July.

At one point last week Gallo swatted seven home runs in a five-game span.

“It reminds me of Barry Bonds,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward told reporters, including MLB.com’s Justice delos Santos, in the middle of Gallo’s recent home run binge. “That’s a huge name to throw out there, but you’re seeing a guy this hot, you don’t even know what to say. You don’t even know what to think.”  

Gallo is among the hitters who would seem the benefit most from MLB’s foreign-substance crackdown. Fewer foreign substances (surely some pitchers are still using sticky stuff, it would be naive to think foreign substances have been eliminated entirely) equals less spin, and Gallo has always feasted on lower-spin pitches, particularly fastballs. 

The league average fastball spin rate is roughly 2,300 rpm nowadays (2,266 rpm to be exact). Using that as a nice round number cutoff, here are Gallo’s 2019-21 numbers against high-spin (2,300-plus rpm) and low-spin (sub-2,300 rpm) fastballs:

Gallo vs. high spin

.200

.506

36.3%

93.1 mph

MLB vs. high spin

.250

.443

23.9%

89.4 mph

Gallo vs. low spin

.285

.670

29.0%

94.7 mph

MLB vs. low spin

.282

.476

18.3%

89.6 mph

Relative to the MLB average, Gallo is a much better hitter against low-spin fastballs than high-spin fastballs. He will always swing and miss a bunch, that’s just who he is and that’s just his swing, but when he does connect, he hits the ball a mile. Against high-spin fastballs, Gallo’s slugging percentage is about 17 percent better than average. It’s about 40 percent better against low-spin heaters.

To be clear, every hitter performs better against low-spin fastballs rather than high-spin fastballs. If high-spin fastballs didn’t work so well, pitchers wouldn’t use foreign substances to generate more spin. It’s just that the good version of Gallo — the version against low-spin heaters — is much better than most hitters because his power is so prodigious. Make more contact when you have his power, and your production will go way up.

I won’t say Gallo’s recent success is solely a product of the foreign substance crackdown. That’s a gross oversimplification and unfair to Gallo, who has been a pretty damn good hitter throughout his career (albeit a flawed one given his strikeout and swing-and-miss tendencies). It’s silly to pretend the decline in spin has no impact though. The crackdown is helping all hitters and Gallo in particular. 

“I think it’s a real thing,” Woodward told reporters, including Chris Halicke of Sports Illustrated, about the league-wide uptick in offense since the foreign substance crackdown. “I figured offenses would go up, which they have. It just shows how good stuff became. I’m not saying that was the reason … But does it correlate? Absolutely. And I think there’s a little bit of confidence that it’s drawn.”  

Cease’s breakout season

The season is halfway complete and the White Sox are head and shoulders above the rest of the AL Central. At 50-35, they lead the division by 6 1/2 games, and their plus-94 run differential is far and away the best in the division. Cleveland is a very distant second with a minus-17 run differential. Only the Astros (plus-140) have a better run differential in the American League.

Among the reasons for Chicago’s excellent season is Dylan Cease’s breakout. Cease, who was acquired along with Eloy Jiménez in the José Quintana trade with the Cubs, pitched to a 5.00 ERA in 131 1/3 innings from 2019-20. Like so many young pitchers, Cease struggled with walks and home runs, and often let innings get away from him, but his arm talent was always evident.

“You have to look out for Dylan Cease. He’s vastly improved, and I think he’s just starting to get really comfortable with himself and starting to figure out who he is as a pitcher,” White Sox lefty Carlos Rodón told reporters, including Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports Chicago, back in April. “I think he’ll be a real treat to watch here in the next couple months. I’d love to see what he can do.”  

Even after getting roughed up by the Twins on Monday, Cease owns a 4.14 ERA this season, which is almost exactly league average once you adjust for ballpark and whatnot. He’s made substantial improvement with his strikeout, walk, and swing-and-miss rates, and is also allowing weaker contact.

2019-20

21.5%

11.9%

10.4%

88.5 mph

2021

29.4%

9.8%

14.9%

87.9 mph

Among the 151 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings last year and have thrown at least 50 innings this year, Cease has the largest swinging strike rate increase, the second-largest strikeout rate increase, and the second-largest exit velocity decrease. He’s missing way more bats, and when hitters do make contact, they aren’t hitting the ball as hard.

There is no new pitch or major mechanical adjustment contributing to Cease’s breakout improvement. He’s simply executing better. ChiSox closer Liam Hendriks turned him onto Codify, a game-planning app that produces maps showing each pitcher where and when his pitches are most effective against certain hitters, The Athletic’s James Fegan explained last month.

“Cease is one of the ones that I really harped on that I think this would really benefit you, because of the fact that it shows you that you can hang a curveball to this guy and you can generally be OK,” Hendriks told Fegan. “It gives you the confidence that ‘OK, I don’t need to throw this curveball in the perfect location to be able to get this guy out.’ I can throw it and not have to worry about it backing up, or I can throw fastballs to this guy.”  

Cease is still only 25 and two years ago he was among the top pitching prospects in baseball. Not everyone hits the ground running and is an instant impact pitcher at the big-league level. There’s often a learning curve, and Cease went through it in 2019 and 2020. Now he’s coming into his own as a pitcher, and is becoming a core member of an ascendant White Sox powerhouse.

“I’m executing at a pretty high clip right now. It’s night and day different from last year. There’s always room for improvement. I’m going to keep trying to reach that next level,” Cease told reporters, including MLB.com’s Scott Merkin, last week. “I like the shape of my pitches. I like the fact that I’m able to execute and throw my offspeed for strikes. I’m at the point where I can feel good throwing a 2-0 slider for a strike if I have to. It’s head and tails different from last year where I was trying to throw anything in the zone. I never feel like I’m out of a count.”

Bradley bringing power to Cleveland

A few weeks ago we examined Cleveland’s woebegone first base situation. At the time, the Jake BauersYu Chang platoon had combined to hit .176/.252/.224 with zero home runs. The situation didn’t improve, so Bauers was jettisoned a few weeks later (traded to the Mariners for a player to be named) and Chang was moved into a bench role, then demoted to Triple-A.

Cleveland turned the first base reins over to Bobby Bradley, who at one time appeared to be their first baseman of the future. He made his MLB debut in 2019 and was unimpressive (8 for 45 with one home run), spent 2020 at the alternate site, then spun his wheels at Triple-A early in 2021. Cleveland called Bradley up on June 5, with his Triple-A line sitting at .196/.266/.485.

“Bobby has been hitting better lately,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona told reporters, including Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes, when Bradley was called up. “When he first went back [to Triple-A], it was a struggle for him. We kind of understood that. We talked to him in spring training and it was kind of a bitter pill for him to swallow. Part of it is you want to see how guys handle adversity, but we also knew it could happen. The good part of it is he’s been hitting with power and swung the bat better lately.”

In the month since his call up, the 25-year-old lefty swinging Bradley has settled into a middle-of-the-order lineup spot and provided Cleveland with a major power boost. His .236 batting average and 28.0 percent strikeout rate are a bit of an eyesore, but Bradley has eight home runs in 25 games, or six more homers than all other Cleveland first basemen in their other 57 games.

Bradley has pulled homers to right and driven them out the other way to left, and his contact quality is on par with the game’s top power hitters. His average exit velocity (90.2 mph) is well north of the league average (88.2 mph), and his maximum exit velocity falls in the 115-mph range. You can’t fake hitting the ball hard and Bradley sure can do it.

“I feel like I belong here. I just feel like I belong and I’m just out there having fun,” Bradley told reporters, including Cleveland.com’s Joe Noga, last month. “… Up here right now, we’re just letting loose, having fun. In my head, this is 12-year-old All-Stars, as fun as we can get, just playing some summer ball.”    

Even with Bradley, Cleveland is roughly a league-average offense, scoring 4.30 runs per game. Also, the team is 12-15 since calling up Bradley, so he didn’t exactly spur the club onto a long winning stretch. That said, Bradley is doing his part, and giving his team more offense than they were previously getting at first base. He’s been a big in-season upgrade for a team in the postseason race.

“He’s come up and made a really big impact in the first few days he’s been here,” Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told Noga. “Hopefully he can just settle in and continue on the path he’s on.”  




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