Putting Positive Spin on New Cubs Starter Trevor Williams

Given that the Cubs are operating under a restricted budget as they seek to fill out the rotation, righty starter Trevor Williams might be as close to an ideal target as Jed Hoyer can find. That’s why, despite underwhelming production over the past two seasons in Pittsburgh, the Cubs agreed to terms with Williams Saturday afternoon.

The majority of Williams’ numbers seem underwhelming, but let’s dig deeper. Without a doubt, his standout trait is an unorthodox release point. As seen below in the histogram below, you can see that he lets go of pitches with a lower release than over 80% of all other big leaguers.

Now, why do I bring up his release point? Because his active spin rate — the amount of spin that contributes to movement — appears suboptimal, according to data from Baseball Savant. Specifically, Williams’ fastball only has an active spin rate of just 65%, which is dramatically below the rest of MLB. The same can be said for the 36% active spin rate on his slider.

It’s no surprise, then, that his four-seam and slider have been by far his worst pitches over the past two seasons. They generate too little movement and have thus been tagged by opposing batters. Are those results a consequence of that unorthodox release point? Maybe, I really don’t know. There’s just so much that goes into active spin rate beyond release point, as Driveline Baseball explained.

But let’s consider the fact that even with “bad” active spin rate, Williams still had a league-average (~16%) slider whiff rate. That’s a big deal to me because it suggests Williams has an innate ability to pitch despite what Statcast tells us are some pretty ugly numbers.

Perhaps pitching coach Tommy Hottovy or assistant GM and VP of pitching Craig Breslow believe they have the keys to increase and/or optimize that active spin. Is his release point the intervention target? Is it a grip change? Different sequencing? Could be a little bit of everything.

The Cubs need innings not just for 2021, but also 2022 and beyond. With plenty of room for improvement and a reasonable salary — CI and others have reported the new deal is around $2.5 million for this season — Williams might be a great fit.

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