The Rays tinkered, Patiño delivered
In Sunday’s finale against the Toronto Blue Jays, Rays fans got a small peek at the future when Luis Patiño made his season debut. Patiño of course, was one fourth of the return the Rays received when they sent Blake Snell to San Diego in the offseason. The 21 year old dazzled in his start — an open to be more specific — tossing 2.2 clean innings, striking out three. In his appearance, we saw why the Rays feel his ceiling is so high.
Flashing all three of his plus pitches and getting swings and misses with ease, Patiño was as advertised. But there are some observable differences between the 2020 Patiño of the Padres and the 2021 Patiño of the Rays.
No. 1: The Delivery
In ‘20 with the Padres, Patiño pitched from a stretch hybrid style windup much like ex-Ray David Price.
In contrast, ‘21 Patiño has adopted a much more traditional style windup, where both heels are on the rubber and his shoulders squared to his target.
It’s hard to say whether the delivery change was adopted to coax some different action on his pitches, or if it is simply a matter of finding a delivery that was more comfortable. In any case, there are some differences in how Patiño’s pitches are moving.
No. 2: Pitch Shapes
Consider the following chart of Patiño’s pitch movement from ‘20 via Texas Leaguers:
And now compare it to the same chart but for ‘21:
Between the two charts, notice the different shapes of his pitches. It’s a pretty small sample for sure, but the changes are large enough to at least call them interesting if not yet significant. First, Patiño is getting over an inch of additional rise on the fastball, and about one and a half inches of arm side run compared to last year, when he was almost getting some glove side movement, shown by zero on the vertical axis.
The changeup also has more armside run, coming in with over two whole inches of horizontal movement over a year ago. This is important of course, because it helps him keep separation of movement from his fastball.
Perhaps the biggest difference in pitch shape is the slider, which is much more compact this year, creating an almost mirror image with the changeup relative to the fastball. While Patiño’s slider resembled more of a slurve in ‘20, it now looks like more of a cutter hybrid. This is due to a change in spin direction, causing the pitch to move more horizontally than vertically.
For a better visual, here is the pitch in action a year ago:
And here is a slider from Sunday’s game:
According to Texas Leaguers, Patiño’s slider had 1.61 inches of vertical movement in ‘20, which means that it fell at a rate close to the rate of gravity. In ‘21, the pitch registered 6.30 inches of vertical movement, meaning that it fights gravity more in the way that a fastball would. While the new version of Patiño’s slider has a little less horizontal movement distance wise, it occurs on a more horizontal plane.
I am only speculating here, but this change could have been made so that Patiño could command the pitch more easily to throw more strikes, something he struggled to do last year in his small major league sample.
No. 3: New Release Point
In addition to the new windup and altered pitch shapes, Patiño is coming at hitters from a slightly lower release point from a year ago.
Could this be some random variance that we can wave off as a small sample? Maybe. But I have another theory. Patiño’s lower release point, along with the added rise of on his fastball, combined with his relatively shorter stature for a pitcher, means that the Rays may have seen an opportunity with his Vertical Approach Angle, or VAA.
In short, a pitcher’s VAA is the degree at which their pitches cross the plate. For a fastball, the closer the VAA is to zero, the flatter it is visually. For these pitchers, they should be attacking the top of the zone. Patiño has a high speed, high spin fastball, so it already makes sense for him to live up with it, but adding rise and decreasing the angle would make it that much harder to square up.
According to Alex Chamberlain’s pitch movement leaderboard, Patiño has done just that, lowering his fastball VAA from -5.0 degrees in ‘20 to -4.4 degrees in ‘21. As a metric, it will always be negative, but the higher the number, the steeper the VAA. For some context, Tyler Glasnow’s fastball VAA is -4.9 degrees. This doesn’t mean that Glasnow’s fastball is bad, we know that is not true. But what us true is that Glasnow, standing at six feet, eight inches, is a full nine inches taller than Patiño. In other words, the fact that they have a similar VAA on fastballs actually works against Patiño as far as maximizing the effectiveness of the pitch.
By lowering his VAA, Patiño has gone from comfortably below average to comfortably above average for pitchers who pitch at the top of the zone with their fastballs, meaning he has made it a better pitch without having to make major gains in things like spin rate, spin efficiency or velocity.
Coming into the season, Luis Patiño was the Rays No. 2 prospect behind Wander Franco. He already brought with him three plus pitches — a high octane heater, a swing and miss change and a wipeout slider. But the Rays are always looking to help players realize their full potential and they may have seen some opportunities for Patiño to make some adjustments.
Even with these tweaks, it is likely that Patiño would still be a solid major league pitcher, and one worthy of filling the shoes of Blake Snell. But knowing what we know about the Rays, how they operate, and the role they have carved out for Patiño long term, it should be of little surprise that they are looking to further maximize his output by making making small adjustments that could lead to bigger results.