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Tejay Antone’s breakout looks like the real deal

A velocity spike isn’t the only reason to be excited about the 26-year-old right-hander

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Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds - Game Two Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Tejay Antone’s MLB debut didn’t occur under ideal circumstances. In just the fourth game of the 2020 season, and the Cincinnati Reds’ first against a division opponent, left-handed starter Wade Miley had sunk the team into a deep hole early, allowing six runs to score before he could even record the third out of the second inning. That’s when Antone got the call to enter the game, and as a career starter in the minor leagues, his job seemed clear: Eat as many innings as you can to keep the strain off the more regular relievers, and we’ll worry about the results later.

Fortunately for the Reds, the results were great. Antone pitched 4.1 innings and allowed just one run on one hit — a solo home run — while walking one and striking out five. He pitched so well, in fact, that he held the Cubs at bay while Cincinnati made a valiant comeback effort, nearly erasing a 6-0 deficit before losing 8-7. Other relief appearances went similarly well; he allowed one run in two innings while striking out five on Aug. 12, threw 2.2 shutout innings while striking out five on Aug. 19, and threw 2.1 scoreless innings while striking out three on Aug. 22. He’s also started three games, the best of which came on Sunday against Pittsburgh, when he threw five innings and allowed just one run on five hits while striking out six.

Overall, Antone has thrown 25.1 innings in his rookie season and held opponents to a 2.49 ERA and 3.64 FIP. Among all rookies with 20 innings pitched this season, he ranks third in strikeout percentage (33.3%), and fifth in K-BB% (22.2%). Those numbers have made him a bright spot in a Reds season nearly devoid of them so far. But while Cincinnati’s season may reach its merciful conclusion in just a few weeks, Antone’s success may only be getting started.

If you kept a watchful eye on the developments that were reported during Reds spring training, Antone’s breakout probably hasn’t caught you totally off-guard. Stories about his improvement were eagerly relayed by Reds manager David Bell and others in the organization, after the 26-year-old right-hander arrived in camp showing a serious uptick in velocity. When pitching between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Antone typically sat in the 88-92 range with his fastball, only occasionally flashing a couple of ticks higher. When he reported to spring training, however, he was suddenly sitting in the mid-90s, and touching as high as 99. From the linked Bobby Nightengale Jr. report:

“He worked on his velocity last offseason at APEC, a facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Trainers at the facility took a fresh look at his testing and determined he wasn’t moving lighter weights at a typical quick speed. The smaller the weight, the faster he should be throwing.

Antone used weighted balls from two oz. to two lbs., and he learned he was throwing everything from five oz. and smaller at the same speed.”

That wasn’t just spring training adrenaline, either. Antone has averaged 96 mph on his fastball this season, touching as high as 98. That velocity places him in the 85th percentile of all major league pitchers, according to Statcast, and while the spin on his fastball places him in the 98th percentile. The combination of those two place Antone in rare company — just 13 other pitchers in baseball rank in at least the 85th percentile in both velocity and spin with their fastballs.

Elite FB Spin, Velocity by Percentile

Name FB Spin FB Velo
Name FB Spin FB Velo
Tanner Scott 98th 91st
Daniel Bard 98th 96th
Tejay Antone 98th 85th
Walker Buehler 96th 85th
Michael Lorenzen 95th 85th
Dylan Cease 94th 97th
Gerrit Cole 92nd 92nd
Dustin May 90th 92nd
Luis Patino 90th 94th
Dinelson Lamet 90th 95th
Jacob deGrom 87th 100th
Nate Jones 86th 88th
Tanner Rainey 85th 92nd

Where Antone differs from many of the other pitchers on this list, as well as many of his peers who post similar strikeout percentages, is that he isn’t doing what he’s doing with a “rising” four-seamer that attacks hitters up in the zone. He’s doing this with a sinker, a pitch that he uses to pepper his glove’s side of the strike zone, with near-equal usage against righties and lefties. That makes the pitch pair well with his true knockout offering — his slider, which actually uses more than any other pitch, sitting at 42.1 % usage this season. It’s an outstanding pitch, garnering a 40% whiff rate, and one that he’s unafraid of going to in any count.

The way he locates both of those pitches allows them to complement one another in a way that is agonizing for hitters — one pitch starts just off the plate outside and backs up into the zone, while the other starts in a similar spot and jerks into the left-handed batter’s box at the last moment. Take a plate appearance from earlier this season. With Cleveland’s Jordan Luplow at the plate, Antone fell behind in the count 3-1. Then, he dropped in a sinker for strike two.

Two pitches later, he threw him a slider that left Luplow waving helplessly.

If we attempt to freeze the two clips in the right spot, using a point in Antone’s delivery as a timing mechanism, you can see how similar of a path both pitches were taking, forcing Luplow to guess.

While the vast majority of Antone’s arsenal is made up by this sinker/slider combination, his most unique pitch may actually be his curveball. He throws it just over 13% of the time, but it’s been quite effective, generating the best results of any of his pitches, albeit in a smaller sample. Antone creates a ton of spin on his curve — it’s in the 94th percentile of all major leaguers — and uses that to make it move quite differently than most curves do. It moves a bit more than average vertically, while also moving 7.2 inches above average horizontally. The latter gives him the third-most horizontal movement of any curveball in baseball, and it frustrates the hell out of hitters.

Watching Antone pitch this season, it’s clear that he’s a very different pitcher than he was throughout his minor league career. In the six professional seasons he’s logged since being drafted by Cincinnati in the fifth round in 2014, he struck out 460 batters in 611.1 innings, which works out to 6.77 K/9. Now, in his first 25.1 big league innings, he’s struck out 33, giving him 11.72 K/9. It’s a small sample, but one that every advanced evaluation tool we have endorses fully. Here’s how Antone’s overall expected Statcast numbers rank against the rest of baseball:

Tejay Antone Statcast ranks

Metric Value (Percentile)
Metric Value (Percentile)
Exit Velocity 84.9 (93rd)
Hard Hit% 26.4% (93rd)
Whiff% 35.8% (91st)
Barrel% 3.8% (86th)
xBA .149 (98th)
xSLG .237 (98th)
xERA 2.14 (98th)
xwOBA .235 (98th)

Antone’s MLB experience amounts to about a month’s worth of action, so it’s still too soon to get carried away with any expectations for him. But it’s certainly encouraging that, after hearing so many in the Reds organization singing his praises in the spring, his numbers have backed them up. If he continues to perform well, he should provide Cincinnati with some reassuring rotation depth, this season and beyond. The team has gotten mostly excellent pitching out of its starters this season, with the lone exception being the struggles that Anthony DeSclafani has faced lately. If the Reds can fight their way back into the playoff picture, Antone just might force his way into more regular starts. And with DeSclafani and Trevor Bauer free to test the open market this winter, having a capable replacement in the bank would minimize the impact of losing one or both to a higher bidder. Regardless of the rotation picture, though, Antone has earned himself some kind of important role with this team going forward. And if the people in charge of continuing to fortify the pitching development of this organization get their way, more surprise impact arms could be on the horizon.