PORT CHARLOTTE — The subject was spin rate, and that brought Jim Palmer back to a question he once asked Elrod Hendricks, one of Palmer's catchers during his years in Baltimore.
"How do I get them out?"
It was after a bullpen session sometime during the 1978 or '79 season when Palmer remembers turning to Hendricks, seeking the reason for his success.
Hendricks mentioned the obvious: throws hard, good deception with his delivery, good jump on his four-seam fastball, sharp curve.
Plenty of pitchers throw hard. Some have good deception. But not all channel those into a Hall of Fame career.
What made Palmer different?
Here's a guess: spin rate?
"It must have been," Palmer, 71, said.
Not that Palmer or anyone in baseball knew that back in the 1960s or '70s. Or even 10 years ago.
Back then, no one made the connection between the number of revolutions a baseball made from the time it left a pitcher's hand until it crossed home plate and how batters handled the pitch.
• • •
The physics of throwing a baseball are simple. A four-seam fastball with a high spin rate will not sink but carry through the top of the strike zone. It's said to have "late life" or "jump." A curveball with a high spin rate will have a sharper break, or bite, as the players like to say.
Baseball operation staffs across the majors use this metric to evaluate pitchers and formulate game plans for attacking hitters.
"There are an infinite amount of things that go into a pitcher's success. This is one piece of the puzzle," said James Click, the Rays' vice president of baseball operations. "It allows us to go beyond the basic idea of hard in, soft away and tailor a game plan that plays to the particular strength of our staff."
The data is provided by Trackman, a radar that measures velocity, location, angle and the spin of a pitch. All major-league stadiums have Trackman as do many minor-league parks.
The higher the spin, the lower the exit velocity off the bat and the lower the batting average.
In 2016, the major-league average spin rate on a curveball was 2,308 rpm. For a slider, it was 2,090.
Fastballs thrown at 2,500 rpm and higher are particularly tough to hit.
Former Ray and current Phillie Jeremy Hellickson had the majors' top spin rate on a curveball last season at 2,970. Angels reliever Andrew Bailey had the top spin rate on fastballs at 2,674.
Fans can track spin rate and a host of other sabermetric stats at baseballsavant.com.
• • •
Rays starter Jake Odorizzi remembers first hearing about spin rate two years ago.
He found it interesting because it pointed out why he has success pitching up in the strike zone with his four-seam fastball. He always got swings and misses with the pitch, yet he was always encouraged to pitch down in the zone.
Until he was traded to the Rays after the 2012 season.
"I got here and it kind of made sense," Odorizzi said. "They told me not to change anything. There was a reason behind it, and now I come to find out it's a huge thing in the game."
Spin rate is not the definitive measure of a pitcher, but it does answer why someone such as former Red Sox closer Koji Uehara could dominate hitters with a fastball in the high 80s.
"It's a way to better quantify what's going on on the field," Click said. "Before we had this information, we had scouting reports that were able to give us most of this, but to have it on every single pitch gives us better information, and it takes some of the randomness out of the equation."
It is similar to exit velocity for hitters, which is the speed of the ball off the bat. The harder the ball is hit, the more likely it is to result in a hit.
But angle off the bat comes into play here. The optimal angle is from 10 to 25 degrees with an exit velocity of 95 mph. Anything below 10 degrees likely will result in a grounder. Anything above 25 is likely a popup.
"If you hit the ball on the barrel, I know your odds are higher on getting a base hit, and that's as far as I care to go on the numbers," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's pretty easy to correlate good hitters and higher exit velocities. Usually guys who hit the ball harder are better hitters. It all kind of comes packaged together. What that means for me is irrelevant. I don't really look into those numbers or buy into those numbers. Nor is it my job."
• • •
Low-revenue teams such as the Rays are always searching for ways to level the playing field. Searching for pitchers with good spin rate is a means toward that end since it's not something that can be taught.
Spin rate is one reason the Rays asked for lefty Drew Smyly in their 2014 trade with the Tigers for ace David Price. It's why they still had faith in Dana Eveland — whom they released Wednesday — despite his 9.00 ERA in 33 appearances last season. Bolstered by a major league-high spin rate of 3,007 rpm on his slider, Eveland had a team-high average spin rate on all his pitches of 2,594 rpm.
"There are no shortcuts," Palmer said. "But what baseball front offices are looking for is something that gives them another edge, a tool to evaluate. Spin rate happens."