What are the secrets to Rays relief candidate Colin Poche’s success?

Extension, deception and spin all factor in to Poche piling up some amazing strikeout numbers.
TAILYR IRVINE   |   TimesColin Poche practices pitching during spring training at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.
TAILYR IRVINE | TimesColin Poche practices pitching during spring training at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.
Published February 14
Updated February 14

PORT CHARLOTTE – Everything to do with relief pitching these days seems keyed to max velocity, who can light up radar guns the brightest.

Then there’s Colin Poche.

The Rays lefty relief candidate throws a fastball clocked in the low 90s. Usually over the plate. Often expected by the hitters.

And yet he got eye-popping results, posting some of the most amazing numbers in the minors, striking out nearly half the batters he faced (110 of 241) for a ridiculous ratio of 15 per nine innings.

“He throws absolutely invisi-balls,’’ teammate Ryne Stanek said. “It’s literally hard to describe because what you say doesn’t make sense. He throws pitches hitters see as hittable and they just swing through it on a regular basis.”

Poche, 25, takes what seems a simple approach, not much more than “Here it is, hit it.’’ But few do, as he allowed only 33 hits over 66 innings, with a .151 opponents average and 0.82 ERA, acquired from Arizona as a player to be named in the Steven Souza trade, pitching at the Double- and Triple-A levels.

Like most things in baseball, and life, it’s a bit more complex.

Poche’s success can be ascribed to three primary elements:

* The extension he gets when throwing which, via a combination of the push off his drive leg, stride from his 6-foot-3 frame and arm angle, cuts the distance from his release point to home plate down to about 53 ½ feet. That increases the perceived velocity of Poche’s fastball, and reduces the time the hitter has to react.

* The high rate of backspin he puts on the ball when releasing it, creating the carry, or what seems like rise, that keeps the ball up in the zone and leads hitters to frequently swing under his pitches, sometimes by several inches.

* The deception that is a natural part of his delivery, keeping the ball hidden behind his shoulder and head, preventing the hitter from seeing it until it’s just about on the way, also decreasing reaction time.

It works, though how it meshes remains somewhat of a mystery.

“He does a lot of things that are really difficult to understand and quantify,’’ Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said, “but the thing of it is he understand himself and he understands who he is.’’

Poche, who didn’t start pitching seriously until 15 after a growth spurt, said his unique style formed naturally. “It’s nothing that was really ever intentional, it just came with the way I threw,’’ Poche said.

He gives a lot of credit for understanding how it all worked to Wes Johnson, his pitching coach at Dallas Baptist in 2015-16 after he transferred from Arkansas post-Tommy John surgery. Johnson was advanced in breaking down some now more common analytical data.

Johnson, hired this year as the Twins pitching coach, in turn lauded Poche (poe-SHAY) for his drive and work ethic, as well as his grasp of what worked for him.

“Colin understood from an early time that he has a special fastball and he was able to throw it up, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t 95, that he could still get guys out and he did it,’’ Johnson said. “For a young guy to have that kind of weapon, that’s how he’s able to move up through the system as fast as he has and have the success he’s had. He knew it, we identified it real early and he was all in.’’

Manager Kevin Cash said Poche compares to ex-Ray Jake McGee in the way he features his fastball so prominently, usually 80-90 percent of the time, with a slider, curve and potentially new splitter occasionally mixed in. Snyder said the deception in Poche’s delivery reminds him of former Yankees and Astros lefty Andy Pettitte.

Catcher Nick Ciuffo, who while at Durham would watch hitters turn away from the plate shaking their heads after striking out, threw out another comp.

“He makes his 92 mile an hour fastball look like Aroldis Chapman’s 102 fastball,’’ Ciuffo said. “That’s about the best I can describe it. … It’s right down the middle, see if you can hit it, and they can’t. They just can’t.’’

Colin Poche by the numbers

241 – batters faced in 2018

110 - batters struck out in 2018

45.6 - percent of batters struck out, tops of all minor-league pitchers with minimum 60 innings

43.9 - percent of batters struck out over 2017-18 (191 of 435)

33 – hits allowed in 66 innings

19 – walks allowed in 66 innings

.151 – batting average allowed

0.82 – ERA allowed.

0.79 – Walks and hits per inning pitched

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays. Staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.