ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Jeffrey Springs never thought he could throw a breaking ball.
The Tampa Bay Rays pitcher thought it was an innate gift to be able to spin a baseball. Some had it, and he didn't.
As a prep pitcher at South Point High School in Belmont, North Carolina, and later at Appalachian State, he relied on what he did well. He stayed behind the ball with his pitching hand, which meant relying on his fastball and excellent changeup.
He worked on a variety of slider grips, but they all acted more like cutters - essentially fastballs gripped off-center - rather than big-bending breaking balls.
When did he believe he could throw one?
"Honestly, not until I came over here," Springs told theScore late this spring. "Not until I came over here and got the feedback and got to sit down with him."
Him is Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. Tampa Bay acquired Springs from the Boston Red Sox along with Chris Mazza and cash for minor leaguers Ronaldo Hernandez and Nick Sogard in February 2021. Springs started in pro ball as a 30th-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2015, signing for $1,000.
Fast forward two years from the trade, and Springs is now a starting pitcher. He employs one of the most complete arsenals in the game, including a big-bending slider. The Rays believed in Springs enough to sign him to a four-year, $31-million contract this offseason.
The new pitch helped Springs complete 14 shutout innings this spring, during which he allowed just five hits and two walks while striking out 24. Preseason stats must be met with skepticism, but in his first regular-season start Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, he struck out 12 over six no-hit shutout innings. This all follows his 9-5, 2.46 ERA campaign last season. He makes his second start Saturday at Oakland.
The trade with Boston could be viewed as yet another heist, another reminder to be wary when the Rays call and ask about a player.
But it's not just who the Rays are identifying; it's the gold they spin after the acquisition. Springs believes his story wouldn't have happened with another club. It wasn't until he joined the Rays that he began to believe just how much he could change.
Snyder pitched in the majors for five years, though not well. The Kansas City Royals had made him the seventh overall pick out of North Carolina in 1999. Hampered by a shoulder injury, he posted a career 5.57 ERA with the Red Sox and Royals. He knew what it was to deal with expectations, injury, and frustration.
His MLB career ended in 2008, the same year the first pitch-tracking system, PITCHf/x, was live in all 30 ballparks. His fastball averaged 88 mph that year. What could he have become if he had access to modern tech and training? He was always curious about the information that could help him.
He became a coach. And coaching begins with building relationships.
Every offseason, Snyder visits each of the pitchers on the roster on their home turf, and this winter, he traveled to meet Springs in Charlotte.
"He goes and sees guys throw in the offseason," Springs said. "He wants to know how the family is doing. It goes beyond baseball."
Snyder also had a project in mind.
By this past offseason, he had already gained Springs' trust. When Springs first arrived in Tampa, his confidence was shaken. He'd posted a 7.08 ERA with Boston in 2020. He believed the numbers showed he'd struggled.
The Rays and Snyder gave him a different message: He'd been unlucky.
He was the seventh-most unlucky pitcher in 2020 if subtracting actual ERA from xFIP, the calculation that only measures outcomes the pitcher controls: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Many outcomes on balls in play have a defensive component the pitcher doesn't control: errors, great plays, and alignments. Springs' xFIP was only 3.70, almost half his ERA. Additionally, Springs' strike rate (called plus swinging) was 33%, well above average (28%).
Spring arrived believing his breaking ball was poor, and batters had performed well against his skinny-breaking slider. The Rays had other ideas.
"When I came over in 2021, it was, 'Throw your slider more,'" Springs said. He recalled Snyder saying: "'It's better than you think.'
"Snyder helped turn my career around."
It wasn't so different when a struggling Tyler Glasnow came over from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the summer of 2018, Snyder's first season as pitching coach. Snyder immediately instilled confidence in Glasnow to pitch in the strike zone with his fastball, and he improved overnight. Since 2018, the Rays trail only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros in ERA and FIP, and with a fraction of the payroll.
In 2021, Springs began throwing his fastball less and his slider more in addition to his excellent changeup. He was having success in the Rays' bullpen, posting a 3.43 ERA (2.97 xFIP), until a knee injury ended his season.
When Springs returned from injury last spring, the Rays moved him into the rotation, where they felt he could excel, especially with an expanded repertoire.
"If you're having to respect two different breaking pitches ... it just gives you a little bit of margin for error on shapes of breaking balls," Snyder said.
The conversations continued into this past offseason when Snyder visited and watched his workouts at Tread Athletics in Charlotte.
The focus was on the sweeper, a big-breaking slider that's the in-vogue pitch in the majors. It's designed to give pitchers a horizontal shape in what had become a vertical game dominated by high fastballs paired with downward-breaking curveballs.
The pitch moves like a frisbee thanks to seam orientation, which tilts its spin sideways around a north-south axis. If aligned properly, changeups, two-seam fastballs, and sweeping sliders can gain extra push from a phenomenon called seam-shifted wake, an imbalance of airflow around the ball by creating smooth patches and rougher ones, via seams, in its rotation.
Snyder thought the sweeper would complement his arsenal well.
"Just trying to create a wider range of stuff for guys to cover because (hitters) are so good," Springs said.
Pairing a sweeping slider with a tighter slider in a sequence can also be a nightmare for batters.
Marquee Sports pitching analyst Lance Brozdowski found a sweeper paired with a bullet- or gyroscopic-spin-heavy slider, like Springs' tighter slider, created the greatest swing-and-miss rate (38%).
"Using those in concert with one another has definitely produced results," Snyder said.
Snyder also worked with Springs on adjusting his existing slider to make it differ even more from the sweeper. But the sweeper was the kind of pitch, with an alien grip, that Springs never thought he could throw.
When Springs arrived for spring training in Orlando, where the Rays initially trained because of hurricane damage to their Port Charlotte complex, they went to work with the relatively new tools that accelerate the design of a new pitch: high-speed cameras and pitch-tracking devices.
Drew Rasmussen, another 2022 breakout arm off to a sizzling start, worked with Snyder on creating or honing three breaking pitches.
Since these technologies began to be integrated at scale across the game in 2019, it's never been easier to add multiple pitches.
There were 98 sweepers that fit the pitch's criteria thrown in 2015. Adam Ottavino accounted for 45 of them.
Last season? There were 15,921, or 2.2% of all pitches thrown.
This year, it has jumped to 3.2%.
High-speed cameras like the Edgertronic show in frame-by-frame detail just how a pitcher's fingers and wrist position impart spin on a ball - axis, direction, and rate of revolution - which all impact how the ball moves in the air. It demonstrates how a slight change of grip alters the pitch.
Snyder just needs to see a few frames to assess progress.
"Forearm angle and wrist position," Snyder said of what he needs to see, "whereas (the pitchers) like to get whole feedback and see the whole flight of the ball."
For Springs, the camera feedback was key in training to trust the new pitch and its grip. "Kinda letting the grip take over, understanding where to apply pressure," he said. "I'm trying to hook the front of the ball and rip the front of the ball.
"Because I am so dominant behind the ball with the fastball, changeup, and bullet-spin slider, I've always had a hard time turning my hand over."
(Red Sox pitcher Tanner Houck gives an example of his sweeper grip and release here in a Twitter thread by Tread Athletics founder Ben Brewster.)
Springs learned there was really nothing stopping him from throwing a wider-shaped breaking ball. Essentially, he was creating a different escape route for the ball. Pitchers don't consciously let go of the ball. They create hand speed, and the ball slips out a certain way depending on how it's held.
"For me, what clicked is the hand speed," Springs said. He had to throw it hard. As the spring went along, he became more and more comfortable. In part, that progress was tied to hard evidence.
They monitored and measured the shape of the pitch during bullpens. Steps forward and steps back. They're shooting for 20 inches of horizontal break, and the pitch averaged 14 inches in his first start.
The Springs sweeper in its debut:
And the Springs slider:
"We have these goals to try to achieve, and we have the objective measures," Snyder said. "He can interact with the Edgertronic a ton and the TrackMan (pitch-tracking) dashboard. We can give them all this stuff, and they are able to take it home."
And during games, for real-time, hard-data feedback, Snyder borrowed something from Globe Life Field.
During the 2020 World Series in the COVID-shortened season, the Rays played the Dodgers at the Rangers' home. And on an auxiliary scoreboard there, the horizontal and vertical movements of each pitch were displayed. Snyder had pitch movement added to an auxiliary scoreboard at Tropicana Field so his pitchers know where their stuff is compared to their movement benchmarks.
"It teaches guys to know what adjustments they need to make to get a desirable break on a pitch," Snyder said. "It just adds another layer to shorten that curve from pitch to pitch."
Of course, all teams have this tech and data at their disposal. So what's different about the Rays and Snyder?
As great as modern training tools are, some aspects need the human element: the right word or physical cue to connect with the player.
And that requires a coach to know his pitchers.
"Everyone receives a message differently," Springs said. "You're going to hear something one way; I'm going to hear it a different way. He does a great job of telling you what you need to hear for your stuff.
"Whatever his ... verbiage is, it's individualized for every single person."
For Springs, it's not even a word - it's a motion.
Snyder developed a non-verbal cue to help him visualize and internalize the grip and arm path for the sweeper. It looks something like an open-handed karate chop.
If Springs is struggling with the pitch during a bullpen, playing catch, or even in a game, he'll look over at Snyder.
"I will just glance over in the dugout, and he'll (make the motion)," Springs said.
Springs makes the open-hand, slicing motion. The cue reinforces the idea of finishing more under the ball with his grip than behind it.
"I've just found start and finish points on certain things to kinda help them," Snyder said. "Or even if I'm playing catch with them, I'm modeling something back to them, just organically coming up with these things."
Springs is now throwing something he never believed he could. From the outside, it seems like the Rays have some sort of magic touch to level up pitchers.
The track record of success means every new recruit, like Springs, maybe just has to believe it can work for them too.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.