Fastballs Are Pretty Important

As we begin the 2010 season, I’d like to take yet another (brief) look at something from 2009. If you’re here, you probably know that three young American League pitchers took big steps forward last season: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and the 2009 AL Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke. While all thee had good seasons in 2008, they each had a monster season in 2009. Their individual paths to greatness has been much chronicled here and elsewhere. But while browsing through some player pages recently, I noticed something all three had in common as they moved from 2008-2009: the effectiveness of their fastballs.

Some of my friends who are Tiger fans have said that Verlander had a down season in 2008. I don’t agree, and neither do FanGraphs’ win values, having Verlander’s 2008 in line previous seasons at 3.4 Wins Above Replacement, and his FIP was the second best of his career to that point. 2009 went far beyond that, of course, with Verlander sporting a 2.80 FIP and an 8.2 WAR. That’s a monster season. This is, again, well-documented, and I’m sure that there are pitch f/x experts, scouts, etc. that could give you an account of what he did differently. Numerous stats improved for Verlander, as well. But for now, the one that stands out to me is in Verlander’s pitch type linear weights. With the exception of a +13.3 season in 2007, Verlander’s fastball had been about average prior to 2009. However, in 2009, coming off of a +0.4 season with his fastball in 2008, he put up a +24.3. He threw his fastball a bit more often, but it wasn’t just quantity. While his slider and curveball were less effective than they had been in 2008, per 100 pitches, his fastball linear weights rose to 0.96 from 2008’s 0.02 (his changeup was also more effective).

King Felix’ ascension to his throne had been long-awaited. That’s not to say that his series of ~four win seasons from 2006-2008 weren’t very good for a very young pitcher, but 2009 was a new level — an extremely impressive 6.9 WAR outing. In 2006 and 2007, his fastball was actually below average (according to pitch type linear weights, which is different than a pitch f/x or scouting analysis, I’m not saying his fastball was “bad” during those seasons). In 2008, he began to through his fastball more, and it was +6. In 2009, he threw it almost as much, and to greater effect, +19.0, although all his pitches improved per 100 over 2008.

It was Greinke’s number that started me down this path. Everyone knows about Greinke’s 2009, but he was also the best of these three according to WAR in 2008, with 4.9. 2009 was one of the best seasons by a pitcher in the FanGraphs era, at 9.4. What was surprising to me was that in his excellent 2008 season, his fastball was below average, and this was true of all of his other seasons in the majors other than 2007, much of which he spent in the bullpen. Through 2008, his slider had been his most effective pitch (by linear weights). In 2009, as one might expect from the overall improvement, all of Zack’s pitches improved, including his devastating slider and so-so change, but none more than his fastball. Whereas his fastball was only -3.8 in 2008, in 2009 it was +25.8, and he actually threw it a bit less frequently.

Other pitchers could be discussed here, for exampe, Florida’s Josh Johnson, whose fastball was +4.7 in his 2.0 WAR 2008, and +21.5 in his 5.5 WAR 2009. Of course, Greinke’s 2008 season indicates that some pitchers can have great seasons without their fastball being that effective (by count). Johnson’s teammate Ricky Nolasco improved from 2008 to 2009 despite his fastball linear weights going from +4.7 to -15.5 — his slider was awesome in 2009. Again, scouting and pitch f/x has much more to tell us why and how these things happened. And keep in mind that the linear weights are by count, so pitcher could be changing their sequencing and other things that we can’t see directly from the linear weights.

But I find this interesting nonetheless. Hence, my groundbreaking thought for the day: the fastball is an important pitch.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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ArodSucksAtLife
Member
ArodSucksAtLife
6 years 1 month ago

“Hence, my groundbreaking thought for the day: the fastball is an important pitch.”

You’re going to revolutionize the game.

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael
6 years 1 month ago

I don’t think the Ricky Nolasco example makes much sense. When you write that “Nolasco improved from 2008 to 2009” you clearly are looking at WAR which (at least as computed by Fangraphs) considers xFIP, not actual ERA. Nolasco had an ERA of over 5.00 last year, so an improvement as more casual observers would see it. Using xFIP and ignoring Nolasco’s actual outcomes on batted balls on contact is certainly defensible, but it’s a mismatch to say this was done despite the decline in his fastball linear weights. The run value of Nolasco’s fastball is very heavily influenced by the outcomes of batted balls. The run value of anyone’s fastball will have very little correlation to xFIP and doesn’t make sense (to this reader) to talk about improvement in xFIP or WAR as happening despite a decline in a statistic that is largely about batted ball outcomes.

FYI, Mike Fast had an excellent article on HardballTimes.com today on changes in a pitcher’s fastball velocity. Worth checking out.

nolan
Member
nolan
6 years 1 month ago

As Tom Seaver wrote in his art of pitching: a pitcher’s most important pitch is his fastball. A pitchers second most important pitch… is also his fastball.

Nick Smith
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Nick Smith
6 years 1 month ago

I’m just not sure these linear weights for individual pitches have much meaning, not when Randy Wolf is considered to have one of the best fastballs in the game. So much of the effectiveness of a pitch has to do with your other pitches and what the hitter is expecting. If you can’t throw your curve for strikes, hitters will sit on your fastball. You could have objectively the same fastball from one year to the next and receive wildly different values on it based on your ability to command your other pitches. There’s a little signal there, but from here it looks like mostly noise.

John
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John
6 years 1 month ago

How is it possible to say that Verlander did not have a down year in 2008? His ERA+ was 93. his ERA was 4.84. Those are the numbers that count. You can say that his skills did not have a down year, as evidenced by his FIP, but it is irresponsible to say that he did not have a down year.

Patrick
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Patrick
6 years 1 month ago

I LIKE these articles and I don’t think there’s anything irresponsible at ALL about saying Verlander didn’t have a down year. I agree with Matt.

At the same time, this is just one nugget of information. While we DO generally see better fastball values from players who actually have what a scout would call a good fastball, it does appear to be far more about the overall package than the fastball itself.

The fastball is terribly important… But no pitch remains very good unless it’s backed up with other options to keep a hitter guessing.. Etc.

Chief
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Chief
6 years 1 month ago

The Tigers team defense in 2008 was atrocious. Especially Renteria at shortstop.

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