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Faster Fastballs and Boston’s Slugging Sluggers

The league’s getting faster. Not the time of game — fastball velocity. And throwing some of the fastest fastballs in a league of fast have been the Cardinals, whose 92.6 mph average as a staff was good for third overall this year. The Red Sox did fine against a Tigers team that was only .3 mph short of that average, but going into this World Series, it’s still fair to say they will see some fastballs that are over 94 mph. And it’s fair to wonder how they’ll do against that added oomph.

Just around 94 miles per hour, the fastball starts to become more difficult for batters to hit — homers per contact go down, and swinging strikes go up. The league, which hit .261/.331/.417 as a whole this year, hit .244/.327/.360 against those heated heaters. The league’s swinging strike rate, usually around 7% for fastballs, went up to 8.8% too. Location means a lot, but gas does have its benefits.

Now the Red Sox team will face Trevor Rosenthal (97.3 mph average), Carlos Martinez (96.7 mph), John Axford (96.2 mph), Kevin Siegrist (95.2 mph), Joe Kelly (94.9 mph), Shelby Miller (93.7 mph) and Michael Wacha (93.5 mph). And the Red Sox whiffed at a whopping 13.5% of the 94+ mph fastballs they saw on the final pitch of an at-bat this year. That’s almost twice the normal whiff rate for a fastball. League average in those situations is 13.1%, but this is not a league average team for contact rate normally.

You could maybe blame it a little on the fact that the Red Sox were the second-oldest team in baseball this year, particularly because it’s interesting to see that the Red Sox have recently swung and missed less than any other team in baseball. Here’s an older team that’s good at contact, whiffing almost twice as often as usual once the dial goes to eleven on the fastball velocity.

If we take a look at the individual performances, of course we risk degrading our sample too much. On average, this core group of Boston hitters saw about 70 at-bats end on fastballs over 94 mph this year, which is a tiny sample. But at least it’s a very specific thing we’re asking. Perhaps those 70 pitches were alike enough that these numbers are not completely useless:

Player AVG OBP SLG swSTR%
David Ortiz 0.238 0.284 0.365 9.0%
Dustin Pedroia 0.200 0.263 0.243 7.8%
Jacoby Ellsbury 0.317 0.438 0.350 2.7%
Mike Napoli 0.235 0.354 0.588 26.8%
Shane Victorino 0.311 0.333 0.444 6.1%

It seems like there might be some weaknesses here, particularly among the two more traditionally thought of as the power supply for the team. On the other hand, even if Mike Napoli whiffed on over a quarter of the 94+ mph fastballs he saw this year, he also hit six home runs. You might remember the home run he hit off of Justin Verlander in the last series. That pitch left the Tiger ace’s hand at 96 mph. No, the core here is a mixed bag against gas, just like the lineup: some contact, some swing-and-miss-and-power.

Remember that .244/.327/.360 line that the league had against fast fastballs? Boston’s cumulative line was .244/.331/.376. They still managed to be better than the league. But they hit in a nice ballpark for offense. Once you park-adjust, the league had a 96 wRC+ against those fastballs, and Boston’s was *worse* at 94. Even if they were just average against fast fastballs, that would be saying something. Boston had the league’s best offense and was 10% better than the league collectively as measured by wRC+. So one of the Cardinals’ strengths as a pitching staff might reduce the Boston offense to one that looks a lot more league average.

Everything gets tougher in October. Faster fastballs are just another part of that picture.