Each day this week, we’ll be looking at the best pitches of the 2011 season — and, of course, the pitchers responsible for throwing them. Today, we look at the three best fastballs. Chris Cwik will look at the league’s best sliders tomorrow. Curveballs, changeups, and assorted other pitches will follow.
Allow me to note immediately that this post concerns only four-seam fastballs (or, at least, what’s been classified as a four-seam fastball, per our PITCHf/x data). There’s enough difference between the four-seamer and the other fastball variants — the two-seamer, sinker, and cutter — that it makes sense to isolate each one. We will look at the other sorts of fastballs later in the week.
Allow me also to note that, in evaluating the “best” pitches, I haven’t used any one criterion exclusively, but rather have exercised judgment while utilizing a number of criteria — and our other writers will be doing the same thing for the other pitches to follow, as well.
In this particular case, I’ve considered the following:
Pitch Type Linear Weights
Pitch type linear weights tell us how many runs above or below average a specific pitch has been over the course of the season, and are available both as a counting (i.e. total number of runs above or below average) and a rate (in this case, runs above or below average per 100 pitches thrown) stat. This is incredibly valuable, of course, for determining which pitches have and haven’t been effective. On the other hand, they’re not entirely conclusive, either: like runs allowed, pitch type linear weights are prone to random variation in home runs allowed and BABIP. (Read more about pitch type linear weights in the FanGraphs Library.)
While there’s clearly some advantage to working efficiently — and finding ways, as some pitchers appear capable of doing, of inducing weak contact — there’s also an advantage to just throwing the ball past opposing batters. Among pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seam fastballs, only one failed to record a single swinging strike: Kyle Lohse (who threw 101). Perhaps even more amazing is Freddy Garcia‘s record: he had the second-worst swinging-strike rate (0.9%) while throwing 569 (!) fastballs. Cleveland reliever Vinnie Pestano had the highest fastball swinging-strike rate among all pitchers, at 21.0%. League average (again, for all pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seam fastballs) was 6.3%. The standard deviation among the sample is 2.6%. (This data comes from PITCHf/x.)
How often did a pitcher throw this pitch for a strike? It’s a pretty basic and important question. There’s some correlation between this and swinging-strike rate, obviously, but not all pitchers who are good at inducing swinging strikes are necessarily all that great at throwing strikes consistently (Gio Gonzalez, for example.) Ryan Franklin and Dale Thayer had the highest strike rate, at 75.0% each, although both threw only slightly more than 100 fastballs. Koji Uehara was third, at 74.5%, while throwing over 500 fastballs. During his brief major-league stint last year, Detroit’s Andrew Oliver threw only 45.5% of four-seamers for a strike. The league-average strike rate was 64.4%; the standard deviation, 4.3%. (We can get this data from PITCHf/x, too.)
Context Within Pitching Repertoire
It’s absolutely the case that a pitcher’s ability to throw a mix of quality pitches is as important to his success as the quality of any one of those pitches, specifically. Because this post, and the ones to follow it, are aimed at isolating the quality of a specific pitch, it might not do justice to the pitchers who are capable of mixing three or four plus pitches together. So, for example, it’s pretty obvious that Roy Halladay (because he’s Roy Halladay) has an excellent fastball; however, one could make the case that he has an even better every other kind of pitch. In a more extreme example, we see both Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey‘s names near the top of the leaderboard for linear weights per 100 fastballs thrown. This obviously has everything to do with the knuckleball that those pitchers throw — and not the quality of their respective fastballs.
Generally speaking, moving from a starting to a relief role adds velocity and movement to a pitcher’s fastball — and removes about a full run of ERA. Looking at linear weights by 100 fastballs thrown bears this out: the top of the list is — again, generally speaking — dominated by relievers. Accordingly, I’ve attempted to adjust for this advantage that relievers receive merely due to their roles.
Because it matters.
Just as we consider the context of a specific pitch within a pitcher’s overall repertoire, it’s also not reasonable to suggest that a pitcher could (a) have the league’s best fastball and also (b) be terrible. Any good pitch, especially a fastball, exists in relation to the rest of a pitcher’s other offerings.
With all of that stated, let’s look at the league’s three best fastballs from 2011 (in no particular order). Accompanying each entry is some relevant PITCHf/x data for the pitcher, including frequency thrown (in percent), average velocity, and movement (in inches, from catcher’s perspective, and compared to a spinless ball).* Also included are swinging-strike rate (SwStrk), overall strike rate (Strk), and both the total (wFA) and per-100 thrown (wFA/C) linear-weight runs for the relevant pitch.
Note: the average movement for a four-seam fastball in 2011 was -4.6 X-move and 8.4 Y-move.
PITCHf/x: 64.5%, 94.8 mph, -6.6 X-move, 8.6 Y-move
Results: 15.7% SwStrk, 74.3% Strk, 9.5 wFA, 1.87 wFA/C
Comments: Papelbon’s season didn’t end particularly well: he was on the mound for the Sox’ last game of the season, conceding a one-run lead and then the game — a loss that, coupled with a Tampa Bay victory literally minutes later, kept the Red Sox out of the playoffs. That said, Papelbon’s season as a whole was probably his best as a major leaguer, as the right-hander recorded the lowest FIP- and xFIP- of his career (37 and 54, respectively). While Papelbon’s splitter has certainly become a formidable pitch in its own right, he still threw the four-seamer about 65% of the time — and, per PITCHf/x, Papelbon displayed the most excellent combination of whiff-inducing and strike-throwing of any pitcher in the league, getting swinging strikes on 15.7% of fastballs, while throwing 74.3% of them for strikes. Also of note is this: even in that last appearance, Papelbon’s fastball was excellent. Per Brooks Baseball, he threw 14 total four-seamers, 10 (71.4%) of them for strikes, and five (35.7%) of those on swinging strikes — all while averaging 96.0 mph.
Here’s video from a September 16th appearance against the Tampa Bay Rays in which Papelbon recorded three strikeouts, all swinging, all on the fastball.
PITCHf/x: 46.9%, 95.0 mph, -7.3 X-move, 9.8 Y-move
Results: 7.5% SwStrk, 68.5% Strk, 17.6 wFA, 0.96 wFA/C
Comments: You will likely not need much convincing that Justin Verlander has an excellent fastball. No pitcher threw more regular-season pitches last year than Justin Verlander’s 3,941, and no pitcher who came anywhere near that total threw the ball as hard as Justin Verlander, whose average fastball velocity of 95.0 mph was only exceeded by Rubby De La Rosa (95.2 mph in 60.2 IP) among starters who threw more than 50 innings. Despite a diverse mix of pitches — one that saw him throw both his curveball and his changeup over 18% of the time, each — Verlander’s four-seamer was still fourth-best in the league per linear weight runs. While only slightly above average in terms of inducing swinging strikes, Verlander gets a lot of strikes with his four-seamer — about a standard deviation’s worth above the league average — which very likely also adds to the effectiveness of the rest of his very effective repertoire.
Here’s video from Verlander’s May 19th start against Boston. Four of Verlander’s nine strikeouts come on the fastball (0:33, 0:52, 1:00, 1:08) — all swinging.
PITCHf/x: 50.3%, 92.0 mph, -2.4 X-move, 10.7 Y-move
Results: 10.1% SwStrk, 72.3% Strk, 14.0 wFA, 1.16 wFA/C
Comments: It’s rare that a pitcher with Beachy’s combination of velocity and command wouldn’t be regarded as a top prospect. In fact, he wasn’t even drafted, only signing with the Braves (for $20,000) after pitching well in the collegiate Valley League in 2008. He was included in Baseball America’s 2010 Prospect Handbook — not as one of the organization’s top-30 prospects, but as the team’s 11th-best right-handed relief prospect. Last season, however, Beachy was one of the league’s best starters on a per-inning basis, posting an 82 xFIP- that placed him ahead of (for example) Matt Garza, Tim Lincecum, and C.J. Wilson, and a strikeout rate of 28.6% that was better than any starter with at least 50 innings pitched — including Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, etc. Looking at his pitch-type numbers, it’s clear that Beachy’s fastball most contributed to his success: while his fastball accounted for 14 runs above average, none of his other pitches (in this case, his slider) was worth more than 1.7 runs above average. Of all the starters in 2011 who threw a four-seamer at least 40% of the time, Beachy’s accounted for the greatest percentage of swinging strikes and overall strikes. While not overpowering in the traditional sense, Beachy’s fastball gets a lot of swings and misses — perhaps an effect of the pitch’s rise: of the 325 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2011, Beachy finished within the top 10% in terms of extent of vertical movement on his fastball.
Here’s footage from Beachy’s September 12th start against the Florida Marlins, during which he struck out 10 and walked just one over 5.1 innings. Of the 10 strikeouts, five came courtesy the fastball — three swinging (0:13, 0:20, 1:20), two looking (1:00, 1:05).
Other Fastballs of Note
• Per pitch type linear weights, Clayton Kershaw‘s four-seamer was worth more runs than any other pitcher’s in the league (22.7 runs). If his name were to replace any of the above, the quality of the list would remain roughly the same.
• In his 24.0 innings of work, Stephen Strasburg was basically like an uber-Verlander, so far as the pair’s fastballs are concerned. Strasburg threw his harder (96.0 mph), for more swinging strikes (7.9%), and for more overall strikes (70.8%). Furthermore, his 2.52 wFA/C would have easily been first among starters.
• Reliever Koji Uehara was the only other pitcher besides Papelbon to finish more than two standard deviations above the mean in both fastball swinging-strike rate (13.3%) and overall strike rate (74.5%). He finished the season with an excellent 1.89 wFA/C — actually, slightly better than Papelbon’s. Amazingly, Uehara has been able to maintain excellent fastball numbers despite below-average velocity, throwing his fastball at just 88.6 mph in 2011.