Trevor Bauer and High Heat

Last weekend, as many may have noticed, Arizona Diamondback prospect Trevor Bauer was engaging his twitter followers in regards to fastballs both in the upper and lower part of the zone. Well, to be more accurate, he was suggesting that the fascination with throwing your fastball down in the zone was overrated and generally just wrong. It all began with this:


.

Bauer went on to engage his followers in a long discussion about the issue, so you can check out his timeline for March 25th if you want to see all of his thoughts on the issue. However, since run values on pitch locations are a subject that interest us, we decided to look into the matter a bit futher. So, Trevor, this post is for you.

Jeff Zimmerman, who is the person you can really thank for this, ran the numbers and came up with what you will see below. He looked at the Arizona Diamondbacks rotation and the league average rates for balls in the lower part of the zone and upper part of the zone, as well as two guys that initially popped into my head as pitchers who throw fastballs up in the zone – Jered Weaver and Brandon Beachy.

 FB High in Zone % of Pitches in Top of Zone AVG for Balls in Play Bases Per Hit Bases per Batted Ball Swing and Miss
Collmenter 59.3% 0.300 1.82 0.55 5.1%
Kennedy 50.7% 0.305 1.71 0.52 14.1%
Hudson 42.9% 0.283 1.59 0.45 17.1%
Cahill 49.3% 0.324 1.73 0.56 5.9%
Saunders 47.4% 0.334 1.63 0.55 6.9%
Weaver 60.9% 0.304 1.84 0.56 10.1%
Beachy 51.9% 0.277 1.65 0.46 15.0%
League Avg 57.0% 0.336 1.67 0.56 12.2%

 

FB Low In Zone AVG for Balls in Play Bases Per Hit Bases per Batted Ball Swing and Miss
Collmenter 0.301 1.45 0.44 10.2%
Kennedy 0.360 1.65 0.59 5.7%
Hudson 0.360 1.50 0.54 6.3%
Cahill 0.337 1.88 0.63 8.6%
Saunders 0.351 1.60 0.56 5.6%
Weaver 0.363 1.59 0.58 6.9%
Beachy 0.458 1.64 0.75 5.1%
League Avg 0.358 1.54 0.55 8.7%

 

What we can basically take from these numbers is that batters have a better chance at an extra base hit with a fastball up in the zone rather than down in the zone. Bauer stated that he “bet more of those jacks came on fastballs in the lower half of the zone than came on fastballs in the upper half.” What these numbers show is that more bases per hit come when fastballs are in the upper portion of the zone, while bases per ball in play are more-or-less equal. So, if a pitcher consistently throws fastball up in the zone, he is more likely to create more outs but also allow more extra base hits. There is a decent trade off there, and this data could be useful for certain in game situations. For instance, with a big lead, it may be worthwhile to throw fastballs up in the zone to create outs more often despite the likelihood of allowing an extra base hit.

Swing and miss rates also favor fastballs in the upper portion of the zone. The league average of 12.2% swing and misses in the upper portion easily trumps the 8.7% rate on fastballs in the lower half. This goes in line with traditional thinking, as higher fastballs are generally thought to be more difficult to catch up to.

Bauer also specifically mentioned how “Colly,” which we assume means Josh Collmenter, pitches in the upper half of the zone and has “great success,” as he put it. For reference, we looked at Collmenter’s results with all of his pitches in the upper and lower parts of the zone as well as the results of his fastball.

Collmenter All Pitches % of Pitches in Top of Zone AVG for Balls in Play Bases Per Hit Bases per Batted Ball Swing and Miss
Top Zone 50.8% 0.307 1.73 0.53 12.3%
Bottom Zone 49.2% 0.306 1.47 0.46 14.6%

 

Collmenter FB % of Pitches in Top of Zone AVG for Balls in Play Bases Per Hit Bases per Batted Ball Swing and Miss
Top Zone 59% 0.300 1.82 0.55 5.1%
Bottom Zone 41% 0.301 1.45 0.44 10.2%

Collmenter did see above average success last year in terms of bases per batted ball in the upper half of the zone, but he also saw similar success in regards to pitches in the lower half of the zone. His swing and miss rates for both halves of the zone were slightly better than average, so it is difficult to say that Collmenter sees “great success” in the upper half of the zone specifically. Looking at his fastball specifically, which he threw with 68% of his pitches last year and kept in the upper portion of the zone 59.3% of the time, he actually performed better in the lower part of the zone. With a BABIP and bases per hit average much lower than league average in the lower portion of the zone compared to average or worse than average marks in the upper portion, you can actually say he saw more success with his fastball in the lower portion.

What Collmenter did do is create outs without receiving ground balls, which likely caused Bauer to have the opinion that he sees great success up in the zone. He was certainly accurate in stating that he does throw up in the zone regularly, as he throws more than 50% of his pitches in the upper half yet still posted a better than average home run per fly ball rate of 7.7%.

There is also a decent chance that Collmenter was simply fortunate with balls in play. His overall .255 BABIP indicates that this is a possibility. For a pitcher with a 47% fly ball rate, he certainly did receive favorable results. It will be interesting to monitor Collmenter’s zone tendencies along with his home run per fly ball rate and BABIP this season. Maybe there is something to Collmenter’s pitching style, but it could also have just been a season filled with some good fortune.

Bauer stood by his opinion that balls are not necessarily harder hit up in the zone compared to lower in the zone throughout the debate. While it is possible that the balls are not physically hit harder, the likelihood for them to end up in places where the hitter can gain extra bases does increase. Bauer seemed extremely confident in his position, and by the sound of it he was basing it off of data – which would be very interesting to see if this were the case. The numbers ran by Jeff do not necessarily debunk his theory, but they do explain that more hits come from balls in the lower part of the zone and more extra bases come from balls up in the zone, which certainly does not help Bauer’s argument. We will most certainly follow Bauer’s numbers in this regard throughout the season, once he reaches the Majors, and also throughout his career.




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Ben Duronio writes for Capitol Avenue Club, FanGraphs, and does the Sports Illustrated Power Rankings. Follow Ben on twitter @Ben_Duronio.


47 Responses to “Trevor Bauer and High Heat”

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  1. bigleaguechyut says:

    Great work Ben and Jeff. Really good stuff. I’m wondering if this changes with the type of fastball that’s thrown, though analyzing that might be much better served with incorporating some kind of Pitch F/X. Collmenter in particular does throw a cutter that might be more effective for him up in the zone, whereas his 4-seamer probably fits in well with this analysis.

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    • Ben Duronio says:

      Harry Pav at Brooks Baseball has all of his fastballs labeled as such and not cutters. I sided with his classifications over PITCHf/x’s label.

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  2. Nitram Odarp says:

    While I’m inclined to agree to the extent that too much is made of throwing the ball down in the zone, I also think it’s pretty obvious that the ball is much more likely to end up against the wall or over it on a pitch up in the zone. It should be interesting to watch, but I think Bauer might be in for a rude awakening when he first makes it to the bigs, especially when you consider where he’s going to be pitching in his home starts.

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  3. Matt C says:

    Great work guys, I do think Bauer kinda has a point though depending on how good your velo is. If you can only throw 90 or 91 than obviously you should live at the bottom of the zone, but if you’re throwing 95+ it seems like you’d be better off up in the zone because it would be so much harder to catch up with.

    Also it kinda seems like a catch 22, scouts say to throw down in the zone but when you do you produce fewer swings and misses and more balls in play so you’re counting on a BIP to record an out, yet those same scouts/analysts say that pitchers have no control over their BABIP. So if you succeed by living in the bottom of the zone with your fastball chances are you’re going to need a good BABIP, but then if you do that people say that you are “lucky” and “due to regress” because of said BABIP. So what do you do?

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    • Nitram Odarp says:

      I don’t think scouts buy into the whole DIPS theory about pitchers having no control over BABIP.

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    • noseeum says:

      Great article. I was thinking the same thing as Matt C. I’d love to see an article looking into fastball speed and its impact on run values up in the zone, i.e. does a pitcher with a 95 MPH fastball have more success high up in the zone compared to low?

      From above, I think you’ve already established that the average pitcher will get more outs and give up more extra base hits if he lives up in the zone, but would love to see what velocity change does to the results.

      Great work!

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  4. Marc says:

    It’s also harder to induce double plays when pitching up in the zone.

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  5. Norm says:

    Isn’t it just a GB thing? More GB’s come down in the zone than up in the zone? GB’s are less dangerous than FB/LD, but if a pitcher gets lucky with HR/FB rates

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  6. John says:

    It’s funny, I bet based on reading about Bauer, he actually reads this article.

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    • Bip says:

      He’s probably one of the commenters. He might be YOU!

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      • John says:

        Ha! You got me.

        Morning long-toss, come on to fangraphs to comment. Lunch time long-toss, come back to comment. Afternoon long-toss, then comment some more. Then a bit more long-toss, and a bit more commenting, then it’s time for bed.

        - Not actually Trevor Bauer

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  7. John says:

    I think the conclusions could be misleading due to the splitting of the zone into 1/2′s. As we know, line drives have the highest BABIP and without having data to back me up, I’m betting line drives are most prevalant on pitches in the middle two 1/4′s of the zone.

    I know that Bauer was referring to upper half and lower half, but I’m betting that if you measured the top 1/4 of the zone versus the bottom 1/4 of the zone, you’d see more credence to bauer’s argument. Again, I don’t know if there is data to back this up, but simplistically looking at it, isn’t a ball in the top 1/4 of the zone more likely to induce a flyball, and thus less likely to induce a hit, than a fastball down in the zone, which is more likely to induce a groundball, and thus more likely to induce a hit. You may give up more XBH hits in the top 1/4 of the zone, but your BABIP is probably far lower than in the bottom 1/4 of the zone.

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    • mcbrown says:

      Interesting insight. I’d be very curious to see this kind of extension to the analysis.

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    • noseeum says:

      Good point. I think thirds would be appropriate. Fourths is a really small zone, but thirds is reasonable. We know anyone who throws a pitch in the middle of the plate and the middle of the vertical strike zone is going to get shellacked, so it would a good idea to remove this data from the sample, correct?

      Although perhaps it’s safe to assume that most pitchers are shooting for either the top of the zone and the bottom of the zone, and they should be punished for their mistakes. It’s plausible that “pitching up” is harder to do than “pitching down”, e.g. If a pitcher’s goal is to stay high in the zone, 15% of his pitches will typically end up in the center of the zone while if a pitcher’s goal is to stay low in the zone, only 5% will typically end up in the center. I have no idea if this is true, but it’s plausible. No matter what the pitch, gravity is pulling it down after all.

      Minimizing risk is an important part in any pitching strategy.

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      • John says:

        I agree. Removing the middle 1/3 which, outside of very few certain scenarios (eg. 3-0 count or on either corner), is likely not the desired location, would really make analysis more meaningful.

        That would be my guess at the outcome. A pitcher who lives intentionally in the top 1/3 of zone would have a higher swing and miss % overall and lower BABIP, but would likely have a higher XBH% because of the challenges with spotting his fastball in the top 1/3.

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      • rjbiii says:

        Based on your comment though, doesn’t splitting the zone into two halves make the most sense as doing so will measure the riskiness of the two strategies? To me, its less interesting to know the success ratio of the perfect pitch and more interesting to know how it aggregates out based on a pitchers overall strategy/style.

        Having said all of that, others above have raised the velocity question. The hypothesis is that it makes sense to pitch up at 95+ mph, but to pitch down at lesser speeds. But look at Jered Weaver and Ian Kennedy’s average fastball velocities. They’re nowhere near 95 mph. So perhaps, having a better ability to locate the top third (or whatever) is more important than the speed at which you throw when you factor in the increased likelihood that those pitchers have to hit that area.

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      • Marc says:

        I don’t agree. Throwing the ball down requires more precision, because the harder you throw, the more likely the ball is likely to sail on you. That’s when guys overthrow they miss up. Besides, at the speeds pitchers throw, I really don’t think gravity is going to pull the ball down your desired location 10% of the time you throw. That’s a MASSIVE number.

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      • John says:

        Marc, rjbii this is brooching into a mental discussion of professional pitchers, but I’d argue that if you’re a guy who lives down in the zone, you’re likely throwing in the top 1/3 of the zone as a “purpose” pitch, and have a higher propensity to miss up since you’re trying to induce a swing and miss. But for guys who live in the upper half, and aren’t afraid of contact, I don’t know if I believe that would be true. The real analysis I would look at if I could would be for guys who have the majority of fastballs above the lower 1/3, are they more likely to miss up and out of the zone or in the middle 1/3?

        My theory would support bauer’s overall comments in that pitchers who are able to live up in the top 1/3 zone, and rarely miss in the middle third would have more overall success than guys who live in the bottom 1/3 of the zone due to the BABIP differential of flyballs and groundballs. If such pitchers exist, they would demonstrate success in missing the LD’s associated with missing in the middle 1/3

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      • John says:

        I take back my overall thesis that a more extreme upper 1/3 pitcher would have more success than an extreme lower 1/3 pitcher, purely because it’s not empirically true (ground ball pitchers on the whole are undisputedly more successful than flyball pitchers). That said, I don’t back down from the notion that a given fastball in the upper 1/3 is more likely to result in an out than a given fastball in the lower 1/3. Now, to me, that would be the ultimate answer to power’s point.

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      • Bauer specifically mentioned high inside fastballs vs. low-and-away fastballs. A breakdown of 1/4s or, even better, 1/6s (so you could remove fastballs in the middle of the plate) would likely be much more appropriate in regards to what he was arguing.

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      • Matt says:

        I don’t know if it’s possible but ‘d just like to see a breakdown for a hard thrower(95+) between FBs up in the zone and down in zone.(Like say what the wOBA against is for the locations) I obviously have absolutely no proof to back this up but to me when I watch guys with power arms it seems like they have more success when their FBs are up in the zone. Who knows though, maybe it just seems that way to me because I see more swings and misses up there so I delude myself into thinking that but I’d like to find out.

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    • jim says:

      yeah just going half vs half seemed pretty lazy, i bet even doing it by thirds would be more in line with bauer’s thoughts

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  8. mcbrown says:

    Re: Collmenter’s success up vs. down in the zone, one tricky thing with looking at an individual pitcher is that there could always be negative correlation between pitch frequency and pitch performance. I.e. Collmenter might be more successful down in the zone because he throws there less frequently, and if his ratio were closer to 50/50 the results might look very different. Or not – we can’t really know without running a controlled experiment, and of course we aren’t able to do so.

    But that’s just a quibble. This is interesting work.

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  9. Marc says:

    I agree with Bauer in a sense that keeping the ball down is overstated, because that approach simply doesn’t work for everyone. If you throw a straight fastball low in the zone, you’re going to get devoured. Providing you can stay durable, guys like that may be better off pumping gas up and missing bats.

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  10. Ron Paul says:

    This was a great beginning to an article, but I’m not sure how FB velocity isn’t mentioned. I also think it’s important to remove the middle 1/3 of the zone. Belt-high FB’s aren’t what he’s referring to.

    T.Bauer throws hard, real hard. His FB in the top 1/3 of the zone is going to be real hard to hit unless your sitting on it and have quick hands. Simple data on top half/bottom half, while ignoring the velocity doesn’t do much for me.

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  11. Madoff Withurmoni says:

    Jason Kubel in LF for at least first 6-7 innings instead of Parra. Let’s see what happens to the BABIP of pitches up in the zone for Arizona pitchers this year.

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    • jim says:

      flyballs have the lowest BABIP, so probably not a whole lot

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      • Madoff Withurmoni says:

        How many Parra outs that turn into Kubel extra base hits have to occur per game to make a large overall difference? Not saying I know. Actually asking the question for flyball pitchers.

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      • Matt says:

        I’m not for sure if I understand these stats correctly so if I’m wrong about it somebody feel free to correct me. So with that said from I looked at Parra had 190 balls hit to him in his zone(I have no idea if that means only balls hit in the air to him or ground balls that got through the infield to him) and he made 98 plays out of his zone. So assuming those 190 balls and 98 out of zone plays were just flyballs that means about 290 flyballs were hit his way while he was playing LF. So that’s under 2 a game. So if I’m understanding that stat correctly it shouldn’t have much effect on any particular pitcher numbers wise even if Cuddyer is atrocious out there.

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      • Drew says:

        Flyballs have higher wOBA, dont they?

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      • Baldacci says:

        I love the mistaken insert of cuddy for kubel

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  12. amgarvey says:

    I think its an interesting argument and like everyone else I’d love to see a more detailed evaluation of it. Along with some of the variables already mentioned I am curious how the height of a pitchers release point factors into their effectiveness in one zone versus the other. I’m also curious about the relationship between a pitchers tendencies to throw either up or down in the zone and the impact this has one the effectiveness of their other pitches.

    As for the first question, I know traditional baseball thinking has been that a pitcher with a high release point can maximize their effectiveness by throwing down in the zone. I suppose this thinking applies to all pitchers, but it seems to make the most sense for ones with high release points. My thinking has been that this steep angle reduces the amount of intersection between the balls flight path and the batters swing plane, but this is just a guess. As for the second question I haven’t the slightest. Either way I’d love to see this looked into further.

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  13. Brando says:

    It be interesting if this article actually deal with what Bauer was saying about challenging the convention that pitchers can only control K, BB and homeruns. effectively he’s talking about the importance of generating infield fly balls or forcing the batter to get under the ball since fastballs thrown in the upper half of the zone allow for less ‘hit time’. “Pitchers can absolutely control how much ‘on time’ contact they give up. Which influences the chances of outs” He’s not talking about Babip, he’s talking about how a pitcher disrupts a hitters timing.

    If hitters train to follow the proper body mechanics and drill to be able to extend their arms and proper use of body rotation then the worst spot to throw the ball would be down low since it allows for hitters to get into the optimal hitting position in order to drive the ball. So, if you have a bad fastball why throw the ball low ???? that is the same place you are going to throw your breaking pitches (no one throws a slider waste high down the middle or up effectively)

    “Fastballs down are ineffective because (in comparison) every other pitch is slower and must take a higher trajectory to stay in the zone = Easy recognition of off speed pitches” By throwing down you are devaluing you breaking pitches, so for a guy like Collmenter who is basically a two pitch pitcher, it makes absolutly no sense to throw low. Collmenter had a 16.4% infield fly ball rate, and we all know infield fly balls have a much higher rate of resulting in an out then does a groundball since you have to rely on you infield in order to do that.

    Collementer is just the extreme example, as the author show, he’s is not the best analogy (unlike every other pitcher on his list who are much more similar to Bauer vis a vis their high assortment of pitches ie they know the importance of not devaluing their offspeed stuff since their fastballs are not as strong.

    I’d rather see these claims using not a guy like Collmenter who Bauer used as the low example and not the hyperbole the author made him out to be.

    I know ill prob get ripped for this but Fangraphs really doesn’t seem to address the topic of pitch sequencing and body mechanics in the mature fashion in which Bauer is talking about the subject. Hopefully more people will read the whole discussion its actually really interesting.

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  14. Eddie says:

    Could one not argue that varying the height of the pitch with regularity causes both high and low pitches to be more effective?
    To see this, I suppose one would need to look at the data based on the splits and see if pitchers who vary pitch height with regularity are more effective than those who do not.

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  15. philosofool says:

    I would love it if you repeated this with linear weight values instead of bases per ball in play. Linear weights would tell us more about the value of the batted balls.

    Also, you say ” There is a decent trade off there, and this data could be useful for certain in game situations.”

    The obvious situation in when the guy at the plate is/isn’t a power hitter. Willie Bloomquist? Work up high. Giancarlo Stanton? Don’t.

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  16. AC says:

    Neuroscientists that study visual processing will tell you as a matter of fact that the brain gears up for and processes input based on recent context…this is no different with a ball being thrown at a hitter. There are specific pitch sequences that will make a high fastball appear more deceptive, thus making it more effective. This article does absolutely nothing to address that reality, since it essentially evaluates the “high fastball” and “low fastball” in isolation, without any consideration to pitch sequence and the context in which those pitches appeared. Not considering context is a huge confounding factor, and for that reason, this is analysis is essentially meaningless (sorry).

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    • Ben Duronio says:

      It’s a different analysis, but this is far from meaningless. One of his main statements that he stood by throughout the twitter debate was that he feels more home runs are hit on low balls than on high balls.

      Also, in talking to Trevor after the post went up and after he read it, he made some of the same comments that you made. The swing and miss rate for high fastballs being far superior than low fastballs combined with the swing and miss rate for high non-fastballs being lower compared to low non-fastballs explains what you are looking for.

      The reason that low fastballs are so revered is because the damage that can come from them is much less than the damage that can come from a high fastball. That comes with a tradeoff however, as more swing and misses come with high heat.

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  17. Andrew says:

    Boy, that Bauer is really a maverick. How many more institutional assumptions will he demolish on Twitter?!

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  18. Nathaniel Dawson says:

    “…it is difficult to say that Collmenter sees “great success” in the upper half of the zone specifically. Looking at his fastball specifically, which he threw with 68% of his pitches last year and kept in the upper portion of the zone 59.3% of the time, he actually performed better in the lower part of the zone. With a BABIP and bases per hit average much lower than league average in the lower portion of the zone compared to average or worse than average marks in the upper portion, you can actually say he saw more success with his fastball in the lower portion.”

    Not sure of your conclusion here. While your data shows he gave up more bases per batted ball while throwing his fastball up in the zone, it also shows that he got more swings and misses there as well. If those swings and misses lead to more strikeouts (which is a good assumption), then he’s allowing fewer batted balls altogether, and may be giving up fewer extra base hits by pitching up in the zone than by pitching down in the zone. That wouldn’t support the notion he’s more successful when pitching down in the zone.

    As many other commenters have pointed out, there’s a lot more going on with pitching style than just splitting up how often he throws his fastball up or down in the zone.

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  19. CJ says:

    Another question that comes to mind: does the high fastball success vary based on lefty or righty pitcher? There have always been a subset of LH starting pitchers who seem to live off of the high fastball. It’s even more curious that the velocity isn’t exceptional for those pitchers.

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  20. stjz says:

    There are two counterpoint that jump to mind after reading: first of all, called strikes. From the top of my head, there’s a way better chance to get a called strike in the lower half of the strike zone. Secondly, most of these pitchers have a decent changeup that works well down in the zone, so they can afford a luxury of pitching up with a fastball.

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    • Dave says:

      Also: anecdotally at least, it would seem that more swinging strikes are found on high fastballs out of the strike zone than low fastballs out of the strike zone.

      Didn’t read the original tweets, but if Bauer is talking about the value of a pitch rather than the results, it would seem non-strike zone pitches may need to be considered as part of the risk assessment.

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      • stjz says:

        there was a very interesting article at THT about high heat some time ago: the point was that pitchers with good curveballs and changeups are forced to pitch up in the zone more often with fastball in order for their secondary stuff to be effective, as a good curveball or changeup starts at the same plane as high fastball. So having a good curveball makes batter miss more often on high heat and vice versa. Seems perfectly applicable to this bunch. If you have ever pitched, you should intuitively know this to be true. It doesn’t sound anecdotal to me at all.

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  21. Gus says:

    I apologize if this comment is redundant, but you assert ” What these numbers show is that more bases per hit come when fastballs are in the upper portion of the zone, while bases per ball in play are more-or-less equal.” Is the variance (or CI, whatever) small around these values? My initial hunch would tell me this trend is non-significant, but are you saying otherwise?

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  22. tz says:

    I wish there had been PitchFX back in the mid 1990′s, when the upper half of the strike zone had basically vanished. SIde-to-side pitchers such as Maddux did just fine. However, I remember Roger Clemens suffering during his last years in Boston, as his thigh-high fastball had much less “hop” than his belly-high fastball. It wasn’t until he mastered the splitter in Toronto that he was able to dominate again – the splitter gave enough of a contrast to keep hitters from sitting on a straight 94mph fastball at the knees.

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  23. SD says:

    Sample size of just one rotation in MLB is too small to draw this conclusion:

    “The numbers ran by Jeff do not necessarily debunk his theory, but they do explain that more hits come from balls in the lower part of the zone and more extra bases come from balls up in the zone FOR THIS SMALL SUBSET OF PITCHERS…”

    I’d like to see data from all starters in MLB compared. Also, other variables may need to be taken into account such as sorting out fastballs > 93 MPH up in the zone vs low, etc.

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  24. Benjo says:

    Any numbers on the Tyler Clippard impossoball high fastball? People just can not lay off of that thing, and it comes in like chin high. It’s a huge swing and miss pitch. Everything I’ve read on it makes it seem like Clippard’s delivery combined with the location makes it very hard to pick up.

    Bauer has kind of a jukey delivery too, so maybe it’s just one of those case-by-case basis things. Either way, how great is it that this guy engages his twitter followers like this?

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