What “Rise” Looks Like on a Fastball

If you’ve ever watched even maybe one baseball game in your entire life, you’ve probably heard the term “rising fastball” used by a broadcaster, coach, or player. In point of fact, insofar as gravity is a thing that we have on earth, the notion that a fastball can “rise” is a misnomer. Like any object, a baseball is drawn toward the earth at 9.8 meters per second squared.

If you’ve ever made your way to a pitcher’s PITCHf/x page here at the site, however, you might’ve noticed that, indeed, pitchers are credited with positive (or “rising”) horizontal movement on many of their offerings. The league-average vertical movement for most pitch types, in fact, registers as positive.

While these two facts appear to contradict each other, they actually don’t. The PITCHf/x numbers for vertical movement one finds here — and at sites like Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers — are presented not as absolute movement, but movement relative to a spinless ball. When we see that a league-average fastball has 8.8 inches of postive vertical (i.e. Y-axis) movement, what that means is, is that the league-average fastball drops 8.8 inches fewer than a ball without backspin.

The intent of the present post, however, is neither to discuss the finer points of physics nor to make a particularly salient point about or using PITCHf/x. The author has expertise in neither. What the author does know about is how to make a GIF, which is what he (read: I) has/have done.

Specifically, what I’ve sought to do is to give readers a sense of what “rise” looks like on a fastball — if it looks like anything, at all.

To do this, I first consulted the PITCHf/x leaderboard to find the right-handed pitcher with the most positive vertical movement on his four-seam fastball. The reason why I chose the right-hander with the most vertical movement has to do with the next couple of considerations. I wanted to also find (a) a pitcher who had pitched in front of one of the league’s straight-on center-field cameras and also (b) another pitcher throwing a fastball with something close to league-average vertical movement on the same camera.

One finds in our leaderboards that, among right-handers with at least 10 innings thrown, Tampa Bay’s Joel Peralta has the highest average vertical movement, at 12.2 inches. One finds, moreover, that Peralta threw in front of Miami’s straight-on center-field camera on June 8th of this year — the same day that teammate Jeremy Hellickson, whose fastball averages 8.8 inches of positive vertical movement, also pitched.

With all that settled, I set out to find a four-seamer thrown by each pitcher during that game against Miami with (a) similar location, both vertically and horizontally, but (b) a large-ish gap in terms of vertical movement.

Below are the life-changing results.

This is a third-inning four-seamer by Hellickson thrown at 90.3 mph and with 2.45 inches of arm-side run and 7.49 inches of rise:

And this is an eighth-inning four-seamer by Peralta thrown at 89.5 mph, with a similar amount of arm-side run (3.46 inches), but about five more inches of vertical movement (12.54 inches total):

Do the differences reveal themselves? They do, I think — although they’re decidedly subtle. Hellickson appears to have a slightly lower arm slot than Peralta, which distorts the perspectives — despite an attempt to control the most relevant variables.

Still, there does seem to be just a bit of an arc on Hellickson’s offering that Peralta’s lacks. In any case — for reference sake, if nothing else — this is what five inches of difference in vertical movement looks like, most other things beings equal.




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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


46 Responses to “What “Rise” Looks Like on a Fastball”

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  1. Pinner says:

    Neat

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  2. Chummy Z says:

    Wow. That’s really awesome and explained in a neat, concise way.

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  3. Slats says:

    Very good article Carson.

    This is far from a clown article bro!

    Well done.

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  4. yaboynate says:

    How existential.

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  5. dustin says:

    Hellickson’s fastball looks to have more rise according to my eye. It’s good for baseball that I’m not a scout.

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    • bluetuzo says:

      Yeah, to my untrained eye it looks like Hellickson’s got more rise. Of course, that may just be because he threw it higher (level of catcher’s mouth) versus the Peralta pitch (catcher’s gut).

      But interesting article nonetheless.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      I’m with you, mate. It’s good I’m neither scout nor broadcaster, for if you showed me the Peralta GIF without introduction I’d say it was a change.

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    • Chomp says:

      I thought the same thing. I thought Peralta’s ball looked like it stayed on a straight line the whole way there.

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    • Baltar says:

      I, too.

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    • Lyle says:

      I’m in this line as well. Are you sure the videos aren’t reversed?

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  6. Will says:

    I asked a question on this topic the other day in relation to changeups. Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on this subject

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  7. Alan Nathan says:

    Are you saying that the Hellickson pitch is released with a slightly upward trajectory, perhaps to compensate for reduced upward movement? That is very easily checked with PITCHf/x….just look for the parameter vz0. Should be a small number, positive if upward, negative if downward.

    The operative word in your post is “subtle”. Or in other words, I don’t see it either. :).

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    • Checked this out: Hellickson’s vz0 on the pitch is -3.935; Peralta’s, -7.944. So, if I’m understanding correctly, Hellickson’s trajectory is still downward, but probably not as much as Peralta’s.

      As to the thought that Hellickson — or any pitcher — would be compensating for reduced upward movement, I don’t know if that would be the intent. Many of the pitchers with the lowest vertical movements, for example, are doing that purposely, in order to get ground balls. My guess is — and I’m not an expert in this, either — but my guess is, it’d be whatever feels most comfortable and repeatable for the pitcher in question.

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  8. Sean says:

    So if I am reading you correctly, no fastball rises–it just doesn’t get pulled down by gravity as much as the others. Just like the ridiculous claim that a grounder can pick up speed when it hits the dirt or turf in some way, which would go against the laws of physics that govern the universe.

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    • jerbear1985 says:

      Exactly. It’s physically impossible for a ball to rise once it’s already started on a downhill plane.

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      • Bip says:

        I don’t know about that. There’s no law that says the force of gravity will always counter the force of air resistance. Maybe it’s just not possible for a human being to put enough backspin on a ball to do that, but I don’t think it’s categorically impossible.

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    • B N says:

      It’s entirely possible, it’s just not very possible for a HUMAN to do it. A good resource is: http://spiff.rit.edu/richmond/baseball/traj/traj.html#spin

      Basically, by those numbers, a 100 MPH pitch would not fall due to gravity if its spin was about 1 (where spin is rotational speed/pitch speed). Unfortunately, that means the pitch would need to be spinning at about 100 MPH itself. Considering that pitchers generally impart between 15 MPH to 25 MPH of spin on their pitches, I don’t think they’re going to suddenly find out how to master that skill.

      Additionally, as soon as the velocity started to go down (which it has to, due to wind resistance), the ball will start falling. So realistically over a pitch to the catcher, you’d probably need something like 130+ MPH of gas to get a net rise on a fastball.

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  9. Alan Nathan says:

    Sean…actually, a grounder picking up speed does not defy the laws of physics (except maybe in North Carolina). If the amount of topspin on the ball is high enough that the ball actually slides *toward the batter*, then the ball can pick up speed. Nor does it violate the laws of physics to have a rising fastball, which can occur if the spin rate is high enough. In both cases, it is quite unlikely to be realized in practice. Not likely is not the same as violating!

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    • Dr. Nathan! Honored Sir!

      Question: how much would a fastball have to spin in order to actually rise?

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      • makeitRayn says:

        In order for a fast ball to actually rise, it must exert more force upward than its own weight. From spin, the maximum force a fast ball can exert is only half of its weight.

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      • TFINY says:

        I could not find a direct answer; however, the backspin imparted by MLB pitchers negates about half the ball’s weight. Therefore, they would need almost twice as much spin in order to have a “rising” fastball from an overhand release point. Source: Mythbusters, and the first 4 or 5 google links likely sourcing mythbusters themselves.

        A submarine pitcher can pitch an actual rising fastball.

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    • monkey business says:

      True that, but it could be impossible with a human arm.

      There are also those pitchers that pitch with so much positive z at release that it just continues rising. Usually this is a side armer with a very low release point.

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    • Sean says:

      Dr. Nathan: So the spinning ball would not pick up energy when it hits the ground, so why would topspin make it accelerate? I don’t doubt you (mostly) but it doesnt make sense to me.

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      • Curtiss says:

        This is something that I see all the time with tennis. The reason that the ball will accelerate/decelerate based on spin after the bounce is because the spin changes the amount of force transferred into the ball at impact. Topspin will cause the ball to almost stick to the ground, which in turn will give it more velocity post impact.

        The ball does not pick up energy, it just turns rotational energy into kinetic energy.

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  10. jim says:

    cistulli’s triumphant return from notgraphs

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  11. Alan Nathan says:

    Carson: For a 95 mph fastball (at release), about 7000 rpm, which is way more than a pitcher can actually put on the ball. You can make it rise with much less spin if the ball is lighter (since the force of gravity is weaker)–e.g., a wiffle ball.

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  12. Seattle Homer says:

    Cool article.

    Thinking back to high school physics: If “actually rise” means that in each subsequent instant the ball is further from the ground, I guess an extreme sidearm or submarine pitcher throws a fastball that “actually rises.” In aggregate, from the time it’s thrown (at, say, 12″ above the ground) until the time it hits the mitt (at, say, 24″ above the ground), it has “actually risen.” In the absence of absolutely ridiculous spin, though, that ball would still be accelerating toward earth (at something at or near 9.8 m/s2).

    If “actually rise” means that the ball is accelerating away from earth, I don’t know whether the physics could bear that out in any actual humanly possible scenario. How would that look? I guess I think of a paper airplane that you can throw parallel to the ground, and then it darts straight up for a short while (obviously until it hits the ceiling and falls on your co-workers desk). Someone call Mythbusters!

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    • DiscGolfer says:

      You can do this with a frisbee with a little practice, but the physics are completely different. If you throw the disc towards the ground with the nose up, it compresses the air which then expands again forcing the disc to “bounce” off of the air.

      Not possible with a baseball.

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  13. Alan Nathan says:

    Correction: make that 5000 rpm (the higher result was at higher temperature and altitude). This results is for sea level, about 73 degrees. Still too large for a human to throw. You can play around with these things yourself with my “trajectory calculator” spreadsheet:
    http://webusers.npl.illinois.edu/~a-nathan/pob//TrajectoryCalculator.xls

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    • longbeachyo says:

      wow… I was actually going to call you all crazy, but since “Dr. Nathan” brought it down to my level by referencing the wiffle ball, I now feel edified! Thank you!

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  14. Franco says:

    Peralta’s looks more unsettling to hit as a batter to me anyways. It looks like it’s starting to fall downwards and than straightens out halfway to the plate.

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  15. BenH says:

    No gif of someone with a near-league-worst rise? Granted, it would probably just look like the arc of changeup, but I think it would be neat for comparison purposes.

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    • I might do a version of this for sink, actually — which, “league-worst” rise is probably the same as “league-best” sink. Pitchers with the lowest vertical movement figures (some of them negative, even) are usually doing that on purpose.

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  16. I was gonna say something to the effect of “You just HAD to pick pitches framed by Jose Molina, didn’t you?!” but then I realized that it’s Lobaton behind the plate. At least, I think it is.

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  17. 300ZXNA says:

    Any data on Rich Harden? If I remember one thing that made hims so hard to hit before his injury is that his fastball had a ridiculous amount of rise while his changeup had tons of sink.

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  18. Keith says:

    What about a pitch aimed upward, for instance a Quisenberry-type shoetop release that crosses the plate at the battery’s chest level? Isn’t that a rising pitch?

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    • Bryz says:

      This pic is of Chad Bradford’s average height per pitch he threw in 2009. http://pitchfx.texasleaguers.com/charts/gen/1362682009040120120617AAAAAvirtualization-side.png

      If you look at one of his fastballs, his average fastball (whether it’s “FF” or “FA” I cannot tell) technically “rose” from his release point to when it crossed the plate. However, it’s obviously descending when it crossed home, so I don’t know if this counts as it rising any more than say throwing a baseball onto the roof of your house counts as making it rise as well.

      With the way that submarine-style pitchers throw the ball (actually imparting quite a great deal of topspin instead of backspin), along with the inability to maintain even an average fastball velocity with that throwing motion, I’d say it’s virtually impossible for them to throw a pitch hard and high enough to make it continue to rise when it passes by the hitter.

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  19. Alan Nathan says:

    Last year I had access to PITCHf/x data from the WCWS (fast-pitch softball). It was quite common for the elevation of the pitch as it crossed home plate to be higher than the release point. Of course, the mound is not raised as in baseball, the release point is often quite low, and the natural motion is upward. I gave a talk about this at the PITCHf/x summit last year. Slides are here:
    http://webusers.npl.illinois.edu/~a-nathan/pob//ppt/NathanWCWS.ppt. See slide 5. On average, home plate location is half a foot higher than release height.

    Note, however, when people talk about a fastball “rising”, they are referring to the direction of the *acceleration* being upward, as Seattle Home pointed out upthread.

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    • Bip says:

      I would think that for softball, the underhand delivery would mean a fastball would have topspin, which would cause a typical fastball to sink quite a bit, by which I mean the ball would accelerate downwards faster than 9.8 m/s^2

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  20. yosoyfiesta says:

    Wicked

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  21. payroll says:

    Fangraphs has already looked at the relationship between pitcher height and the downward plane. Does vertical movement amplify the (albeit small) advantage to throwing at a downward plane? One can imagine something like the length of a pitchers’ index and middle fingers coming into play, along with height, if that is the case.

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  22. JBL says:

    Well, I guess we now know how Peralta achieves that “rise”.

    Should be interesting to see how he looks ipso post facto.

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  23. Slacker George says:

    When they mention “spinless ball”, isn’t it more accurate to say “spinless cueball” or any uniformly smooth sphere? R.A. Dickey throws as close to a spinless baseball as possible, and it’s motion is anything but benchmark predictable.

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