Catching Up to a Fastball

Sometimes announcers state that a player is not able to catch up to a fastball. Common sense states that the faster the pitch the harder it is to hit. I decided to look at the results of every fastball swung at to see how the results changed as the speed increased or decreased.

Fastballs generally have a 20 MPH difference in speeds (80 MPH to 100 MPH) at the major league level, so a baseline of what happens at every swing needed to be created. I took the results of every fastball over the last 4 years. I divided them up by in 1 MPH intervals (except for those >100 MPH which were grouped together). Then, I divided up the results further into those pitches missed, fouled off, hit into an out or hit for a hit. Taking all the data, I got the following results:

Here is a look at each line:

Miss: The trend is to have more contact until the 89 to 90 MPH range. At this point the swing and miss % increases as the speed gets lower.

Foul: A nice even downward curve from near 50% at >100 MPH to 35% at 80-81 MPH.

Out (in play): At higher speeds, the out rate is at its lowest (20%). It increases to 30% until 89-90 MPH where it steadies out.

Hit: The percentage of hits goes from 10% at >100MPH to 17% at 88-89 MPH. After that point, it slowly declines to 15%.

The main idea to take from this data is the 88 to 90 MPH zone. Above this point, hitters are more likely to miss the pitch and not get a hit. At speeds below this level, the chance for an out (in play) or hit stay the same. Speed, at the major league, seems to help a pitcher for speeds over 90 MPH. Fastball speeds below 88 MPH don’t generally get worse results as the speed gets slower and slower.

To extend this data a bit, here is a look at how hitters with over 350 PAs on the Cardinals and Rangers ranked according to the percentage chance of getting a hit in 2011. I looked at the fastballs over 92 MPH:

Just a few notes on the data.
1. If Albert Pujols is going swing at these faster fastballs, he is going to put the ball in play 50% of the time. Matt Holliday and Nelson Cruz put the ball in play just 25% of the time.
2. Mike Napoli and Daniel Descalso have the greatest problem with making contact on these faster fastballs.

The faster the fastball, the better the result for a pitcher, but the results even out once a fastball goes below 90 MPH. The difference in how batters handle fastball can be seen in the World Series batters. When some announcer states that some hitter can’t caught up with fastballs, you will have a general idea if they are correct or not.



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Jeff writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first season in Tout Wars, he won the H2H league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.


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BobbyBronski
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BobbyBronski

I would hypothesize that the reason it evens out below 88 or so is that pitchers who throw a <90's fastball generally have something else going on with their fastball (superior location, better pitch selection/sequencing, crazy movement) that makes up for the slow speed.

dmack
Guest
dmack

Especially with a Wakefield type where the majority of his pitches are within the 48-60 MPH range, enabling him to get away with a high-seventies to low-eighties fastball.

psiogen
Guest
psiogen

Yeah. With classic knuckleballers like Wakefield or Dickey who also throw a 70-85MPH straight pitch 10-20% of the time to change speeds and keep hitters off balance…well, we call that pitch a fastball, but it may be more helpful to think of it as a changeup in terms of how it works in their repertoire.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

There’s that.

Also, looking at the jump in whiffs in the 80-83 MPH range, I wonder if a lot of those pitches are misclassified. Also wonder what the sample size is there.

Antonio Bananas`
Guest
Antonio Bananas`

Not only that but just because a pitch is slower doesn’t mean it’s easier. If you’re a major leaguer, and you’re used to hitting 90-93, someone comes in throwing 80-84, you’re over aggressive and roll over/pop out a lot. It’s timing.

What I want to see is a trend or graph next to it with the “average” fastball speeds. My hypothesis is that anything that’s not within say the first standard deviation of “average” is more effective. You see more ks at a higher speed, and more in play outs at a lower speed. It’s a disruption of a hitter’s timing.

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