Players’ View: Will Hitters Adjust to the High-Spin High Heater?

More and more pitchers have been throwing four-seam fastballs at, and just above, the top of the strike zone. The trend has been influenced by multiple factors. Spin-rate data is one of them, and so is the fact that an increasing number of hitters are tailoring their swings with launch angle in mind. Well sequenced and well located — especially if it has good carry — the pitch is extremely difficult to square up.

Will hitters be able to adjust to the proliferation of high-spin heaters up and over the zone, and thus make it a less effective pitch? I asked 20 players and coaches — 10 on the hitting side of the equation and an equal number on the pitching side — for their thoughts on the subject.

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Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman: “It’s definitely a tough pitch. I didn’t see a lot of them in the minor leagues. I did see them, but they’d be a little bit farther out of the zone — now it’s top of the zone and just above the letters. They’re trying to see if you can get the bat head to it. There are a lot of foul balls and swing-throughs, so if it continues this way, there will probably be a bounceback with the hitters.

“To adjust to it… I guess you’d be trying to keep your hands on top of the ball, instead of trying to swing underneath it. I don’t know.”

Matt Bowman, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher: “That’s an interesting question. I would say that what I expect to see happening is… it’s a game of cat-and-mouse that happens slowly. It would take more [hitters] who can elevate the low ball and are willing to kind of sacrifice the high ball. There are very few guys — I guess Turner is one of them — who can handle both the low pitch and the high pitch and get them both off the ground.

“Pitching is going to be dictated by hitters adjusting. Hitters are adjusting to the fact that pitchers are down in the zone, and as soon as all hitters can hit that low ball, then the adjustment will be back up in the zone, as we’re seeing with a few teams, like the Rays.

“I don’t think it will be immediate. I think pitchers will still be down in the zone. They may try to shoot it up, but you’d need more pitchers who are effective up. You might think that it’s easy, and for many… you can cherrypick a bunch of hitters who have made the adjustment to the low pitch very well, but for every guy who has made the adjustment to the low pitch, there are probably a few that are unable to do so.”

Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox outfielder: “It’s a little bit of both. There can be some adjustment to it, but it’s a tough pitch to hit. Not only because… guys have secondary offerings in their minds. There are a lot of secondary pitches that are being thrown more now than in recent years. There used to be a lot more fastballs thrown. Now there are more offspeed pitches, so in the back of a hitter’s mind is, ‘Well, he could go with an offspeed pitch,’ which allows the pitcher to be able to elevate that fastball and get it by you, because you want to stay back a little bit longer.”

Don Cooper, Chicago White Sox pitching coach: “I call it high or nigh. When you’re ahead in the count, ride one above the zone. See if the hitter can get on top of that. At the very least, you’re changing eye level. Now you’ve got so many guys with plus-plus velocity that, when you’re ahead in the count, it’s difficult to get on top of that fastball you’re talking about.

“Listen, I love the high fastball. It’s above the zone to chase, and if the individual pitcher is throwing other things — not just that high, riding fastball — it’s going to be effective. If you move the ball around and change speeds, and then pop that one… there’s a spot for that pitch. If you set up that pitch, it’s always going to be hard on the hitter.”

Chili Davis, Boston Red Sox hitting coach: “It’s funny you should ask that. A few years ago, when I worked with Oakland, I made a statement that hitters are going to have to learn how to hit the high strike, and for a couple of reasons. No.1, there are a huge array of pitchers coming at you now with elevated fastballs. But you’ve also got sliders, curveballs, changeups, cutters, knuckle curves — all this stuff — and a lot of those pitches are used to chase. Primarily, they’re used to get chases down in the zone.

“If a pitcher is locating his fastballs at the knees, and he’s also starting his chase pitch there, especially a changeup, on that same plane, he’s going to be tough to beat. The only mistake that pitchers are going to make is to miss up in the zone. As far as I’m concerned, everything up in the zone becomes hittable. The curveball hangs, the slider hangs, the changeup is not where it’s supposed to be, the forkball becomes more of a spoon ball and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

“The elevated four-seamer, yeah, it’s a tempting, delicious-looking pitch to guys who are high-ball chasers. But if you have discipline at the top of your zone… what you have to do is set your sights at the top of the zone and work down. It’s closer to your eyes, so if you’re looking for something up, you should be able to recognize if it’s a strike. I think hitters need to adjust to the higher pitch, because that’s where the mistakes are.”

Dexter Fowler, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder: “With the velo trending upwards, it’s going to be a lot harder to hit that pitch. You’re always taught to hit balls down in the zone. Some guys are deceptive up. It’s closer to the eyes, so it looks a lot better than it actually is. Different guys… I guess the league will start to adjust if guys keep throwing it up there. The league is always adjusting.”

Sonny Gray, New York Yankees pitcher: “There are certain pitches in baseball where, if a pitcher executes them, they’re at a huge advantage. I don’t think that will necessarily ever change. That high fastball, if it’s executed in the right location, more times than not the pitcher is going to win. Same with the fastball, that true fastball, executed down and away.

“It’s all about execution. That elevated heater is a pitch where, if you miss with it, the hitter can do damage. If you’re trying to throw a heater up and you miss just low enough — it’s a heater at the belt — it’s a good pitch to hit. The percentages tell you that. High enough, it’s harder to do damage.”

Jedd Gyorko, St. Louis Cardinals infielder: “I think it’s both. It’s a tough pitch to hit, but I think you have to adjust to it, because so many guys are going to it — and they’re doing it with high velocities. If you want to be successful at something… we’re all going to have to adjust to it as hitters.

“Most importantly, you have to know where the top of the zone is. You don’t want to be chasing anything up. From there, you have to fight to get on top of the ball. I think it’s possible to cover both [high and low], but only if you’re staying in the strike zone. That’s the hard part. They’ll throw the breaking ball below the zone, and the heater above the zone, so the most important thing is strike-zone discipline.”

Derek Lilliquist, St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach: “I think the evolution of it is that most guys are trying to keep the ball at the bottom of the strike zone. They’ve been doing it for the last 10-15 years, possibly 20 years. Swing paths have adapted to go to that area — mid-thigh to knees — and you can’t cover everything. That’s allowing pitchers to go across the top of the strike zone.

“I hope hitters start adjusting to that, because that opens up the bottom again. There are two sides of the plate, and there are top and bottom, and you can’t cover all four quadrants. There’s definitely room at the top, and there’s definitely room underneath.”

Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians pitcher: “I think there are a lot of variables. Hitters and pitchers are always kind of chasing each other. I don’t think there is some magical pitch that is going to play for the next 100 years, because it’s a hole in every batter’s swing. If the majority of pitchers in baseball are throwing high-spin high fastballs, hitters will adapt. Otherwise, they’ll get exposed.

“Even in the brief time I’ve been around the major leagues, swings and approaches have changed. It’s always been a cat-and-mouse. The people who are outside your natural premium talents, so to speak… everybody else is trying to be ahead of the curve, so they don’t get left behind.

“I think that the increased number of breaking pitches correlates to the fewer split-fingers we’re seeing. It’s no different than swing paths and pitch location on a fastball. It seems like pitch repertoires change every couple of years. The game is always adapting. I don’t think there is any one magic pitch, or swing plane, that is always going to work.”

Miguel Montero, Toronto Blue Jays catcher: “The adjustment is to let it go, because it’s a ball. That’s the thing. There are all these numbers at FanGraphs, and all these things — all these stats like WAR — that we’d never heard before in the game, and now a lot of people are looking for launch angle. Launch angle means trying to swing up, like golf swings. The four-seam fastball up in the strike zone has been more effective because you swing through it trying to get underneath the ball. That’s why a lot of pitchers are using high fastballs.

“The reality is, if you lay off the high fastball on the first pitch, it’s going to be ball one. If you lay off the high fastball on the second pitch, it’s going to be ball two. Where are you going next? You have to throw a strike, right? That’s where you make the pitcher pay. Of course, it’s easier to say it that to do it. It’s closer to your eyes, so it can be hard to lay off — but also tough to hit. You need a game plan to see the ball down, and everything up, you let go.”

Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “I’m probably the wrong guy to ask, because I’m not a hitter… Visually, I don’t know what it looks like for them, or what they feel like they can do with it. The only comment I can really make is that major-league hitters make an adjustment to just about everything. They’re the best hitters on the planet, and if they see a certain pitch enough times, they’ll find a way to hit it.

“I also think it’s relative to the individual. That’s kind of how it’s always been. There are certain guys who have very good strike-zone discipline and don’t chase that high fastball. Other guys are more aggressive to it. Same with breaking balls in the dirt. Some guys chase them and some guys don’t. I don’t know if you can generalize across the league.”

Larry Rothschild, New York Yankees pitching coach: “That’s kind of hard to answer, but I think there is going to be a adjustment, because now they’re supposedly teaching an uppercut — they’re teaching hitters to lift. If you’re doing that, it kind of goes against being able to hit the high fastball. So, if they’re going to make an adjustment, it’s going to be the swing path.

“For certain guys, it’s always been an effective pitch. And it depends on pitch sequences. If you’re throwing a downer curveball and you have a fastball that you can elevate coming out of the same tunnel… that’s the key to the whole thing. It’s about what the hitter sees coming out of that tunnel.”

Ray Searage, Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach: “It seems like we always have to put a name on something. But this is pitching. You change eye level. You go up top, you go down. You make your money down, and then you elevate up top.

“It’s tougher to lift the pitch that’s down by your knees. When you change eye level with hitters — you go north and south on them — it takes a little bit of aggression away. We’ve always had the elevated fastball in this organization. We get ahead down, and then go up and in, middle in, middle cover, above. We do that.

“I don’t have the perfect answer for you. We have launch angle now, so now we have something… there’s always a yin and a yang to everything. We have launch angle, so now we’re going to elevate. But we’ve always elevated.”

Derek Shelton, Toronto Blue Jays quality control coach: “No. 1, it’s a pitch well sequenced. No. 2, there are organizations that identify it. It started in Tampa. They identified guys who can spin the ball and throw the ball up in the zone.

“I think the way hitters are trending now, with the ball being in the air, there’s usually a little more loft in the swing. For hitters to adjust to that pitch, they’re going to have to shorten up and probably use the middle of the field a little more. It’s a hard balance for guys who already have their swing built.

“If your swing is working in a way where you’re trying to get the ball elevated, it usually happens more on the ball down. I think that’s why organizations are trying to identify guys that spin the ball up, because the ball up that spins… for guys who have more loft to their swings, it’s a harder pitch to impact.”

James Shields, Chicago White Sox pitcher: “You’re always going to make an adjustment. I think the reason why a lot of pitchers are throwing higher fastballs now is because the hitters made an adjustment on the low fastball. At the end of the day, we’re always making adjustments as baseball players. It’s going to change year to year.

“A long time ago, we were trained to throw at the bottom of the strike zone all the time, no matter what. Anything up in the zone was kind of dangerous. Hitters made adjustments with their approaches and their swings. They’re hitting more fly balls nowadays than ground balls, so pitchers are making an adjustment to that.”

Todd Steverson, Chicago White Sox hitting coach: “It’s a good pitch. It’s a heater. Put in the right spot — stomach high, just underneath the chest — it’s tough to lay off. What I’ve always told our guys is that it’s a ball out of the hand. Typically, you swing at it after seeing a bunch of breaking balls. You haven’t seen anything straight, and it kind of surprises you, so you end up swinging.

“Really, it’s just more of a commitment on the hitter’s part to how high he wants to see the ball, and anything above that should be a ball. That’s the adjustment we need to make. The truth of the matter is, if you know a guy likes to throw high fastballs late in the count — and we’ll have done our studying on that — you wait for your strike. The strike you want typically isn’t at the chest, but it gets swings because of the sequence that was used.

“It’s tough to get a barrel to that ball, especially if it’s got velo behind it. Again, it’s not a spot that’s conducive to a typical bat path. You can get on top of it here and there, but you’re not going to barrel a very high percentage of them. You’re better off laying off that pitch than trying to get on top of it.”

Dale Sveum, Kansas City Royals hitting coach: “It goes back to how you have high-ball hitters and you have low-ball hitters. I don’t know that you’re going to have hitters adjusting to it, so much as seeing it more often. They’ll maybe start laying off of it, as much as anything. It’s becoming a part of pitchers’ repertoires, and it obviously works. At the same time, elevation is what gets a ball out of the ballpark.

“You’re seeing the one trend, but you’re also seeing a lot of balls go out of the ballpark. One thing that keeps the ball from getting hit out of the ballpark is keeping the ball down in the strike zone. There’s a fine line between elevation and getting it to that perfect elevation. If you miss by a ball, spin rate doesn’t come into effect as much.

“Guys do change their approaches, and strikeouts can come along with it, too. We’re seeing that. But you also have guys who hit like Eric Hosmer, without an uppercut — he can drive the ball the other way and get a lot of hits. It’s an interesting topic, obviously. People are still what they are. Not everybody can change a baseball swing for launch angle, or whatever it might be.”

Ty Van Burkleo, Cleveland Indians hitting coach: “The more you can use all four quadrants, the more effective you’re going to be, and that includes a ball that’s elevated. It’s always been in the repertoire of some pitchers. But hitters will adjust to just about anything. It’s amazing what hitters adjust to. If guys start throwing 120, I believe that hitters would start figuring out how to hit it. Everybody is throwing pretty hard right now, and hitters are adjusting. Ninety-eight doesn’t really seem to be an issue. It’s more effective, but it still gets hit.”

Alex Wilson, Detroit Tigers pitcher: “The game of baseball has changed. Hitters used to be line drives up the middle, and force the other team to make a play — blah, blah, blah. Now it’s, ‘If I can get the ball in the air, I have a better chance of doing damage.’ You still have line-drive guys, but there is a lot more up in the air.

“The same goes for pitching. Look at a guy like Mike Fiers. He doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, but he constantly pitches up in the zone, because he’s got a great curveball and his heater plays really well off of that. Justin Verlander is constantly pitching up — he’s one of the top spin-rate guys, and he’s also got a really good curveball. There are some correlations there, with your offspeed and your heater playing off each other.

“The game is always going to fluctuate. I don’t know if we’re going to see a trend of guys cheating to the high fastball, though. They still have to respect the low strikes, which they’re consistently getting more than the high strike. Some pitchers are working up more often, but pitchers are always going to work down.”

We hoped you liked reading Players’ View: Will Hitters Adjust to the High-Spin High Heater? by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I could read pages and pages of Chili Davis talking about hitting.

IMO, I think that Chili Davis and Sonny Gray are probably on the right track, with the issues with the difficulties of a well-placed pitch, and the consequences of mistake pitches in that zone.

Deacon Drake
Member
Member

Came here to say that. Chili outlines a “Swing Strategy” based on a number of factors. How batters and hitting coaches prioritize those variables to identify and and execute against mistakes increases chances of success. Too often, you hear about hitters looking for a certain pitch and location, but there is more than that, and the best hitters can apply those nuances instead of getting stuck in a mindset.

As a pitcher, there is nothing more satisfying than a swinging punch out on a well-placed fastball above the belt. Pure challenge.