Raising the Dodger Fastball

You might be getting kind of sick of me writing about fastballs, and elevating them. That’s totally fine, and I don’t intend to keep on writing about them forever and ever. There are two contributing factors. One, I need to write a lot, so I can’t throw away very many ideas. And two, when I get something I’m interested in, I stay interested in it for a while, performing all the analysis I can think of to see if there’s anything new to be said. I don’t want to keep writing about high fastballs, but this post is kind of about high fastballs, and if it helps at all, you can think of it as being a post about Clayton Kershaw. Or, inspired by Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw’s fresh off a nine-strikeout start in San Francisco. For the most part he looked like himself. For the most part he’s looked like himself. While his ERA’s over 4, his xFIP’s under 2, and his strikeout rate is higher than ever. His repertoire is fine. Kershaw looks like Kershaw, which is good if expected news for the Dodgers, but I can at least point out this one little thing about him. Check out where his fastballs have gone.

Heat maps presented by Baseball Savant:

kershaw-fastballs

Just eye-balling it, you get the sense Kershaw has thrown more high fastballs than he did a year ago. The numbers back it up. Kershaw’s high-fastball rate has increased, and his average fastball this year has been higher than last year by nearly five inches. You might argue that Kershaw didn’t need to change anything at all, since, you know, but everyone’s always evolving, and maybe this is Kershaw trying to further improve his slider and curveball. I don’t know. But this isn’t about Kershaw, just. This is about Kershaw’s team.

And the Dodgers, as a unit, are working higher than they did. Compared to last year, the Dodgers have increased their high-fastball rate by almost 11 percentage points. The team in second place has an increase below six percentage points. Looking at it differently, here are the largest year-to-year increases in staff average fastball height:

  1. Dodgers, +2.5 inches
  2. Rangers, +1.2
  3. White Sox, +1.1
  4. Angels, +1.0
  5. Rockies, +1.0

What’s remarkable here isn’t the 2.5 inches. It’s easy to dismiss that as nothing. What’s remarkable is that the Dodgers are in first, and that they’re more than doubling up the team in second place. When you’re examining a leaderboard, and you see first and second separated by that much, it feels like that’s telling you something.

You could offer that, maybe, it’s about Yasmani Grandal coming in as a new catcher, but that doesn’t seem like the explanation — a year ago, Grandal caught a below-average rate of elevated fastballs. This year would be a departure for him.

And I should add, before I move on: last year, 53% of two-strike Dodgers fastballs were high. That was baseball’s 20th-greatest rate. This year, 68% of two-strike Dodgers fastballs have been high. That’s baseball’s very greatest rate, by more than four percentage points.

An obvious complication is that the makeup of the Dodgers’ pitching staff has changed. So while we’re comparing the team to the team, we’re not comparing the players to themselves. That’s what this table is for. Here, you see pitchers, their average 2014 fastball heights, their average 2015 fastball heights, and the difference. All are shown in inches. Also, this is height relative to the vertical middle of the zone. Data was calculated from information on Brooks Baseball.

Pitcher 2014 2015 Change
Adam Liberatore 7.3
Paco Rodriguez -9.4 -0.7 8.6
Clayton Kershaw -0.1 4.4 4.6
Chris Hatcher -4.2 0.1 4.3
Yimi Garcia -0.7 3.4 4.1
Juan Nicasio -0.2 3.4 3.6
Brandon McCarthy -3.7 -1.0 2.6
Zack Greinke 1.0 3.1 2.1
Pedro Baez 1.2 0.0 -1.2
J.P. Howell -6.4 -7.8 -1.4
Joel Peralta 1.2 -1.8 -3.0
Brett Anderson -1.1 -4.1 -3.0

Liberatore has been an extreme high-fastballer, but he didn’t pitch in the majors last year, so I can’t say much. He was very quietly included in the Joel Peralta trade with Tampa Bay, and he was terrific in the minors. Of the other 11 pitchers, seven have increased their average fastball heights. Anderson hasn’t, but he’s a sinker-baller, so he doesn’t throw the kind of fastball you want to see up. Nor have the Dodgers apparently encouraged him to elevate:

“Got my quota for high-fastball strikeouts for the year with one,” said Anderson, a ground-ball specialist who was signed to be the fifth starter.

Howell, too, is a sinker-baller, without the kind of fastball that plays up. You’d expect Peralta to be up, but he’s still dealing with a small sample size of pitches, and he’s been bothered by a neck thing. And while Baez is down an inch, that’s just one inch, and he doesn’t have great command, and he’s still not pitching down. Baez has thrown his share of elevated fastballs.

It’s also worth noting that, according to Brooks Baseball, McCarthy has turned some sinkers into four-seamers. The same goes for Hatcher, and the same goes for Greinke. The simple rule is, four-seamers work better up in the zone than sinkers do. You can get away with the occasional elevated sinker, but four-seamers have the desired “rising” movement. It is not, however, always easy to distinguish between fastball types in the PITCHf/x data, so keep that in mind.

The early sign is that the Dodgers have become more of a high-fastball team. Not with every single pitcher on the roster — you have to prioritize talent first — but they’ve sought out some new high fastballs, and they’ve asked for some more high fastballs from holdovers. Though it’s still just April 23, you’d expect this to be the kind of thing that finds its equilibrium in a relative hurry. As far as that’s concerned, we’ll just see. We’ll re-visit in July or August. But let’s just say this is true. What might be going on?

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is that now the Dodgers employ Andrew Friedman, and in Tampa Bay, Friedman assembled almost a whole staff of high-fastballers. Which isn’t to say it was all his idea, but it was at least an idea he was exposed to, and an idea he discussed with his coaching staff and assistants. I don’t know how much control Friedman has over the on-field operations in Los Angeles, but there’s a connection here, so it’s my current top theory. My top theory for a theory, which means there’s real uncertainty here.

And of incidental note, this year the Rays have thrown fewer high fastballs as a team than they did a season ago. Which might be a slight sign that they’re moving away from it, but not only is it early — the pitching staff has dealt with injuries, so they’ve had to plug in other guys. The Rays’ philosophy will be revealed over time. The Dodgers’ philosophy will be revealed over time.

This early, it’s all about hints. Dodgers pitchers have been hinting something. And even Clayton Kershaw fits as part of the pattern. So if it is a thing, that’s a hell of a pitcher to get to buy in.

We hoped you liked reading Raising the Dodger Fastball by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Simon
Guest
Simon

But this isn’t about Kershaw, just.

Do people actually use ‘just’ like that? Language is cool.

Nivra
Member
Nivra

I’m not familiar with that usage, either. I googled it, but it’s a really hard thing to google. Fascinating.

MFYG
Guest
MFYG

Mitch Hedburg