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Pitching Backwards: Is The Fastball The Best Pitch in Baseball?

The fastball is the holy grail of pitching. Listen to a baseball broadcast, particularly one that involves a former pitcher, and you are likely to hear something along the lines of “the fastball is the best pitch in baseball and always will be.” However, since 2002, fastball usage has been declining, and since 2007, runs scored have been declining as well. The strategy of pitching backwards has been cited as a reason for the strikeout increase and the decrease in runs scored. Also, as the below table shows, fastball velocity for starting pitchers has steadily increased since 2002, which has also been cited as a reason for the current offensive environment.

Year Fb% Fbv ERA K%
2002 63.10% 89.5 4.41 16.00%
2003 63.00% 89.5 4.52 15.60%
2004 61.30% 89.7 4.62 16.00%
2005 60.70% 89.7 4.36 15.60%
2006 59.70% 90 4.69 15.90%
2007 59.70% 89.8 4.63 16.10%
2008 59.70% 90.3 4.44 16.60%
2009 59.00% 90.8 4.45 17.10%
2010 57.30% 90.7 4.15 17.60%
2011 56.40% 91 4.06 17.70%
2012 55.90% 91 4.19 18.70%
2013 56.30% 91.2 4.03 18.70%

To investigate the idea of the fastball being the best pitch in baseball, I first sorted all qualified starting pitchers since 2002 by fastball usage. Then, I sorted all qualified starting pitchers by fastball velocity. The first table is sorted by fastball usage, going from the most fastball-heavy to least fastball-heavy in descending order. Not surprisingly, Bartolo Colon utilizes his fastball more than any other starting pitcher. I excluded knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey from the list.

Fbv WAR/200 IP BABIP HR/FB K% BB% GB% FB%
League 90.3 2.4 0.295 10.7 16.8 7.9 43.0 35.0
Group 1 90.6 2.5 0.297 10.4 14.8 7.7 48.0 30.2
Group 2 90.7 2.7 0.294 10.3 18.5 8.8 43.9 34.3
Group 3 90.5 2.8 0.294 10.3 16.7 7.4 42.1 35.8
Group 4 91.0 2.4 0.292 10.7 16.8 7.7 44.5 33.8
Group 5 90.8 2.9 0.295 10.1 17.9 8.2 43.2 35.0
Group 6 89.7 2.6 0.296 10.6 16.9 7.4 42.5 35.1
Group 7 89.5 2.6 0.297 10.3 16.7 7.3 41.8 35.8
Group 8 90.6 2.7 0.294 10.5 18.4 8.0 43.2 35.0
Group 9 89.6 2.6 0.290 10.5 17.7 7.7 41.5 36.6
Group 10 89.1 2.9 0.291 10.7 17.0 6.7 43.2 35.0

The group that used their fastball the most had the least strikeouts, which should not be surprising for anyone who has seen Colon pitch. Several groundball, pitch-to-contact types such as Kirk Rueter and Aaron Cook populated the first group. The least effective groups were Group One which used their fastballs the most, and Group Four, which had the highest average fastball velocity. Interestingly enough, the walk rates are all over the board. Group Two had the highest walk rate. Group Ten, which was composed of pitchers who used their fastballs sparingly, had the lowest walk rate by a wide margin. Overall, there is not much of a connection with fastball usage and success. The average WAR/200 IP of the first five groups is the same as the last five groups. If the fastball is the best pitch in baseball, pitchers who throw it more often are not more effective.

The below table is a listing of all qualified starting pitchers, sorted in descending order by fastest average fastball velocity.

Fb% WAR/200 IP BABIP HR/FB K% BB% GB% FB%
        League 59.3 2.4 0.295 10.7 16.8 7.9 43.0 35.0
       Group 1 62.3 3.6 0.293 9.7 21.1 8.2 44.3 34.4
       Group 2 60.7 3.3 0.296 10.3 19.7 7.9 43.6 34.7
       Group 3 63.2 3.2 0.292 10.0 18.9 7.9 45.0 33.5
       Group 4 59.3 2.8 0.294 10.4 18.8 8.3 42.5 35.9
       Group 5 58.7 2.9 0.295 10.4 17.5 7.1 43.7 34.4
       Group 6 61.8 2.2 0.295 11.1 15.5 7.6 44.6 33.6
       Group 7 58.3 1.9 0.296 10.9 15.6 7.8 43.8 34.0
Group 8 58.2 2.5 0.295 10.7 15.7 7.3 43.1 34.7
Group 9 59.0 2.3 0.291 11.0 15.4 7.2 42.7 35.0
Group 10 55.8 2.1 0.292 10.3 14.2 7.3 40.9 36.5

This chart lends more support to the assertion that the fastball is the best pitch in baseball. As you would expect, strikeout rates decrease with declining fastball velocity. Overall, there is a strong link between average fastball velocity and pitcher quality. There also appears to be a link between fastball velocity and HR/FB rate, though Group 10 messes things up.

Not surprisingly, it looks pretty clear that fastball velocity is a significant predictor of success. However, offspeed offerings have been emphasized more in later years, as overall fastball usage has steadily dropped. Justin Verlander, owner of the third fastest fastball for starting pitchers in the Pitch f/x era has thrown his fastball less than 60% of the time during that period. On the other hand, hard thrower Daniel Cabrera threw his fastball on nearly 75% of his pitches over the course of approximately 900 largely unproductive innings.

The rise in strikeouts and drop in runs scored has largely corresponded with increasing offspeed usage. Pitchers are throwing more offspeed pitches, and hitters sitting on the fastball are being caught off guard. As a way of adjusting to the current run of pitching dominance, I have to wonder if pitch recognition and plate-discipline skills will have a more prominent emphasis. Perhaps raw home-run power and bat speed have been overemphasized. (How often would Wily Mo Pena strike out if he played today?). With the way pitchers can control and command their offspeed pitches (walk rates have not risen with decreasing fastball usage), the old strategy of sitting on the fastball may need to be tweaked if hitters are going to catch up with pitchers. Strikeouts are not inherently bad, (a look at this year’s strikeout leaderboard confirms my statement) but today’s hitters are also walking less despite seeing less pitches in the strike zone. The Pitch f/x data in the table below illustrates this phenomenon.

Year K% BB% Zone% O-Zone Swing%
2008 17.50% 8.70% 50.30% 28.00%
2009 18.00% 8.90% 50.40% 27.90%
2010 18.50% 8.50% 50.40% 28.40%
2011 18.60% 8.10% 50.10% 28.90%
2012 19.80% 8.00% 49.50% 29.30%
2013 19.70% 7.90% 49.20% 29.60%

Of course, pitch recognition is not nearly as exciting as raw power, and chicks probably don’t dig plate discipline like they dig the long ball. However, combating the recent run of strikeout-driven pitcher dominance by valuing pitch recognition and plate discipline is almost certainly a better approach than seeking out contact hitters in the way that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers has done. Despite his statements about valuing hitters with pitch recognition, his 2013 squad chases more pitches than the 2010 team which set the MLB strikeout record. While fastball velocity plays a crucial role in a pitcher’s success, even the hardest throwers are mixing in plenty of offspeed pitches to keep hitters off balance. Hitters without the ability to adjust are being exploited.