A Tale of Two Fastballs

Paul Goldschmidt
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The worst thing you can do in baseball as a hitter is swing through a fastball right down the pipe. That’s the pitch you were waiting for all along, and you turned it into a strike as surely as if you’d swung at a slider in the dirt. Conversely, that’s the best thing you can do as a pitcher. If your mistakes turn into strikes, it’s like playing on easy mode. Every pitcher is great when they’re dotting the corner, but turning middle-middle happy accidents into free strikes is the domain of an elite few.

If you look at the starters who did this most frequently in 2022, you’ll find a ton of good names and Eric Lauer:

Highest Middle-Middle Fastball Whiff Rate, 2022
Pitcher Mid-Mid Fastball Swings Whiff%
Eric Lauer 126 25.4%
Cristian Javier 110 24.5%
Carlos Rodón 112 24.1%
Gerrit Cole 126 23.8%
Joe Ryan 111 23.4%
Robbie Ray 112 22.3%
Luis Castillo 112 21.4%
Hunter Greene 80 21.3%
Eduardo Rodriguez 80 20.0%
Triston McKenzie 118 19.5%

Maybe that was harsh to Lauer, even. He’s clearly doing something right, given his two straight solid seasons despite lackluster raw stuff. It’s enlightening seeing him alongside a list of pitchers with dominant fastballs, and even if the other ten aren’t exclusively aces, they’re all solid starters with the chance to be more than that. Shane McClanahan, Spencer Strider, and Max Scherzer just missed the top 10. Zack Wheeler is way up there. This is clearly a desirable pitcher skill.

A brief aside on Lauer: his fastball has sneaky rise that eats hitters alive. His four-seamer has a good amount of tail in addition to riding action, and he spins it a ton given his modest 93.3 mph average velocity. I think his motion might add to it as well; he almost seems to short-arm the ball, with a compact delivery that finishes a beat earlier than you’d expect:

I’ve been a Lauer doubter, but not because of his fastball. I’m skeptical that he can find a third pitch to complement his fastball and slider, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that those two pitches have something going for them. Even if he never rounds out his arsenal, he’d fit in as a multi-inning bullpen option right away. The Brewers just have a knack for finding or developing fastballs that play above their measurables.

Anyway, that’s Lauer. The rest of this list, like him, makes like Viola Davis on a regular basis, snatching positive outcomes from terrible situations. As you might expect, all of these pitchers strike out their fair share of batters, because again: the bad thing they do sometimes works out well, which makes all the good things they do better.

Great, now that we’ve established that it’s good for pitchers to get swinging strikes on fastballs down the middle, let’s quickly show the other side of the equation and then call it a day. Hey, they can’t all be 2,000 word sagas. Sometimes a quick boring conclusion is nice. Here are the poor hitters, no doubt all wretched, who missed most frequently on cookies down the middle:

Highest Middle-Middle Fastball Whiff Rate, 2022
Hitter Mid-Mid Fastball Swings Whiff%
Paul Goldschmidt 92 32.6%
Mike Trout 78 28.2%
Ji-Man Choi 76 27.6%
Randy Arozarena 77 24.7%
Matt Chapman 112 24.1%
Gleyber Torres 83 24.1%
Ryan McMahon 102 23.5%
Sean Murphy 86 23.3%
Chris Taylor 108 23.1%
Rafael Devers 102 22.5%

Wait, what??!? This was supposed to be a list of bad hitters. I’ve heard of every single one of these guys. Goldschmidt just won the freaking MVP award. Trout would be a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow. Are we being punked somehow?

We’re being fooled, alright, but not by the data. The best pitchers in the game? They record a ton of strikeouts, and that helps them prevent runs. There’s a massive correlation between striking out a ton of batters and having a low ERA. Of course there is! Nothing could be more obvious. I almost feel silly writing about it.

The other side of the ledger? It’s far less clear. The best hitters in the game aren’t exclusively the ones who strike out least often. Quite frequently, in fact, great hitters have their fair share of empty trips, because they’re up there swinging for the fences. Hitters exercise far more control over what happens after they make contact with the ball than pitchers. If you’re a pitcher, the best thing you can do is never let a hitter get the bat on the ball. If you’re a hitter, the best thing you can do is hit the dang thing out of the park.

I can say it as many times as I’d like; that doesn’t make it any more intuitive. But think of it this way: those ten pitchers I listed flat-out bullied people with their fastballs. Middle-middle whiff rate is a great marker for overall fastball success. Baseball Savant offers a Run Value statistic that’s straightforward in its construction. On every pitch, it simply measures the change in state from before the pitch to after it. Going from a 1–1 count to a 1–2 count accrues value for a pitcher; going from a 1-1 count to a single bleeds value.

Every one of those ten pitchers had an above average fastball except one: Hunter Greene (lol). He also pops 100 and started looking better and better as the year went on. In sum, their fastballs were 110 runs better than average. There’s a good argument that Rodón had the most valuable fastball in baseball last year, and Ryan wasn’t far behind.

Got that number memorized? Great. The top ten hitters in terms of middle-middle fastball whiff rate? They were *also* more than 100 runs above average against fastballs in 2022. This is some real Lake Wobegone nonsense here; both sides are above average. In fact, these were some of the best fastball hitters in baseball. It’s both confounding and delightful.

Goldschmidt is a great example of this. There’s a reason that Cardinals video maven cardinalsgifs christened him Daddy Hacks in 2019. He looks like a father taking huge cuts at his kid’s T-Ball game, trying to crank a fastball out of the park every chance he gets. Does that result in some extra swings and misses? Absolutely. You’d accept a lot of empty swings in exchange for a home run, though, and Goldschmidt knows that the tradeoff works for him.

Try to wrap your head around this one: per Baseball Savant, Goldschmidt was second only to Aaron Judge when it comes to production against fastballs in 2022. Trout was fourth. These guys are elite fastball hitters who also happen to swing through “mistake pitches” more frequently than anyone else in the league. It sounds weird, but it’s true: the best thing to do when your opponent gives you an ideally located pitch is to try to obliterate the ball, even if it comes with the annoying side effect of swinging strikes fairly often.

What’s the takeaway from this? I’m not sure there is one other than the fact that it’s neat. You can’t look at the same numbers to identify the best hitters and the best pitchers, because they excel in different ways. Pitchers try to be like Rodón and Cole (and, I suppose, like Lauer). Hitters try to be like Goldschmidt and Trout. Both sides are right. It’s no wonder there are more strikeouts in the game today given that strange duality.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Cave Dameron
3 months ago

Thank you Ben, very cool!