Barry Zito and the Search for the Year’s Slowest Fastball

Barry Zito is coming back! Zito, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since 2013, has been called up from Triple-A by the A’s. He’ll initially work out of the bullpen — which makes sense because what bullpen doesn’t need an old guy with no command who throws really slow? — but the A’s are so out of playoff contention they may as well clone an entire Zito army and deploy it in relief. “Looks like Clone Zito doesn’t have it tonight, and here’s Bob Melvin to make a change. He’s signaling for the left-hander, and here comes Clone Zito trolling in from the pen. This pitching change is sponsored by Firestone tires, by Zippo lighters, and by Shell Gasoline.”

I mention that so I can mention this: I wonder if Barry Zito can throw the slowest fastball this season? Zito is renowned for his fastball velocity like Metallica is renowned for their depth and subtlety. Back in 2007, Zito’s fastball reached 93 mph, but over the years he lost velocity like a ship made of chicken wire loses buoyancy. In his most recent season, 2013, his four-seamer averaged 82.6 mph with a high of 85.6 mph and a low of…

[Drum roll]

[More drum roll]

80.1 mph.

For context, Jeremy Guthrie, not an exceptionally hard thrower in his own right, throws his changeup at a hair below 86 mph. Guthrie’s changeup this season is harder than Zito’s fastest fastball two years ago. That’s how strong a contender Zito’s fastball is for the slowest fastball thrown in the majors this season. But Zito hasn’t won anything yet because, as of this writing, he has yet to throw a major league pitch this season. So who holds the current crown of slowest fastball thrown? I decided to investigate!

The slowest fastball thrown by a major league pitcher this season has already been thrown and Zito doesn’t have a chance to top (bottom?) it. It was thrown to Brett Gardner on April 8, in the bottom of the sixth inning for a called strike on a 3-1 count. And it was thrown by… R.A. Dickey. Oops. Dickey has 93 of the top-100 slowest fastballs thrown this season. So who has the other seven? Steven Wright. This illustrates a problem: knuckleballers. [Shakes fist.] Most pitchers, even ones with excellent off-speed pitches, live off their fastballs. Most throw their fastballs roughly half the time and more often than they throw any other single pitch. They are selected, in large part, because of their ability to throw fastballs. Not knuckleballers. They are the bastard children of the pitching world. Knuckleballers are selected in large part because they can’t throw major league fastballs. So we have two disparate groups of pitchers here, and for no other reason than because it’s more fun, I’m going to exclude knuckleballers from the proceedings.

Anyway, as I was saying, the slowest fastball thrown this season — according to the PITCHf/x data — was thrown by Aaron Laffey on July 10 to Cameron Maybin. It came in a 80.7 mph. Here it is.

Perhaps you can see the problem with this already, but if not, I’ll be specific: that’s a changeup. Laffey isn’t a hard thrower, but he’s not that slow. According to Brooks Baseball’s Pinch Info classifications (which tend to be more accurate than PITCHf/x automated ones), Laffey’s fastball hasn’t measured any slower than 87 mph this season. That’s not fast, but it’s several arm surgeries short of a Zito fastball.

The data I used came from Baseball Savant and while it’s wonderful, the many different pitches thrown and the many different individual styles of each pitch make it difficult to correctly classify each and every pitch correctly. We can look at Justin Verlander’s average fastball velocity and feel reasonably certain that the large sample size averages are correct, but if we’re going to pull single pitch from 2009 out of the bucket, things get much iffier.

So Aaron Laffey is off the hook. The next contender is Dan Haren who threw a fastball 80.8 mph to Brock Holt.

And I think that’s a changeup too. Dammit!

Okay, no more changeups, though this does put into some context the specialized company Zito enjoys — and by “company” I mean “virtually alone” and by “enjoys” I mean “isn’t aware of.” Still! I won’t be defeated this easily, though many more misclassified changeups and I will be defeated. In any case: onward!

The slowest fastball this season, as it turns out, was thrown by two pitchers. Not simultaneously! Though that would be neat, it would also be very weird and you would have likely read about it already. No, this is two different fastballs that were thrown at identical velocities of 80.9 mph. There’s a Chuck Yeager sound-barrier joke in here somewhere but I can’t quite find it.

The first was thrown by Mark Buehrle.

This is such a wonderful pitch. First of all it is a fastball, and that makes me quite happy. Secondly, it is at the top of the strike zone and out over the plate (as the pitch tracker shows) and yet J.D. Martinez swings right through it. A pitch like that to a hitter like Martinez should end up 30 feet past an outfield wall, but instead it’s a strike. That’s the magic of Mark Buehrle.

The next was thrown by Chris Young.

Crap. I think that’s another changeup. The side-to-side movement and the fact that Young threw an 85 mph fastball on the previous pitch point that way, in any case. So here we are. A bunch of knuckleballers, a bunch of misclassified changeups, and Mark Buehrle who may as well feel proud, if for no other reason than being proud is in far too short a supply in our society.

But even if Young’s pitch is a fastball, Zito will still have to top (bottom?) 80.9 mph with his fastball to throw the slowest fastball in the majors this season. Can he do it? I think he can do it. I’m going to watch to see if he can do it. Perhaps we can watch together. This will mark the first time since early July anyone purposely watched an A’s game. So you see, even if Zito can’t do it, even if he steps to the mound and is brutally attacked by a horde of wayward badgers and never throws a single pitch, Barry Zito will have accomplished something, and in this world, that’s worth being proud of.

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Jeff Chisholm's bf
8 years ago

Have you ever read Metallica’s lyrics? They’re some of the deepest ever written… subtle, no… deep, yes.

Cam Hodgson
8 years ago

Absolutely. Ride/Master/Justice, three in a row of absolute depth.

But, full credit regarding the Clone Zito thing, that had me cracking up. Tire fire!

Jeff Chisholm's bf
8 years ago
Reply to  Cam Hodgson

Exactly… early Metallica you needed a decifer to understand half of their songs… half the band didn’t even understand the songs.

8 years ago

I presume you mean decipher and you must have issues comprehending English if you can’t understand what they were saying on Kill’Em All.