Home runs are up! Okay, you’ve noticed that. But here’s a wrinkle: the Rays’ starters have been hit especially hard. Especially in the starting staff. Only the starters for Cincinnati, Kansas City, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh have suffered a greater increase in home runs per nine innings — and those staffs had more turnover. These Rays starters were supposed to be the club’s strength, but the gopher ball has eaten a hole into their value. Why?
“We’ve all noticed. We’re all talking about it,” said Smyly. “Max Scherzer is giving up 22 home runs, and he’s filthy! Our whole staff has given up like 20 a piece. It’s weird.” I agreed.
But even just establishing as fact that the Rays have been harder hit than other teams is tricky. If you look at home runs per fly ball for the starters, for example, the Rays’ starters have improved actually, from 19th in the league to 23rd this year, even as their HR/FB has risen. It hasn’t risen as badly as other teams have seen around the league!
If you look at the starters with the biggest difference between their projected home-run total and actual, though, the Rays zoom to the top. Smyly is fifth, Archer ninth, Moore 17th, and Odorizzi 34th. They were projected to give up some home runs, but then they got it much worse than the projections suggested they would.
Take these last two facts in tandem, and you already have a clue: exit velocity is up around baseball and the Rays starters allow fly balls, so they’ve been hit harder than anyone else. Look at the top 20 in launch angle on balls put in play off of fastballs, and three of our Rays show up.
Smyly was well aware of this link, saying of an increase in exit velocity that “I’m a fly-ball guy… that’s detrimental to me.”
But you have to think about the way forward, too. Is there some strategy at play here, a strategy that’s working worse in this new exit-velocity environment? It turns out, yes. The Rays throw more high fastballs than anyone in the business.
|Team||Average Height||Ave Start Speed|
The Rays like high fastballs. That’s tied into the fact that they also have the highest “ride” on fastballs in the big leagues. Presumably, the front office noticed that pitchers with ride were undervalued, went out and got those guys — Archer, Odorizzi, and Smyly all came in trades, after all — and are now stuck with pitchers that need to live high in the zone in a league where new exit velocity is punishing those pitches.
Does the league need to adjust again? Do the current Rays need to change? “Should we all start going back to down and away?” wondered Smyly. “The game does adjust. First, it was the two-seam and the sinkers. Then we started shifting. Then people started going up in the zone, and now everyone is throwing up in the zone.”
Chris Young once made an impassioned argument that, in a league of low-ball hitters, the high fastball is an effective pitch. Brandon Moss then admitted than his low-ball swing didn’t help him get the barrel to the high and away pitch. Has the league actually adjusted this quickly? Are pitchers throwing high in the zone and are hitters hitting those balls more effectively?
The data suggest that pitchers aren’t throwing their four-seam fastballs higher in the zone on average.
Batters are swinging more often at fastballs high in the zone on average, but the difference is tiny, and it’s actually down from last year.
|Season||High Fastball Swing Percentage|
So what Archer said about high fastballs is still mostly true. “Most guys, we know this, most guys are not high-ball-in-the-zone hitters,” Archer pointed out. “Pitching up in the zone doesn’t necessarily lead to more homers. Most guys want balls middle down. People might be pitching higher in the zone, but that’s not the reason. There’s only a handful of guys that can swing to hit those.”
Our Rays are left with only their own execution to ponder. “You just adapt,” said Archer. “You try to execute pitches at the highest level possible. Danny Salazar has a pretty good ERA. [Clayton] Kershaw, [Madison] Bumgarner, they aren’t complaining about giving up home runs. Max Scherzer is giving up home runs but his ERA is fine. Most of my home runs have just been not well executed pitches.”
Though Archer’s velocity is down a tick, there’s no big change to the movement or placement to his four-seamer or his slider. His sinker is gone — “I stopped throwing my sinker like the fifth game into the season last year because it’s not a true sinker, it’s just a flat fastball. I would beat people because velocity, but I’d rather have true sink or rise,” he said — but that should only really help, since he’s right about the below-average movement on that pitch.
He’s throwing his changeup more against righties this year, up from 0.7% to 7%. “The best pitch in baseball is the same-side changeup,” he said, echoing many of the things we’ve heard about the ever-more-popular righty-on-righty changeup. “I could use my changeup as a sinker. I could try to throw it 90, 91, because the separation in speed is not quite there, but I get that downward movement, and they’re used to seeing it rise, then it’s a miss or a ground ball.”
Smyly was introspective about his curveball. “I need to be more unpredictable and mix my speeds more,” he thought about solving his homeritis. “I’ve had some trouble with my offspeed pitches here and there. I’ve struck out a lot of guys on the curve, like in Seattle, but it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be.”
In the last couple of months, Smyly’s curve has had the same horizontal movement as his changeup. Maybe that doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t throw his change much, but it could matter because of Smyly’s deceptive stuff. “I’ve had a lot of hitters, even our hitters, they all think my curveball is a changeup, because it doesn’t break in much. It just sorts of fades down, and the spin is different.
Smyly is a little stuck, given the top-10 ride on his fastball. Since his fellow Rays have the same sort of stuff, he can stand in for them when he talks about approach. “I try to be more north/south,” the lefty said. “I want everything to go down and up.”
The Rays pitchers can focus on their own stuff in order to find a way out, but it’s the collective stuff that puts them in a tough spot here. For the most part, the average Rays pitcher has good ride on his fastball, pitches high in the zone, and goes for the whiffs.
It just happens that pitchers that pitch high in the zone give up more balls in the ideal launch angles for home runs, and with a mile-per-hour increase around baseball, each of those fly balls is slightly more likely to be a home run this year.
That means frustration. “My ERA is shitty and my record is shitty, but I feel like I’m pitching better,” Smyly frowned. “It’s no one particular thing.” The ace was almost defensive. “People talk about me telegraphing what I’m going to throw, and stuff being only okay, but 146 times people swung and missed for strike three, that’s my rebuttal,” Archer pointed out.
If the game balls are indeed different this year, as Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur suggested with their research at FiveThirtyEight last week, then this would be the sad part of the story. Four talented young pitchers in Tampa Bay are looking for answers and finding that nothing’s really different. The ball is just flying harder, and therefore further.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.