Examining the Padres’ Fastball Woes

The other day, I was listening to an episode of Rates and Barrels, an always informative baseball podcast on The Athletic hosted by Eno Sarris and Derek Van Ripper, and learned something new. The two went over each team’s ‘Location+,’ a metric developed by Max Bay that quantifies pitcher command, with teams like the Brewers, Giants, and Rays recording the highest marks. That’s no surprise; what did surprise me is that the Padres stood out as being uniformly bland, receiving average grades for every pitch type except cutters.

San Diego’s’ pitching staff is underperforming, injured, and recently experienced a change in leadership. But I figured it’s still one of the league’s better ones. Since Location+ is proprietary, I can’t consult the exact numbers, though it did inspire me to look at where Padres pitchers had been locating their pitches. And in doing so, I came to a realization: They might have a four-seam fastball problem.

Pitchers perform differently depending on the count; they’re great when they’re ahead, about average when even, and terrible when behind. Unless a microscopic sample size is involved, this principle applies to pretty much everyone. So when looking at how Padres pitchers have performed by count, these results shouldn’t seem out of the ordinary:

Padres Pitchers wOBA by Count Type
Count wOBA League wOBA
Ahead .193 .217
Even .309 .304
Behind .430 .425

Consider, though, how they compare against the league averages. The Padres are comfortably better than the average pitcher when ahead in the count, but the same can’t be said for other instances. In disadvantageous situations, they seem mediocre at best, and the whole picture is underwhelming. You might have guessed where I’m going with this, but basically, the idea is that four-seam fastballs are to blame. Here are the wOBAs against them by count, along with where the Padres rank league-wide. I’ve also included xwOBA to isolate the effects of batted ball luck:

Padres Fastball wOBA & xwOBA
Count wOBA wOBA Rank xwOBA xwOBA Rank
Ahead .193 3rd .212 7th
Even .378 30th .339 20th
Behind .500 30th .486 28th

As the kids say, this ain’t it. A .193 wOBA against four-seamers once ahead in the count is great. But a whopping .500 wOBA after falling behind is… not so great. The gap does narrow with xwOBA as the metric of choice; after all, part of the Padres’ recent struggles are due to good players underperforming, which is naturally fixable. But there’s a significant gap nonetheless, and it does seem tied to how they are locating their fastballs. For the sake of time and sample size, I focused on the team’s starters with 50 or more innings pitched. If we examine where their fastballs have ended up, perhaps we can also analyze why they have been hit hard.

Alright, enough talk. You’re here for the meat and potatoes. First up is Blake Snell, whose fastball locations I categorized by count type and batter handedness, presented from the pitcher’s point of view:

You can see that he likes to live higher up when ahead in the count, which is ideal, since batters are more likely to chase. Otherwise, however, Snell’s fastballs are heading straight down the pipe. Even his higher fastballs are still squarely in the strike zone; with the amount of ride he generates, he can afford to climb the ladder more often, a feat he accomplished in previous seasons. He’s also all over the place, which the wide contours illustrate. The command isn’t quite there, and it shows.

Next is Yu Darvish, the Padres’ other ace. Unlike Snell, his four-seamer isn’t his primary pitch, but it still accounts for around 20% of his repertoire. Another detail to note is the wOBA against his four-seamer by month:

  • April: .328
  • May: .178
  • June: .066
  • July: .398
  • August: .513

After appearing invincible in June, the four-seamer has spiraled out of control in recent months. Because the downward trend coincides with the crackdown on sticky stuff, though, it’s easy to think Darvish’s heater has become worse. That’s true, but not markedly so. An average spin rate of 2,577 rpm before the June 15 ultimatum is now down to 2,473, and it only cost Darvish about an inch of ride, which isn’t all that significant.

There hasn’t been a change to how he’s locating his heater, either. But maybe there should, because Darvish seems like another pitcher who isn’t capitalizing on the vertical movement he generates:

When ahead in the count, Darvish is hitting the outside corner against lefties and righties alike, but besides that, there’s not much else in terms of location. And like Snell before, the high fastballs aren’t really all that high. The contours are also wide and scattered across the strike zone, which might suggest a lack of strategy. I could be reading too much into it, but even at a glance, those heat maps aren’t very appealing.

Joe Musgrove is similar to Darvish, in that the four-seamer acts as a secondary pitch but is nonetheless an integral part of his arsenal. Without it, his fantastic breaking pitches probably aren’t as attractive. So how does he locate the heater? Here’s a look:

That’s better! Those ahead in the count fastballs, they’re up (sort of), but at least they aren’t centered around the heart of the zone. I also appreciate how Musgrove is seemingly exploring the bottom third of the zone when behind, as a way to sneak in a called strike or two.

In his case, though, the stuff is arguably a greater issue than command. Despite an elite raw spin rate, Musgrove doesn’t actually generate much vertical movement on his heater; in fact, it’s one of the league’s worst relative to his velocity. This is presumably why he has continued to shy away from it, gradually replacing his four-seamers with cutters and more breaking balls. Maybe right now demonstrates the best usage of it; I’m not entirely sure. But among Padres starting pitchers, his fastball woes are the least severe.

Then we move onto the youngsters, Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers. To avoid beating the same drum for too long, I’ll sum up Paddack with words: He probably can and should live up in the zone more often, but there’s been a snag in his stuff. After a solid rookie campaign, his fastball lost a ton of vertical break in 2020, and as far I can tell, he’s still working toward returning to those 2019 levels. The ERA and dearth of strikeouts this season are concerning, but it’s doubtful he’s this ineffective of a starter moving forward. We’ll give him a pass.

On the other hand, Weathers sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s okay that this is his first season in the big leagues. It’s not okay that every pitch he has — fastball, slider, and changeup — ends up in a terrible spot. He’ll figure it out as he accumulates innings and experience, but for now, here’s a slice of reality for the Padres:

Those aren’t good areas to place a fastball even with superb movement, which unfortunately Weathers has lacked so far.

But let’s put everything we’ve explored into context. What’s an example of good fastball command, and how does that turn out when visualized? Originally, I’d planned a comparison between the Giants’ and Padres’ fastball locations, then scrapped it after realizing how daunting the task would be. There’s a useful remnant, though. Below is a heat map of Johnny Cueto’s four-seamers this season:

It’s the year 2021, and Cueto has a higher whiff rate and a better run value on his four-seamer than Snell. Yes, Cueto uses his less frequently, but consider where they’ve ended up. Ahead in the count, those fastballs are perched right on top of the strike zone, with a tendency to veer away from right-handed hitters. Naturally, they aren’t as high up when the count is even, but remember, that’s where Snell roamed after getting ahead, not even. And even when behind in the count, Cueto has done a solid job of avoiding the bottom third of the zone.

If you buy pitch location as a reason for the Padres’ pitching woes, their unexpected dismissal of Larry Rothschild makes a bit more sense. There’s not much a coach can do about a pitcher’s stuff; no decree will magically add three inches of movement to a slider. Location, however, is within his realm of control. To wit, Mets pitchers in 2018 went from generally avoiding the inner half to thriving there, which then-pitching coach Dave Eiland had emphasized. Over time, perhaps the Padres realized Rothschild’s own philosophy was doing more harm than good.

I’m not 100% sure if location, let alone fastball location, is the main culprit. Heat maps are hardly an exact science; they’re approximations of a pitcher’s command whose gaps are colored in by a model and charted. They also don’t factor in pitch sequencing, another element a pitching coach could influence. So maybe this is all wrong! But two facts remain true: (a) the Padres, in general, haven’t been able to avoid dangerous fastball locations; and (b) their fastballs are either getting smacked or taken for balls. If they do indeed need help, it needs to come fast.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

Nice job, especially this line:
“Location, however, is within his realm of control.”

1 year ago
Reply to  Jim

Less so for Blake Snell than the rest.