Grading the Pitches: 2016 AL Starters’ Four-Seamers

Changeup: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveball: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Cutters and Splitters: MLB Starters.

May has arrived, and sample sizes are beginning to mount. We’ve still got a little ways to go in our review of 2016 qualifying starters’ pitch quality before turning our attention solely to 2017. We’ve already looked at changeups, curves, cutters and splitters; today, it’s the four-seam fastball’s turn. We’ll begin by looking at 2016 ERA qualifiers from the American League.

We’re giving all of the offerings a letter grade, weighted 50% on bat-missing and 50% on contact management. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – AL Qualifiers’ Four-Seamers
Sabathia 66 8.8% A 29.4%
Porcello 95 12.0% A 24.9%
Smyly 87 8.9% B+ 55.7%
Quintana 90 7.0% B+ 43.7%
Hamels 96 7.9% B+ 24.1%
Stroman 97 8.9% B+ 12.4%
Price 102 10.1% B+ 12.3%
Duffy 102 10.7% B+ 38.8%
Happ 110 9.6% B+ 58.5%
Verlander 119 12.6% B+ 54.6%
Sanchez, Aa. 122 10.1% B+ 21.7%
Tomlin 92 4.5% B 30.4%
Gausman 96 6.8% B 60.7%
Iwakuma 99 5.9% B 19.3%
Tillman 101 6.9% B 51.4%
Estrada 102 6.1% B 37.4%
Miley 105 4.1% B 38.0%
Weaver, Jr. 106 5.2% B 17.0%
Santana, E. 110 4.9% B 52.0%
Kennedy 118 9.4% B 57.9%
Kluber 124 8.8% B 14.9%
McHugh 125 7.9% B 29.2%
Odorizzi 149 10.7% B 30.6%
Fister 87 2.8% C+ 21.6%
Dickey 111 4.3% C+ 12.7%
Perez, M. 118 4.2% C+ 24.8%
Archer 129 6.2% C+ 47.5%
Rodon 130 6.3% C+ 32.3%
Pineda 136 6.8% C+ 44.3%
Volquez 139 9.2% C+ 11.5%
Fiers 146 7.0% C+ 43.4%
Nolasco 137 3.6% C 24.1%
Ventura 144 4.9% C 23.5%
Bauer 158 7.3% C 25.3%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting hairs very tightly in some cases.

The four-seam fastball is a different beast than the pitches we’ve already examined. It’s not particularly good at missing bats (7.5% average whiff rate for all qualifying MLB starters), and is a below-average contact-management offering (AL average Adjusted Contact Score of 113.2). Most pitchers throw one, but largely to set up their other pitches.

Pitchers who do excel at bat-missing and/or contact management with their four-seamers get a huge leg up on their competition, however. As you can see in the table above, some really good pitchers do just that, and most of the hurlers faring well in one of those two core skills tend to do the same in the other.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the four-seamers thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above.

Grade A – CC Sabathia, Yankees
Sabathia’s four-seamer is somewhat unique in this group. He didn’t throw it hard (average of 89.4 mph, eighth lowest among AL qualifiers), and it didn’t move very much (1.5 inches of horizontal movement was third least, 5.7 inches of vertical movement was second least). What he did extremely well was locate it down in the zone.

Lots of pitchers give up big fly-ball damage on their four-seamers, but not this guy. His pitch-specific ball-in-play (BIP) mix was more grounder-centric than most, and his Adjusted Contact Scores were strong across all BIP types (79, 80 and 66 for flies, liners and grounders, respectively). His overall four-seamer Adjusted Contact Score of 66 is over two full standard deviations better than league average, and his 8.8% whiff rate was measurably above average, as well.

Sabathia ranked 15th in FanGraphs’ overall four-seamer pitch value and 16th in value per 100 pitches. Part of this is due to his comparatively low usage rate, but most publicly available metrics have been slow to recognize the 2016 AL Contact Manager of the Year’s strength in that discipline.

Grade A – Rick Porcello, Red Sox
Porcello is one of only two AL hurlers with a four-seam whiff rate over two STD above the AL average. This bat-missing occurred despite its lack of defining characteristics: his 91.4 mph average four-seam velocity, 4.4 inches of average horizontal movement, and 9.1 inches of vertical movement all stood in the middle of the AL pack.

A 95 Adjusted Contact Score might not seem great at first glance, but only five AL qualifiers recorded a better figure on their four-seamers. He did so despite an extremely fly-ball-heavy BIP mix, which can be perilous in Fenway Park. He did a great job of thwarting authority in the air, posting a 63 Adjusted Contact Score.

FanGraphs’s pitch-value marks also rated this pitch highly, at 11th in overall four-seam value (due to its relatively low usage) and fifth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Drew Smyly, Rays (now Mariners)
Smyly has yet to take the mound in Seattle due to injury, temporarily delaying what I consider one of the best possible marriages of pitcher to ballpark. He throws his four-seamer a lot (55.7% usage rate), and because of his ability to muzzle fly-ball authority (70 Adjusted Contact Score), Safeco Field should enable him to continue to run a very high fly-ball rate on his four-seamer without incurring major damage.

His four-seamer isn’t thrown very hard (90.2 mph on average, 11th lowest among AL qualifiers), but it moves more than most (6.0 inches horizontally and 11.7 inches vertically, which is 11th most and second most, respectively), enabling him to run an above-average whiff rate (8.9%).

FanGraphs’ pitch-specific marks also rate this pitch quite highly: sixth in overall four-seamer value and eighth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jose Quintana, White Sox
The next two pitchers didn’t miss all that many bats with their four-seamers, but earned B+ grades on the strength of their contact-management skill. Quintana’s four-seamer BIP mix wasn’t as fly-ball heavy as most, and he did a great job at muting the authority of the fly balls he did allow (75 Adjusted Contact Score).

His average four-seam velocity (92.0 mph), and horizontal and vertical movement (4.6, 9.3 inches) all rated in the middle of the AL pack. All in all, a fairly firm offering for a southpaw.

This pitch fared even better in FanGraphs’ pitch-value rankings, third overall and first in value per 100 pitches. This was likely due to Quintana’s good fortune on fly balls (43 Unadjusted Contact Score) on top of the aforementioned positive traits.

Grade B+ – Cole Hamels, Rangers
Within this A/B+ group, this pitch is by far the lowest rated according to FanGraphs’ pitch values, 26th overall and 24th per 100 pitches. Why does it fare better in this metric?

Hamels was somewhat unlucky both on fly balls (112 Unadjusted vs. 103 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (114 vs. 96). His overall four-seam Unadjusted Contact Score of 109 is decent for its pitch type, but much higher than his 96 unadjusted mark. Publicly available metrics simply do not pick up Hamels’ relative ability to suppress BIP authority with this pitch. His low usage rate is another, more obvious driver of his relatively low ranking.

Hamels’ four-seamer actually looked a lot like Quintana’s: his average 91.5 mph velocity and 5.2 and 9.2 inches of average horizontal and vertical movement, respectively, all ranked in the middle of the AL pack.

Grade B+ – Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
Like Sabathia, Stroman is one of the few AL qualifiers to generate a high grounder rate with his four-seamer. Interestingly, the young Blue Jay allowed a great deal of damage on those grounders (.409 AVG-.409 SLG. 284 Unadjusted Contact Score vs. 120 Adjusted) and was similarly unlucky on liners (149 vs. 107). Those actual results depressed his FanGraphs pitch-value rankings (19th overall and per 100 pitches).

Stroman threw his four-seamer fairly hard (92.7 mph, 13th hardest) with relatively little movement (3.0 and 7.0 inches of average horizontal and vertical movement, ranked 11th and fourth least among AL qualifiers).

In the end, his bat-missing (8.9%) and contact management were both a bit above average, driving his B+ grade.

Grade B+ – David Price, Red Sox
Our last five B+ grades were derived more from bat-missing than contact management. Not coincidentally, four of the five, including Price, are the hardest throwers of the A/B+ group. Price’s average velocity (92.9 mph, 11th fastest) and average horizontal and vertical movement (7.1 and 9.8 inches, third and 13th most) were all well better than the average AL qualifier.

Price was a decent contact manager with the pitch, as his BIP mix was a bit more grounder heavy than most, and the fly balls he did allow weren’t struck all that hard (91 Adjusted Contact Score), which comes in handy in Fenway Park.

FanGraphs didn’t rank him as highly (16th overall), largely due to his low usage rate, He fared a little better (13th) in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Danny Duffy, Royals
Here’s our hardest thrower on the A/B+ list (94.9 mph, second overall). His four-seamer also moves more than most (4.3 inches horizontally was in the middle of the pack, 11.6 inches vertically was fourth most). His 10.7% whiff rate was third highest among AL qualifiers.

His ability to manage contact with his four-seamer is key, as he allows a ton of fly balls with the pitch. The grounders he did allow were hit quite hard (136 Adjusted Contact Score), though his ability squelch fly-ball authority (96) to a reasonable extent keyed a respectable overall 102 mark.

The outcome-based numbers here at the site are largely in agreement with this assessment, ranking Duffy’s four-seamer 10th in overall pitch value and ninth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – J.A. Happ, Blue Jays
There’s good and bad news regarding Happ’s four-seamer. It ranked first in overall outcome-based pitch value and second in value per 100 pitches. This was partially due to its massive 58.5% usage rate, but it must be said that Happ was very lucky with the pitch last season. He was fortunate across all BIP types (56 Unadjusted vs. 95 Adjusted Contact Score on flies, 82 vs. 106 on liners, 65 vs. 117 on grounders, 73 vs. 110 overall).

His four-seamer was firm by relaxed southpaw standards (average of 91.8 mph, middle of the AL pack), while its average horizontal movement (7.0 inches, fifth in the AL) was much more notable than its middling average vertical movement (9.5 inches).

Its somewhat above-average 9.6% whiff rate nudged it narrowly into the B+ group.

Grade B+ – Justin Verlander, Tigers
It might not be the fire-breathing monster it once was, but Verlander’s four-seamer still has oomph. Its average velocity of 93.7 mph ranked seventh, and average horizontal and vertical movement of 7.6 and 10.1 inches ranked second and 11th, respectively, among AL qualifiers. His 12.6% whiff rate with the pitch paced the AL, and drove his B+ grade.

He was a tad below AL pitch-specific norms, but still within the average range with his 119 Adjusted Contact Score. He lived on the edge, allowing a massive fly-ball rate with the pitch, and none of his Adjusted Contact Scores by BIP type (116, 111 and 117 for flies, liners and grounders) were very inspiring.

FanGraphs’ pitch-value rankings were largely in agreement: he ranked fourth in overall value (partially due to high 54.6% usage rate) and 10th in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays
The third Jay on our list. He was above average both by average velocity (94.6 mph, fourth highest) and movement (5.8 inches horizontal was 13th most, 9.2 inches vertical was in middle of the pack) departments. His high pitch grade is largely driven by his strong 10.1% whiff rate.

Sanchez’ 122 Adjusted Contact Score barely snuck into the average range. While he did yield more grounders with his four-seamer than most, they were hit quite hard (133 Adjusted Contact Score). He also got pretty lucky in the air (64 Unadjusted vs. 113 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score).

Overall, FanGraphs’ outcome-based numbers ranked him 13th in overall pitch value and 11th in value per 100 pitches.

Two other pitchers, Ian Kennedy and Jake Odorizzi, ranked very high in FanGraphs’ four-seamer pitch value rankings, but not so well according to this metric. Both were very lucky on specific BIP types – Kennedy on fly balls (68 vs. 104 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score; thank you ball park and defense), and Odorizzi on both fly balls (71 vs. 108) and liners (74 vs. 114). Both posted BIP mixes that were fly-ball heavy to the extreme.

We hoped you liked reading Grading the Pitches: 2016 AL Starters’ Four-Seamers by Tony Blengino!

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Is Chris Sale’s fast ball so good that it doesn’t qualify as a mere 4-seamer but is in class of its own?