Grading The Pitches: 2016 NL Starters’ Four-Seamers

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

We’re over halfway through this analysis of 2016 ERA’ qualifiers individual pitches, based on their relative bat-missing and contact management performance. Once complete, those 2017 sample sizes will be nice and plump, and the focus will turn to this season. Today, NL four-seam fastballs are on the docket.

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 – NL Qualifiers’ Four-Seamers
Martinez, C. 70 6.9% A 27.0%
Scherzer 98 10.6% A 55.3%
Lester 95 7.4% B+ 52.6%
Syndergaard 102 9.0% B+ 37.7%
Cueto 103 9.5% B+ 23.4%
Maeda 103 9.4% B+ 27.8%
Arrieta 108 9.4% B+ 20.8%
Colon 101 7.5% B 26.1%
Gonzalez, G. 109 7.6% B 36.6%
Samardzija 111 6.6% B 30.8%
Straily 112 7.0% B 47.1%
Lackey 115 7.9% B 37.0%
Ray, R. 116 9.1% B 54.7%
Hammel 117 7.6% B 31.3%
Teheran 118 6.9% B 48.1%
Bumgarner 121 9.5% B 38.2%
Gray, J. 124 6.8% B 55.8%
Fernandez, J. 132 8.9% B 49.9%
Eickhoff 108 4.0% C+ 36.4%
Koehler 108 4.3% C+ 40.3%
Bettis 114 4.2% C+ 48.8%
Hellickson 114 4.1% C+ 26.4%
Garcia, J. 120 5.5% C+ 28.2%
Nelson 138 8.1% C+ 22.5%
Wainwright 135 5.2% C 13.3%
Finnegan 169 7.5% C 11.1%

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 113.9). 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 – Carlos Martinez, Cards
Martinez’ four-seam whiff rate was unremarkable, in the average range, but I can’t overstate how impressive a 70 Adjusted Contact Score is for a four-seam fastball. It’s over two full standard deviations better than league average.

His average four-seam velocity of 96.5 MPH ranked second among NL qualifiers, and he also ranked highly in average horizontal movement (5.9 inches, seventh), while his average vertical movement was well below average (7.3 inches, fourth least).

Martinez induced more grounders than is common with his four-seamer, and he held authority in check for the relatively few fly balls he did allow (83 Adjusted Contact Score). Fangraphs’ outcome-based numbers concur with such a high ranking; he ranked fifth in overall four-seamer value and fourth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade A – Max Scherzer, Nationals
Our other Grade A four-seamer belongs to Scherzer, who with a 55.3% usage rate, utilized the pitch more than twice as often as Martinez. He excelled at both bat-missing (10.6% whiff rate, highest among NL qualifiers) and contact management (98 Adjusted Contact Score, third).

Stylistically, Scherzer’s pitch looked quite a bit like Martinez’. It was thrown hard (94.3 MPH average, fifth among NL qualifiers), with plenty of horizontal movement (7.9 inches, first), and relatively little vertical movement (8.3 inches, 10th least).

Scherzer ran a very high fly ball rate with his four-seamer, but lived to tell about it due to solid management of authority in the air (93 Adjusted Contact Score). Interestingly, grounders hit off of his four-seamer were smoked (140 Adjusted Contact Score). Fangraphs’ outcome-based numbers are again in solid agreement (a common theme today) with this analysis; he ranked first in overall four-seamer value, and sixth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jon Lester, Cubs
Lester didn’t miss all that many bats with his four-seamer, but his pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score of 95 ranked second behind only Martinez. He did a solid job of inducing grounders with the pitch, though not to as extreme an extent as Martinez.

Lester’s fastball was a bit above average velocity and movement-wise; 92.0 MPH and 5.2 inches of horizontal movement both ranked tied for 11th among NL qualifiers, and 9.4 inches of vertical movement ranked 10th.

His Fangraphs’ outcome-based pitch values were also very strong; he ranked second in overall four-seam value, and fifth in value per 100 pitches. If anything, he was a bit lucky, as his Unadjusted Contact Score was a much lower 69, due to ridiculously good fortune on liners (41 Unadjusted vs. 90 Adjusted Contact Score).

Grade B+ – Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Our four remaining B+ guys had very similar contact management and bat-missing profiles, but they got there in very different ways. Syndergaard, obviously, got there with raw gas. His 97.9 MPH average four-seam velocity easily ranked first among NL qualifiers. The pitch had much more vertical (average of 10.1 inches, also first) than horizontal movement (2.8 inches, sixth least).

Like Martinez and Lester, Syndergaard’s contact management success can be tied to an unusually high grounder rate for this pitch type. In this case, this analysis’ conclusion is a bit different than that of Fangraphs’ outcome-based measures, which ranked his four-seamer 11th in overall pitch value and 12th in value per 100 pitches.

Syndergaard’s Unadjusted Contact Scores, based on actual results, were much higher than his adjusted ones, based on exit speed/launch angle data, across all BIP types (139 vs. 111 on flies, 139 vs. 114 on liners, 134 vs. 110 on grounders, 114 vs. 94 overall). Get well soon, big fella.

Grade B+ – Johnny Cueto, Giants
Cueto’s four-seamer usage rate was lower at 23.4% then all but one of the pitchers we’re discussing today. This pitch resembled Lester’s four-seamer in many ways; exactly identical average velocity (92.0 MPH) and very similar average horizontal (5.8 inches, eighth among NL qualifiers) and vertical movement (9.2 inches, middle of the pack).

Cueto is yet another recipient of a high four-seamer grade to elicit more grounders than typical with the pitch. Those grounders, however, were hit quite hard (142 Adjusted Contact Score).

Fangraphs’ outcome-based numbers ranked this pitch even more highly (third overall, second in value per 100 pitches). Cueto was actually very lucky on fly balls (49 Unadjusted vs. 84 Adjusted Contact Score) and liners (70 vs. 94). His overall four-seam Unadjusted Contact Score was 84.

Grade B+ – Kenta Maeda, Dodgers
Our only B+ or better four-seamer with lower than average velocity. Maeda threw the pitch at an average of 90.0 MPH, sixth slowest among NL qualifiers. The pitch had comparatively greater average vertical (9.8 inches, sixth most) than horizontal (4.2 inches, 10th least) movement.

Maeda’s ability to throttle fly ball authority with the pitch was the key driver to his high grade, He recorded a sterling Adjusted Contact Score of 56 in the air.

Fangraphs’ outcome-based pitch values see Maeda quite similarly; he ranked ninth in overall pitch value and seventh in value per 100 pitches. His fly ball authority-limiting skills haven’t been quite as much in evidence in 2017.

Grade B+ – Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Arrieta’s is the only four-seamer reviewed today that wasn’t a materially better than average contact management offering. Its 108 Adjusted Contact Score narrowly fit into the average range. He threw it only 20.8% of the time, lower than the others discussed today.

Yet again, a high four-seam grade is directly tied to a relatively high grounder rate. It was all about BIP mix, as Arrieta’s Adjusted Contact Scores by BIP type were higher than average across the board (114, 109 and 126 for flies, liners and grounders, respectively).

His average four-seam velocity (93.6 MPH, eighth among NL qualifiers) and horizontal movement (6.0 inches, sixth) were above average, while his average vertical movement of 9.2 inches sat in the middle of the NL pack.

He ranked sixth in Fangraphs’ outcome-based pitch value, and third in value per 100 pitches. He fared so well in part because of extremely good fortune on fly balls (41 Unadjusted Contact Score) and grounders (45). His overall four-seam Unadjusted Contact Score was a deceptively low 66.

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5 years ago

You say that Lester and Arrieta were very fortunate, but does that consider the Cubs’ excellent defense?