Understand that I’m not a pitching coach. I’ve never played one on TV, and if I were asked to serve as one for an actual team, I’d be wildly out of my element. Pitching is complicated, and pitchers in the major leagues are impossibly good, and pitchers in the major leagues also have reasons for doing what they do however they do it. I don’t know if what follows is good advice for Kevin Gausman and James Paxton, or garbage. It’s just, there’s at least enough here that we can have a conversation.
Thursday, I wrote about the Rays and collecting and encouraging high fastballs. I’m interested in this high-fastball thing — it’s an intuitively sensible way to attack hitters who are increasingly prepared to hit down low. The Rays have talked about this idea. The Astros have talked about this idea. Brandon McCarthy has talked about this idea, during an interview for the Hardball Times Annual. It’s a trend, seemingly, to counter a different trend. But it’s worth noting, not just any fastball should be thrown high. You need to have some command, and you need to be able to generate the right kind of spin. You want to have a fastball — a four-seamer — with a high PITCHf/x vertical-movement reading. That’s not the way pitchers themselves think about it, but that’s how we can understand it.
After I wrote about the Rays, I got curious. The Rays got Drew Smyly, for example, to elevate his fastball more often than he had been with the Tigers, and excellent results followed. So I wanted to see if there were some other guys out there with rising fastballs, who don’t elevate them much. These would seem like candidates to start going upstairs. There’s nothing automatic, here, but there’s at least a theory.
I pointed out in the Rays piece that the average four-seam fastball has +9 inches of vertical movement. Therefore, I grabbed all the pitchers from 2014 with four-seam fastballs with an average of at least +10 inches of vertical movement. This was my cutoff for sufficient “rise”. From there, it was a simple matter of linking fastballs to rates of those same fastballs being thrown in the upper half of the zone, or beyond.
Not surprisingly, last year, Tyler Clippard led the way. He threw 76% of his fastballs at least two and a half feet off the ground. Not far behind, Jake Odorizzi. The average, out of the pitcher pool, was 54%. The average rate of whiffs per swing was 19%. But every leaderboard has a top and a bottom. And, tied at the bottom: Kevin Gausman and James Paxton. Both guys throw fastballs with more than +10 inches of vertical movement. Both guys actually even throw fastballs in the mid- to high-90s. And last year, both guys threw just 33% of their fastballs in the upper half of the hitting area. These are pitchers who were told to work down, so they worked down.
Perhaps also unsurprisingly, neither fastball was much of a swing-and-miss weapon. Gausman generated a whiff/swing rate just above 13%. Paxton, meanwhile, came in below 11%. I’ll remind you the average was 19%. Paxton’s fastball finished tied with Nick Martinez. Gausman finished basically tied with Tommy Milone. Paxton, at least, used his fastball to generate a very high rate of grounders. It was the highest rate in the group, just ahead of Clayton Kershaw, who Paxton has tried to model himself after. Gausman’s groundball rate was more ordinary.
From Baseball Savant, we can look at some heat maps. Here are Paxton’s fastballs:
And here are Gausman’s fastballs:
That indicates what you already knew — these fastballs were mostly in the lower half. Now, look what happens when you check out swings and misses at fastballs. Paxton first:
There you see more elevation. When Paxton and Gausman threw fastballs up, they missed bats. When they threw them low, they didn’t miss so many bats. Missing bats isn’t the whole point of baseball, but it sure is damned helpful, and, tell me these don’t look like excellent potential weapons:
You see that Gausman fastball was supposed to be up. Paxton’s, not so much. On average, in two-strike counts, 60% of four-seamers were thrown in the upper half. Gausman wound up at 45%, 14th-lowest in baseball. Paxton, 42%, sixth-lowest in baseball. Even in putaway counts, Gausman and Paxton elevated their heat considerably less often than the average pitcher with a four-seamer at his disposal.
I’ll repeat here, pitching is complicated, and pitchers are frequently being given advice they shouldn’t pay attention to. Just want to make sure it’s understood that I’m not 100% sure about all this. But it seems to me, given the movement and the velocities, both James Paxton and Kevin Gausman might want to consider climbing the ladder more than they have. With Gausman’s heat and his split-change, he should have a strikeout rate above 19%. With Paxton’s heat and his curveball, he should have a strikeout rate above 20%. High fastballs might even be good for the other pitches, since out of the hand, a high fastball can look like a low change or a low curve. But even if you’re just focusing on the heat, there’s value in variety. I’m pretty sure both these guys could get away with going upstairs more, and my guess is that whiffs would follow.
On what feels like a weekly basis, I get asked if I think Gausman is on the verge of turning into an ace. Meanwhile, all winter long, teams were trying to pry Paxton from the Mariners, and Jack Zduriencik refused to give in. Everybody agrees about the potential of these two arms. The tricky part is getting them to reach it. I don’t have many ideas, but I do have one. It happens to work for both.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.