The Curious Case of Cristian Javier’s Fastball

Cristian Javier
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Cristian Javier had built an impressive postseason resume ahead of Game 7 of the ALCS. Across 12 relief appearances and four starts, he had compiled a 2.08 ERA and 7.5% championship win probability added. His first three starts in the playoffs were particularly impressive; he held the Yankees scoreless on a single hit in last year’s ALCS, was the starting pitcher of the Astros’ combined no-hitter in the World Series, and held the Twins to a single hit in the ALDS this year. His 18 total hits allowed and .123 opponent’s batting average were by far the lowest among any pitcher with more than 40 postseason innings pitched.

With such a strong track record, the Astros had to feel confident handing him the ball on Monday night. But things did not go according to plan, as Javier lasted six batters and recorded just a single out, allowing three runs on four hits and a walk, before getting pulled. It was his worst postseason outing of his career and a big reason why Houston isn’t back in the World Series to defend its championship.

Before I dive into the details of his outing, I want to go back and look at Javier’s season as a whole. After his breakout 2022, he signed a five-year extension during the offseason, but he stumbled to a 4.56 ERA and 4.58 FIP this past season, with his strikeout rate falling 10 points from the year prior.

The root of his problems seemed to stem from his fastball. Javier is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, with his four-seamer making up nearly 60% of his pitch mix, but he can get away with such a limited repertoire because his heater is simply outstanding. He throws from a low three-quarters arm slot but is able to generate an elite amount of ride on the pitch; elevating a pitch with those characteristics is a surefire way to produce one of the flattest four-seamers in baseball.

The shifting physical characteristics of his primary pitch paint a pretty clear picture of the ebbs and flows of his success over the past three seasons:

Cristian Javier, Fastball Characteristics
Dates Velocity IVB Vertical Release Spin Rate Spin Axis Spin/Velo Ratio VAA AA Stuff+
2021 93.6 17.9 5.59 2337 203.2 25.0 +0.52 103
2022 93.8 19.0 5.65 2356 206.3 25.1 +0.32 120
Early 2023 92.6 18.4 5.75 2241 201.3 24.2 +0.26 95
Late 2023 92.9 18.9 5.68 2271 205.5 24.4 +0.40 110
Postseason 2023 93.5 19.9 5.74 2372 203.0 25.4 131
Postseason VAA data unavailable

Javier’s breakout in 2022 was largely fueled by an added inch of induced vertical break on his fastball and a honed ability to locate that pitch up in the zone. He’s always been able to get swings and misses with the pitch, but now he was also missing barrels and inducing lots of weak fly balls and popups. After increasing his workload by almost 50 innings and setting a career-high in innings pitched, he entered this season throwing his fastball more than a mile per hour slower than last year. That loss of velocity combined with a slightly less efficient spin profile led to a dip in induced vertical break. His release point was marginally higher as well, which steepened the pitch’s trajectory as it crossed the plate.

Javier managed to correct many of those small issues during the second half of the season, improving the ride and lowering his release point. His final three regular-season starts were particularly good: five runs allowed across 15.2 innings on just nine hits with 21 strikeouts. And once the postseason started, his fastball looked better than it had all season long. The adrenaline of October baseball helped him increase his velocity back up to where it was last year, and his ride was better than ever. His release point was back up a bit, which would have affected his vertical approach angle, even with the improved velocity and ride on the pitch; unfortunately, I don’t have that data for his postseason starts. But regaining the elite shape on his heater seems like the big reason why he was so good during his first two postseason starts this year.

From a results standpoint, it’s clear that the success of his fastball is largely dependent on the amount of induced vertical break he’s imparting on the pitch, something borne out in the data:

Cristian Javier, Fastball Results by IVB
IVB Whiff% Hard Hit% wOBA xwOBA Run Value
>20″ 34.8% 34.40% 0.202 0.229 33.8
19″-20″ 32.9% 37.10% 0.299 0.284 14.7
18″-19″ 22.2% 36.90% 0.330 0.324 -0.1
<17″ 18.2% 54.80% 0.419 0.439 -15.4

When he’s producing more than 19 inches of ride, his fastball is nigh unhittable. When it dips below that threshold, batters have a much easier time making contact with authority.

With the shape of his fastball looking better than ever and his velocity restored, you’d expect that the underlying pitch results would have been outstanding in the postseason. That wasn’t necessarily the case:

Cristian Javier, Fastball Results
Dates Whiff% Hard Hit% wOBA xwOBA Run Value
2021 26.20% 50.90% 0.354 0.396 0.4
2022 27.10% 38.70% 0.266 0.265 21.8
Early 2023 25.20% 37.20% 0.332 0.337 7.3
Late 2023 28.30% 47.90% 0.327 0.356 4.3
Postseason 2023 22.40% 39.10% 0.327 0.381 0.9

It’s an admittedly small sample — just 115 fastballs in three starts — but he didn’t see a dramatic change in fortunes with his four-seamer despite the improved physical characteristics. His whiff rate dropped a bit, his wOBA allowed barely budged, and his expected wOBA shot up.

Let’s get back to Javier’s Game 7 start. He threw just 15 fastballs in that outing on Monday, and they had the highest average induced vertical break of any single start in his career, a whopping 21.1 inches of ride. You’d think that with that kind of shape to his fastball, he would have carved through the Rangers’ lineup, but Texas’ hitters were up to the challenge and chased him early. Here’s how Martín Maldonado described Javier’s start in a postgame interview:

“His [velocity] was up. His command wasn’t great. His off-speed pitches weren’t sharp. I feel like they had a good game plan against him. I feel like he was a little amped up. … I thought he tried to do too much.”

Texas’ game plan was evident from the first swing of the game by Marcus Semien.

In a 1–0 count, Semien swings over a high fastball and pounds it into the ground; that was the only out Javier recorded that night. The Rangers knew to expect a flat fastball up in the zone and tailored their swings to get on top of the pitch. The result was four balls in play launched with an average exit velocity of 99.3 mph.

Here’s Javier’s pitch chart from that night:

Maldonado’s assessment seems spot on; Javier letting his fastball fly helped him add a bit of velocity but also led to a bunch of misses up above the zone. Still, the pitches that were put into play weren’t that terrible. The fastball that Corey Seager launched for a home run could have been slightly higher in the zone, but it’s still in a location that would have generated plenty of whiffs throughout Javier’s career; it was by no means a mistake pitch. And with the amount of ride he was getting on his fastball, you’d expect to see a lot more swings under his heater. It’s a credit to Rangers hitters for executing their game plan to perfection against a pitcher throwing what might have been his best stuff of the season.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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5 months ago

Excellent article!