The Fastball Is Back This Postseason

Last October gave us the postseason of the curveball — of the breaking ball, in general. The Indians, among others, navigated their way through the playoffs with an increasing reliance on breaking pitches. A combination of Andrew Miller’s slider and Corey Kluber’s breaking-ball combination nearly delivered a World Series title for Cleveland.

These playoffs have been different, however. This year, the fastball has been king.

The current postseason began, of course, with a Yankees club employing a fastball that averaged 98 mph against the Twins in the Wild Card game. Other pitchers, other teams have increasingly relied upon the pitch, as well. Consider, for example, that, through Tuesday, fastball usage was up seven percentage points from last postseason. While the postseason does, by nature, produce a smaller sample of data and a varying pool of teams from year to year, we haven’t seen a continuation of last year’s trend in terms of breaking-ball usage.

The Postseason Fastball in Statcast Era
Year Total FT and FF fastballs Average FB velocity Average spin rate %. of total pitches
2015 4869 94.2 2233 46.9
2016 4350 94.0 2340 42.6
2017 3944 93.9 2289 49.9
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant

Yes, it helps to have Justin Verlander and Luis Severino on the mound in October to boost fastball usage.

On Saturday, Verlander — whose velocity is back — shoved 71 four-seam fastballs. The pitch averaged 96.1 mph and the 71st traveled out of his hand at 96.7 mph. Severino, for his part, has displayed an electric arm for much of the postseason and is quite possibly the best AL pitcher not named Kluber or Chris Sale.

Pitch usage is a zero-sum game, of course, so if one pitch is gaining in popularity then another pitch or pitches must be losing. This is a cruel reality. So as the fastball has been a postseason winner, who are the losers?

Postseaon Non-Fastball Usage in the Statcast Era
Year CB% SL% CH%
2015 11.3 12.5 10.7
2016 15.7 13.2 8.3
2017 14.1 15.2 7.7
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant

It turns out that slider usage is slightly up, too. So hard stuff, in general, has increased in frequency. While curveball usage is down a point from a year ago, it might just be that there are more pitchers in this field who rely on the slider as their primary breaking pitch.

What is trending down is the changeup — and that’s even after accounting for Stephen Strasburg’s tremendous outing in Game 4 of the NLDS at Chicago, during which he employed the change almost more than ever before in his career.

As for the fastball, it has appeared at moments that it might assume a less prominent role across the game as more pitchers experiment with a Rich Hill
-like approach reliant on an effective secondary pitch. Still, a good fastball is probably never going to concede its place on top for the vast majority of pitchers, particularly if velocity keeps increasing.

Maybe year-to-year postseason pitch usage isn’t that meaningful, maybe it’s not worth placing much weight upon, but the curveball spike was evident last year. Perhaps the emergence of ever increasing velocity and the spike in usage during this year’s postseason, however, provide a hint of where the game will continue to go. Of the game’s top-10 teams by fastball velocity, six made the postseason field.

While hitters have done a fairly good job of keeping pace with the fastball, it threatens to become an even more dominant pitch.

Tom Verducci unearthed a nugget regarding a creative manner in which Carlos Beltran keeps up with the modern fastball — and the modern playoff fastball.

Designated hitter Carlos Beltran, the team’s wise elder, cranked the pitching machine up to its maximum velocity, then took his place not 60 feet six inches from its missiles but more like 45 to 50 feet. All he could do to get the barrel of his bat on the speeding ball was to keep his lower half quiet and swing compactly and abruptly.

“You’re not training your swing,” he explained before the session. “You’re training your eyes. You want your eyes to get used to tracking velocity, so that when you get out there in the game, with the greater distance, it slows down the ball to your eye.”

A great fastball threatens all hitters, produces anxiety among even the greatest of hitters. If you cannot cover the fastball, you don’t have a chance in the batter’s box.

If nothing else, perhaps this postseason demonstrates that a good fastball, while its usage may fluctuate, is never going to go out of style.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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It’s funny that this can be true, while at the same time, 3 of the last 13 Yankee articles published on here are titled “Masahiro Tanaka Might One Day Kill the Fastball”, “The Death of a Fastball, with CC Sabathia”, and “David Robertson is Not Throwing Fastballs”.