The High-Fastballingest Team in the League

The quick background: Travis Sawchik talked with J.D. Martinez about his fly-ball-oriented approach, and at one point Martinez said opponents were making adjustments to him. The player himself didn’t want to go into specifics, but it didn’t take much digging to see that Martinez is vulnerable against pitches up. It’s not something unique to him — I followed that post with this post, talking about the recent home-run spike. League-wide home-run rates skyrocketed against pitches in the lower third of the zone. They also went up against pitches in the middle third of the zone. They didn’t budge at all against pitches in the upper third of the zone.

Which is interesting! It supports the idea that more players have changed their approaches and swings to attack pitches down. Now, unless you’re super-human, you can’t, as a hitter, protect against everything. Fly-ball hitters tend to be vulnerable closer to the belt. There seems to be an ongoing shift toward more fly-ball hitters. This all got me thinking about pitchers who like to elevate. And when we’re talking about elevating, we’re pretty much exclusively talking about fastballs, since you rarely want to elevate the other stuff. You know whose pitchers like to keep their fastballs up? Tampa Bay’s, more than any other team.

This is something I’ve mentioned before, years ago, but it’s been a while since the last update. The following plot was prepared using data from Baseball Savant. This is a plot of high-fastball rates, by team, with the denominator being all fastballs instead of all pitches. The designation is binary; a high fastball here is any fastball above the approximate midpoint. Last year’s league average was just under 49%. I tweaked the y-axis to emphasize the differences here.

The Rays, as a team, just threw more than 60% of their fastballs up. Obviously, that was good for first place, clearing second place by three percentage points. It’s not like the Rays were the only high-fastball team, but they were the most high-fastball team, and this didn’t happen out of nowhere. Here’s how they’ve compared against the league since the dawn of the PITCHf/x era:

Three years ago, the Rays topped the league average by roughly eight percentage points. Two years ago, it was about six percentage points, and then last year, the difference was nearly twelve percentage points. There’s a clear team dip in the middle, showing this isn’t something that’s been taking place for the whole last decade, but all people really care about is what’s recent. Of late, the Rays have made a point of elevating their heaters.

When you talk about where to locate a fastball, the type of fastball matters. A four-seam fastball is better suited for the upper parts of the zone. Sinkers and two-seamers, meanwhile, mostly ought to stay down. So it should come as little surprise that the Rays aren’t stupid — they’ve shown a staff preference for four-seamers. Here’s yet another plot, this time going back to 2010, when PITCHf/x started to do a better job of splitting fastball types. Here I’ve plotted four-seam rate minus combined two-seam and sinker rate. The pitch classifications are far from perfect, but on a team level, all the numbers should be in the right neighborhood.

There’s a recent spike for you, in terms of what we’ll call four-seam differential. In 2013, the Rays were second to last in the league. In 2014, they were right on the league average. In 2015, they had the highest team differential, and in 2016, they repeated. This isn’t something that applies to every single Rays pitcher on the staff, but overall, this isn’t a group that throws many fastballs with tail. Rather, they throw fastballs with rise, and that leads into the final graphic. In this plot, you see average four-seam fastball vertical movement. Keep in mind this compares against just other four-seam fastballs.

The greater the movement, the greater the perceived rise. Rays four-seamers have long generated more average rise than the typical four-seamer. As a team, the Rays have finished with the highest average four-seam rise in the league for the last three years. It’s all too much to be coincidental. Team philosophies can be difficult to identify in the numbers, since they tend to be subtle, fleeting, or both, but the Rays do have a type. They’ve had a type for a little while, and they haven’t moved away.

It’s important to note that last year’s Rays pitching staff was not great, or even particularly good. It didn’t prove itself to be immune to the home-run spike, as the staff definitely got bit by the power bug. This post is not in praise of the Rays. It’s more like a post in…I don’t know, observation of the Rays, as a team that stands out in a certain way. This is a quality they look for, an approach they support. And if the league really is shifting toward more fly-ball hitters, the Rays probably won’t abandon this any time soon, one-year results be damned.

Looking to 2017, I wouldn’t expect the Rays to change. Many pitchers are coming back, and though Drew Smyly and his four-seam fastball are gone, Alex Cobb is healthy, and he’s not afraid of the upper half. Blake Snell and his rising fastball will be featured more often, and Jose De Leon also elevated much of his heat in his limited experience with the Dodgers. The Dodgers deserve some words in here, because they’ve made their own effort to look for rising four-seamers, and of course Andrew Friedman came from the Rays organization. That’s another thing that isn’t a coincidence. But anyhow, this isn’t a Dodgers post. The Rays, as an organization, know that they’ll never be favorites. They know they need to seize any little advantage they can. It’s too early to say whether this approach is the best thing they can be doing. It’s not too early to say that they’re doing it. Maybe they’ve been a little ahead of their time.

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.

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6 years ago

Worth noting in that first chart is that most of the above-average high fastball teams could be described as having a good pitching staff, while most of the below-average high fastball teams could be described as having a not good pitching staff. Except for the Cubs. Because of course not.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

I think there maybe something to this, along the lines of “barring an organizational philosophy, better pitchers (and pitching staffs) are going to feel like they can ‘get away with’ throwing the high fastball more often and not get burned, rather than feeling like they have to keep it down in the zone to make sure the ball stays in the park.”

Edit: worth noting too that Miller, Chase, Globe Life, Wrigley and Coors (the home parks of the teams with the 5 lowest high-fastball percentages) are all places where home runs may be a little easier to come by.

6 years ago
Reply to  jruby

The other thing that I’m wondering is where in the upper part of the zone were they most of the time? Just barely in the upper third or on the upper limit of the zone and are they inside, outside, or middle of the zone? Because just being in the upper third still leaves a lot of the zone.