The Nationals’ Changing Fastballs

If it weren’t for Bryce Harper, fans of the Washington Nationals might be hard-pressed to admit 2015 ever happened. The team began last season with expectations as high as this year’s Cubs (sorry, Cubs fans) and ended it with a symbolic choke. Nobody could stay off the disabled list — Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman were all hindered by injuries — and the ones who could — Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos — became liabilities at the plate, seemingly overnight.

But it was the pitching that truly got the hype train a-rollin’ in the preseason — an already star-studded staff with Max Scherzer as the sweetest cherry on top — and the pitching didn’t disappoint. Stephen Strasburg had a rough go of things in the first month and and Doug Fister had his fair share of struggles, but when it was all said and done, the rotation finished with a top-three WAR, a top-five FIP and a top-10 ERA. The expectation was that Washington’s starting pitching would be elite — it ran five deep with proven, quality arms — and Washington’s starting pitching was elite. But even proven arms need to adapt, lest they lose their title of proven. And while, on the surface, Washington’s hurlers for the most part looked like themselves, every member of the starting rotation made an adjustment, all similar in nature but unique to each individual. Unlike a tweak to one’s mechanics or pitch mix, it’s the type of adjustment that alters the very foundation of a pitcher’s DNA — every member of the Nationals starting rotation changed the way they throw their fastball.

Generally speaking, pitchers can be classified as high-fastball guys, or low-fastball guys. Unless you’re Bartolo Colon, you probably don’t want to try your hand at being a down-the-middle-fastball guy, and even a both-sides-of-the-plate-fastball guy like Johnny Cueto shows up as an extreme high-fastballer. High-fastball guys can always throw higher, and low-fastball guys can always throw lower, and last year, the Nationals made an effort toward the extremes.

I’ll explain. Let’s draw a horizontal line through the middle of the strike zone, and call fastballs above that line high fastballs, and ones below that line low fastballs. Doing that, we can say the following with confidence, courtesy Baseball Savant: in 2014, Max Scherzer threw 49% of his fastballs in the upper-half of the strike zone. Then, he came to Washington, and in 2015, he threw 63% of his fastballs upper-half of the zone. Scherzer went from throwing more than half his fastballs low, to throwing nearly two-thirds of them high — becoming one of the most extreme high-ball pitchers in the game. It was the most drastic change in baseball in that regard, and while no one matched the magnitude of Scherzer’s change, he wasn’t alone; Nationals starters altered their average fastball height more than any rotation in baseball. Let’s explore the specifics.

Max Scherzer

Scherzer

We already discussed the nature of Scherzer’s change, and maybe the image doesn’t do a great job of selling the fact that this was the most dramatic change in baseball, but consider that these plots are showing north of 1,000 pitches, and so any visible movement is substantial. Last year, Scherzer threw an extra 300 pitches in the upper-half of the zone, relative to the year before, and it became the most unhittable fastball in his league. Scherzer also gained 1.3 mph on his fastball last year, a remarkable feat for a 30-year-old, and also the largest velocity increase by any qualified starter from the previous year. It’s hard to say whether the velocity increase was due to the location, or if the raised location was because of the newfound velocity, but either way, the fastball played up better when thrown high in the zone, and so that’s where Scherzer lived.

Gio Gonzalez

Gio

Scherzer had the single-largest increase in average fastball height. His teammate, Gio Gonzalez, had the fourth-largest decrease in average fastball height. Rather than a straight location change, Gonzalez altered his pitch mix, swapping out four-seamers for sinkers in a conscious effort to overhaul his approach and become a ground-ball pitcher. The plan worked: Gonzalez improved his ground-ball rate by nine percentage points — the largest increase by any pitcher with at least 150 innings thrown in each of the last two seasons. Gonzalez became one of the most extreme ground-ball pitchers in baseball last season, and he barely gave away any of his strikeouts.

Stephen Strasburg

Stras

Strasburg’s change coincided with his return from the disabled list, about which Jeff Sullivan wrote at the time, here. In Strasburg’s first start back from the DL, he looked dominant, and Sullivan noted that he was throwing his fastball higher in that start than he was earlier in the year. Evidently, that change stuck, and, hey, did you know that Stephen Strasburg posted a 1.76 ERA and 2.16 FIP over his final 13 starts of the year, ever since coming off the DL? Did you know that Stephen Strasburg continued to strike out about 30% of the batters he faced, but then also started getting pop ups like Chris Young? That all seems good, and that all seems related. Strasburg had the seventh-largest increase in high fastballs of any starter in baseball last year.

Jordan Zimmermann

Zimm

Jordan Zimmermann’s change is perhaps more subtle, because he was already extreme in his high-fastballing ways, but last year, he became even more extreme, and threw 74% of his fastballs in the upper-half of the zone, when no other pitcher in baseball did so more than 68% of the time. Zimmermann’s rate of high fastballs was up seven percentage points from the year prior, the 16th-largest increase. Sullivan touched on this trend, too, a few months back, and for Zimmermann, it’s something that’s been in the works for a few years now. Last year, the increase didn’t appear to net him very favorable results, but with the company he kept, it’s notable nonetheless.

Doug Fister

Fister

Doug Fister had a bad year. But Doug Fister also had an injured year, with some early-season elbow pains that sent him to the disabled list, and he lost more than a tick off his fastball. Only two pitchers dropped their average fastball height more than Fister last year, and it seems apparent than a conscious adjustment was in the works, but without the velocity, Fister’s new fastball became more hittable, and he didn’t get to reap any possible benefits of the change. Now, with a presumed clean bill of health, Fister’s velocity looks like it might be back, and we’ll see whether his low-fastball approach from a year ago, paired with the velocity he thought he’d have, will work in tandem for his comeback season.

* * *

The adjustments were all different, but they were all the same. Max Scherzer changed his fastball location more than any pitcher in baseball. Doug Fister was sixth. Gio Gonzalez was 11th, Stephen Strasburg was 16th, Jordan Zimmermann was 30th, and then 78 pitchers were behind the entirety of the Nationals rotation, with more similar fastballs. Some Nationals made their fastballs go up, and some made them go down, but the changes were all extreme.

This isn’t something that happens on accident. Steve McCatty had been the Nationals’ pitching coach for six years, so it wasn’t like there was an overhaul in the coaching staff, but there was an apparent overhaul in the philosophy of the coaching staff, somewhere along the line. For Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez, the adjustments made last year were unquestionably positive. Zimmermann’s looks like a neutral. Fister, of course, went backward, but Fister had some other things going on. The interesting part is the part where the entire coaching staff in Washington was fired last year, and now Mike Maddux is at the helm. Every pitching coach has their own philosophies, but for the big three names at the start of the rotation, there shouldn’t be much to change. Then again, that’s what we thought last year, too, and look where we are now.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

newest oldest most voted
jwn17
Member
jwn17

These heat maps are excellent graphics