The Rays Ditched Their Bad Fastball Hitters

Last spring, I detailed how the Rays had, over the years, created a cult of the high fastball. Nor did their commitment to the pitch waver at all during the 2017 regular season. The club’s pitchers remained fully invested in throwing fastballs up last year — despite some of the negative side effects (notably, the home run) suffered by an arm like Jake Odorizzi, whom they have since dispatched to Minnesota.

Interestingly, at least to this author, the Rays now appear to be paying closer attention to fastball performance on the other side of the ball — that is, with regard to their hitters. If you are among that class of hitter who has difficulty with the fastball, the Rays seem increasingly less likely to employ you. Tampa Bay ranked 28th in performance against fastballs last season, according to linear weights. This offseason, however, they have shed some of their weakest fastballs hitters.

That the Rays designated for assignment a 2017 All-Star in Corey Dickerson earlier this month was a shock to some. The move appeared to be little more than a cash dump at first. Then, however, the club sent Dickerson to the Pirates not only for Daniel Hudson and his contract but also prospect Tristan Gray, of whom KATOH is more enamored than most scouts. Ultimately, the Rays only cleared $1 million in the deal. So while the Rays wanted some return for Dickerson, it also appears as though they were motivated to move on without him in 2018.

The Rays also had little interest in reuniting with Logan Morrison, who remained available until the Twins signed him over the weekend — this a player who hit 38 home runs last season. Welcome to 2018! The club also dealt Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona in another deal curious to some and which, again, appeared to be something of a salary dump. Souza is a 28-year-old coming off a three-win season. But like Dickerson and Morrison, Souza had a similar flaw in that he was unsuccessful against the high fastball.

While Dickerson, Morrison, and Souza combined for 93 home runs, 9.9 WAR, and an All-Star berth at total cost of $6.1 million a year ago, they all each ranked among the top 10 in whiffs on four-seam fastballs, as demonstrated in the following chart — one which I included in the Dickerson post last week.

Whiffs vs. Four-Seamers
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Moreover, all three players were worse in the second half last season. Morrison posted a 143 wRC+ in the first half, 112 in second; Souza 136 and 98; and Dickerson 139 and 90.

Dickerson and Souza’s struggles coincided with an increased number of fastballs:

For the season, Souza had a 33% whiff rate and .233 average against four-seamers. Dickerson recorded a 35% whiff rate per swing and .219 average. Morrison whiffed on 32% of his swings against four-seamers and hit .185 against them.

There has always been this idea that laying off the fastball up is difficult — and maybe even more so at a time when velocity continues to increase each season, reducing hitters’ reaction time. This perhaps shows up in Dickerson and Souza’s struggles to lay off and connect with the elevated fastball — not just in 2017 but also a season earlier, according to Baseball Savant.

C.J. Cron, who essentially replaces Dickerson, is a much more adept fastball hitter. Cron whiffed on just 21% of four-seamers last season and hit .297 against them. Carlos Gomez fills some of the Souza void — and, while Gomez has plenty of swing and miss in his game, he’s been slightly better against four-seamers the last two seasons, posting .253 and .243 averages, respectively.

With all the data available MLB clubs, teams are likely only to further try and exploit such weaknesses. Perhaps there is feeling within the Rays, specifically, that not only is this an exploitable weakness, but also one that is difficult to improve.

So maybe this goes beyond payroll efficiency or an attempt to flip some players coming off productive 2017 campaigns for prospects, controllable years, and future surplus value. Jeff opined last week that, despite perceptions to the contrary, the Rays are not really any worse off after these moves. Perhaps one reason why is that the three players mentioned here have flaws that are hard to correct and that will be further exploited in this age of video and information.

So if you cannot hit the elevated fastballs, don’t expect a call from the Rays. Maybe they are on to something.

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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4 years ago

Please add shading showing where the Yankees series fell on this graph, I bet it would illuminate.