The Rays’ Kind of Fastball

A couple weeks ago, the Rays signed Everett Teaford to a minor-league contract. Even if you noticed it, you forgot it, because people tend to forget all these minor-league acquisitions, and if you remember Teaford for anything, it’s not for being good. After being not good for the Royals, Teaford spent last year in Korea, where he had a league-average ERA. I don’t know if he changed something; I don’t know if the Rays saw something. But I know I can look at Teaford’s PITCHf/x page on Brooks Baseball, and he’s flashed something of a live heater. The vertical-movement column shows a pitch’s movement relative to a pitch thrown with no spin. The league-average four-seamer comes in just shy of 9 inches. Teaford’s been a little north of 10. That’s where you start talking about rise.

And when you talk about rising fastballs, you’re talking about something of great interest to Tampa Bay. They don’t actually rise, of course — they just don’t sink as much as normal fastballs. And while Teaford might not throw a single pitch for the Rays in the regular season, his fastball, at least, looks like it could fit in. The Rays have something going on, and while they’re not the only team with the idea, they seem like the most aggressive in the implementation.

This is the Rays’ 2015 depth chart, as hosted on MLB.com. You can count 17 pitchers, including the injured Matt Moore. Now, let’s examine those 17 pitchers. Specifically, let’s examine their four-seam fastballs. I noted before that the average four-seam fastball has a vertical-movement reading just below 9 inches. Of the 17 Rays, 11 of them come in above 10. In all, 14 of 17 are above-average. The only pitchers below: Kirby Yates, Burch Smith, and C.J. Riefenhauser. Yates is below by a negligible amount. Smith only just recently arrived in the organization.

Why does vertical movement matter? It’s correlated with different results. Last year’s data breakdown for four-seam fastballs:

Vertical Movement Contact% Foul/Swing% GB%
1+ standard deviation 81% 42% 27%
0 – 1 standard deviation 83% 42% 35%
-1 – 0 standard deviation 84% 42% 37%
-1 or below 85% 40% 42%

The “rising” types generate the most whiffs, and the fewest groundballs. This is intuitive; the less a fastball sinks, the more likely a hitter is to swing underneath it. And this gets to the next thing, maybe the more important thing: rising fastballs tend to be thrown higher in the zone, or beyond it. The Rays are a high-fastball organization. Considering they recently signed Ernesto Frieri, it doesn’t look like that’s stopped just because a few people have left the system.

Last season, Rays pitchers threw 56% of their fastballs at least two and a half feet off the ground, which is approximately the vertical middle of the strike zone. This was the highest rate for any team in baseball. The Nationals finished second, but they’ve also lost prolific high-fastball throwers in Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano. They’ve been open to moving Jordan Zimmermann. The league average, by the way, was a hair under 48%.

And 16 of 23 Rays topped the league average. Cesar Ramos didn’t, and he’s gone. Jeremy Hellickson didn’t, and he’s gone. Juan Carlos Oviedo didn’t, and he’s gone. Brandon Gomes didn’t, and he was designated for assignment. Of the 16 Rays who topped the average, 15 topped it by a fairly broad margin. Jake Odorizzi led the way, at 71% high fastballs. Even Alex Cobb and Chris Archer elevated heat, even though they primarily feature sinkers. Even a running fastball can work as an elevated fastball, according to the Rays’ apparent belief.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, last season, the Rays’ pitching staff finished with baseball’s highest rate of fly balls allowed. This was at least partially by design, and with the fly balls came pop-ups. The Rays posted one of the better HR/FB rates in the American League. Some of that would be the ballpark. Lastly, the Rays tied the Indians for the league’s highest strikeout rate. This wasn’t all about the fastballs, but it was a significant factor.

In September, I wrote about some adjustments that Drew Smyly had made after getting dealt. The Rays wanted to get Smyly elevating his fastball more often, and sure enough, that’s what he did, and his numbers were excellent. Jim Hickey also talked about this, with David Laurila. One quote:

“I think you can [be effective up in the zone] because of what the hitters are trained to do. Hitter are constantly trained to hit the ball down, hit the ball down, because we always try to pitch the ball down, pitch the ball down. I don’t think hitters work that much on hitting elevated fastballs, pitches up in the zone.”

We can play with some individual splits. Smyly:

  • Tigers: 50% high fastballs
  • Rays: 66%

David Price:

  • Rays: 61%
  • Tigers: 54%

Erik Bedard:

  • Astros: 59%
  • Rays: 63%

Brad Boxberger:

  • Padres: 43%
  • Rays: 53%

Sometimes, the Rays make a tweak. Other times, they seek out other guys who already throw fastballs up, like Frieri, like Grant Balfour, like Heath Bell. Obviously, sometimes, it doesn’t work. An interesting thing about Balfour is that his high-fastball rate has dropped for four consecutive seasons. Last year he was barely higher than average. And, last year, he was bad. The Rays thought they had something they ultimately didn’t.

What the Rays don’t have is an automatic championship-winning strategy. That much is apparent from the lack of any championships. But they do seem to have some kind of strategy, a strategy involving high fastballs, and it’s a strategy they’ve certainly thought all the way through. It’s interesting enough to see a team with a distinctive philosophy, and making it all the more interesting is that the Rays are focusing on high fastballs while the rival Red Sox are lined up to have one of the more extreme groundball staffs in recent memory. The Rays are banking on the same thing opponents bank on when they face Mike Trout: the hitter is so geared up to hit low, he might not be fully prepared to hit up. Perhaps it won’t work forever, but as long as the strike zone keeps dropping, pitchers are going to try to take advantage of that, by pitching low, and, in the Rays’ case, by pitching high.

We hoped you liked reading The Rays’ Kind of Fastball by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Joshua_C
Guest
Joshua_C

This is excellent work. I think a lot of future innovation will be less oriented toward improving the accuracy of our projection systems and more oriented toward specific skills players have that could be leveraged in order to make them more effective.

The Rays, whether through their use of changeups or use of high fastballs, seem to be embracing this approach. It’s also interesting that the Pirates have adopted an opposite philosophy (pitch in, generate ground balls) with good success. Different players have value to different teams.

Bobby Ayala
Member

Agreed. Top notch stuff Jeff, thanks!