Fastball Velocities and Effectiveness: Part 3

In the first part of this series, I mentioned that fastball velocity and fastball effectiveness (as measured by Pitch Type Linear Weights) have no correlation, so it’s ridiculous to call a fastball “good” or bad” on velocity alone.

Still, though, I spent most of the first two parts of this series looking at cases where the velocity and effectiveness correlate quite well–many hard throwers have effective heaters and many soft-tossers do not.

It’s time to leave that realm now.

Last season, 317 pitchers threw 50 or more innings. Today, I’m going to present the ten biggest underperformers out of the 317 with respect to fastball velocity and effectiveness (essentially, the ten players with the greatest negative difference between their rank out of the 317).

It’s an interesting list, with more good pitchers than bad pitchers. Let’s take a look.

#10.) Josh Beckett: 93.5 mph average (70th in MLB); 1.23 runs below average per 100 pitches (287th in MLB):

We start with a perplexing case.

We know Josh Beckett is a good pitcher. He throws hard, has a good curveball as well, and gets lots of whiffs while allowing few walks.

And yet…this.

A lot of the guys in Part 2 (the soft-tossers with poor effectiveness) tended to have career-long issues with their fastballs. Zach Duke, for example, has always seen his heater get crushed. With Beckett, however, that’s not the case; the only other season in his career his fastball was below average was 2006, and it was barely below average (.18 runs per 100) even then.

So the big question isn’t what makes Beckett’s fastball bad, it’s what made his 2010 fastball so much worse than that of any other season.

A few things jump out.

First off, Beckett used his curveball less in 2010 than he usually does, instead working more often with a cutter. While his usage of his regular fastball dropped as well, his usage of pitches with an average velocity of 90 or greater was up over 70% for the first time, making him slightly easier to time.

Second, Beckett’s velocity was down substantially–it had been at least 94.3 mph every year from 2006-09. That’s important–I’ve mentioned how velocity, while not correlating to effectiveness overall, can often have dramatic effects when it goes up or down for a single pitcher (see Lee, Cliff, 2008). Beckett’s used to throwing 94-95 all the time, but with one mph taken off his heater, he may have tried to do things with it that he just couldn’t quite pull off with the inferior velocity. Not a huge factor, but worth considering.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Beckett, long a “pound the zone” guy, threw far more pitches outside the zone in 2010 than he usually does. His fastball lacks big-time movement, simply laid off the pitch when it wasn’t headed for the zone. When it was in the zone, its lack of movement gave the pitch few swings and misses (just around 5%, down from over 6% last year and 7% in 2008).

Fewer strikes looking, fewer strikes swinging, easier to time, easier to hit…and, let’s not forget, pitching in a tough division comprised largely of hitters’ parks (his own being no exception). That adds up to a big decline, mid-90′s heat or no.

#9.) Sergio Santos: 95.9 mph average (11th in MLB); 0.44 runs below average per 100 pitches (231st in MLB):

I know what you’re thinking.

Santos was a sensation in 2010, and he relies on his fastball a fair bit. Surely his fastball must’ve been excellent, or at least solid, right?

Apparently not. Both of Santos’ offspeed pitches–a slider and changeup–were stellar in 2010, but the fastball was nothing special despite being one of the fastest in the bigs.

He has a reputation as a fastball-oriented guy, which probably caused players to look out for it a lot, which made them good against it but weak against the offspeed stuff.

Furthermore–and this is the biggie–Santos almost never went to the heater to strike batters out, throwing it between 16 and 18 percent of the time on 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts.

Beyond that? It’s a straight fastball from a pitcher who doesn’t throw a lot of strikes. His whiff rate is an acceptable 5.8% on the pitch, but since he rarely uses it in situations where a swinging strike is important, that doesn’t help.

It’s not a terrible pitch–.44 runs below average per 100 is usable–but it’s easy to see why the fastball isn’t the reason for Santos’ success.

#8.) Charlie Morton: 92.9 mph average (87th in MLB); 2.27 runs below average per 100 pitches (312th in MLB):

Here’s proof that a pitcher increasing his velocity doesn’t always lead to better results.

Morton threw 91.3 mph on average in 2009 and wound up with a basically average fastball. In 2010, his velocity jumped, but his effectiveness plummeted.

Other than the velocity, there wasn’t a whole lot different about Morton’s 2010 fastballs than his 2009 ones, so there’s no easy explanation a la Beckett.

The most likely explanation is simply that the league caught up to him after he’d thrown half-seasons in 2008 and 2009. Morton’s always struggled to get ahead in the count, and he doesn’t have the sort of fastball that can make up for that. He also throws a lot of pitches right down the heart of the plate, which, needless to say, is a major problem. Before 2010, he’d miss the zone early in the count, but he wouldn’t concede by throwing hittable pitches later on. In 2010, he started grooving those 2-0 heaters, which lowered his walk rate but made it much easier to get hard contact off him, sending his line drive rate and homer-to-flyball ratio skyrocketing. It’s as if the extra 1.6 mph made Morton think he could do anything he wanted with the pitch. Quite clearly, he can’t.

#7.) Esmil Rogers: 94.4 mph average (40th in MLB); 0.90 runs below average per 100 pitches (270th in MLB):

It’s difficult to know how much of this is true poor performance and how much is bad luck.

Here’s what we do know on the luck front: Rogers had a .394 BABIP despite having a normal-ish line drive rate, and his ERA was pretty close to double his FIP as a result.

Since the guy was a rookie who threw just 72 innings, that’s not much to go on.

Rogers got a decent number of whiffs on the fastball (6.7%), and it features good cut and sink for its velocity, leading to excellent groundball rates. There really doesn’t seem to be a whole lot wrong with the pitch, and since its a small sample and the BABIP is so out of whack, I’m going to give him a mulligan here. We’ll see in 2011.

Interestingly, Rogers is the last guy on this list who hasn’t either been a recent top prospect (although you could argue he kind of was) or met with considerable success in the majors.

#6.) Jesse Crain: 94.8 mph average (30th in MLB); 1.13 runs below average per 100 pitches (282nd in MLB):

If you’re wondering how Crain succeeds, it’s because he has a great slider (2.91 runs above average per 100) and curve (3.59), and he uses them over half the time.

Then again, that makes his fastball make all of zero sense, doesn’t it.

A 94.8 mph pitch that hitters can’t sit on? That should be good, right?

Given the volatility of relief samples, it’s easy to write that off as a one-year oddity, but Crain hasn’t posted an above-average fastball effectiveness since 2005 (interestingly, at 1.73 runs above average that year and a whopping 1.99 in 2004).

What gives?

What gave, in 2010 at least, was Crain’s location. He likes to use the fastball inside to set up the breaking stuff away, and that gave him a case of Morton-itis with the heater, as he just left the ball middle-in far too often.

For Crain, that’s pretty much the cost of doing business. The hittable fastball makes the unhittable breaking stuff more enticing, which drives the values of those pitches way up in spite of their heavy usage. It’s a really odd style, but it works for him–Crain did post a 3.04 ERA, after all.

#5.) Joel Hanrahan: 96.0 mph average (9th in MLB); 0.94 runs below average per 100 pitches (272nd in MLB):

Like Crain, Hanrahan makes heavy usage of a great slider (3.33 runs above average per 100); unlike Crain, his fastball comprises over 60% of his pitches, which explains his troubles.

Again, you have to wonder about the BABIP here, though–.350 in spite of a very low line drive rate. That probably means his fastball is average-ish, not quite this bad. Don’t get any ideas that he really has a top-tier fastball, though: his whiff rate was just a very average 5.6%.

#4.) Matt Lindstrom: 95.7 mph average (15th in MLB); 1.17 runs below average per 100 pitches (283rd in MLB):

The Houston closer throws two fastballs, one that cuts and one that sinks. They both get good whiff numbers (7.1% for the sinker and 8.7% for the cutter), so again we have to look at the BABIP (.370) here. Like Hanrahan, there wasn’t a huge liner rate to blame for that, although it’s worth noting Lindstrom’s career BABIP is .341.

This one’s a bit of an enigma: I’m not really comfortable writing it off as only bad luck, but no other explanations jump out.

#3.) Juan Gutierrez: 94.7 mph average (31st in MLB); 1.59 runs below average per 100 pitches (302nd in MLB):

Gutierrez’s BABIP was .271, so that explanation’s eliminated. I suppose I have to go beyond three sentences for this one…

The problem, though, is easy to spot. 41.4% of pitches in the zone + medium walk rate = lots of grooved pitches from behind in the count, a notion the cover-your-eyes-bad 2.06 HR/9 readily confirms. His whiff rate on the fastball (6.3%) was solid, but if you throw 23 real stinkers in a season and 10 become homers, it really doesn’t matter that you held your own on the other 500 heaters you threw, does it? Gutierrez’s tendency to work high in the zone to begin with only made the problem worse.

Gutierrez did continue to follow the great-slider pattern established by Crain and Hanrahan here, with a 2.94 runs above average rating. He also had a 2.99 rating last year, so at least the fastball’s setting up the slider well.

#2.) Felipe Paulino: 95.5 mph average (18th in MLB); 1.38 runs below average per 100 pitches (296th in MLB):

Felipe Paulino is such a complicated pitcher that what I’m about to say probably won’t do justice to all the factors at play.

Here’s a guy who, as a starter, is averaging 95.5 mph. He also throws a slider/curve combo that makes my jaw drop.

And yet, Paulino’s fastball, over his career, is 1.85 runs below average per 100 pitches. Simply terrible.

You’d think that the slider and curve would get hitters off the heater, especially since Paulino uses it a modest 56.3% of the time. Obviously not.

The guy just isn’t the sum of his parts somehow. He gets ahead in the count well and throws a decent amount of pitches in the zone, and yet he walks too many guys.

Batters face Paulino with a very patient approach, so they watch a lot of his fastballs. Since they’re being more selective, they swing at mostly hittable heaters, leading him to have a paltry 3.9% whiff rate on the fastball, velocity be damned.

I have no idea what’s making hitters so patient against the big righty. Like I said, he gets strike one at a much better than average rate, throws an average amount of pitches in the strike zone, and has big breaking stuff to lure hitters out of the zone, not to mention get them off his blazing heat.

And it just doesn’t happen. As much promise as Paulino’s stuff holds, he’s got to find a way to get batters to chase, which you think would come easily with his stuff. Maybe being traded to Colorado will do the trick–sure, Coors Field sucks to pitch in, but maybe switching pitching coaches will help here.

#1.) Andrew Cashner: 96.3 mph average (5th in MLB); 1.21 runs below average per 100 pitches (286th in MLB):

With 281 spots separating his velocity rank from his effectiveness rank, Cashner takes the award for the 2010 fastball that most underperformed its velocity.

The hyped rookie, unlike almost every other pitcher on this list, used his fastball a lot in 2010–almost 70% of the time. It got an excellent 8.2% whiff rate, but his command of the pitch was lacking, leading to bad counts, which in turn led to lots of walks and meatballs. He’s a rookie who moved through the minors quickly, so cut him some slack: he at least showed the raw skill to have a successful fastball. Now it’s just a matter of learning how to harness it, which would put him above the Gutierrezes of the world.

~~~~~~

Pretty eye-opening stuff from these ten, no? I sure learned a lot from them:

1.) Overreliance on the big fastball wasn’t really a factor here. Cashner got himself in so many bad counts he was forced to overuse it, but generally, these pitchers used their heaters less than average, with Crain being the poster boy.

2.) The majority of these pitchers all got excellent ratings on their sliders. There are two possible explanations for why: a) they basically sacrifice the fastball for the sake of the slider or b) hitters are so worried about the velocity of the fastball that they can’t pick up the slider. I’d imagine it’s a mix of both, with (a) applying more to a guy like Crain and (b) more to someone like Paulino.

3.) Particularly for the relievers, BABIP can really skew these things.

4.) It’s very possible to succeed with a high-velocity fastball…in spite of said fastball. Everyone except maybe Morton and Rogers either has had success in the bigs or been a big-time prospect. Let’s be careful to not give all the credit to these pitchers’ fastballs just because they throw hard.

5.) It’s possible that having a poor fastball rating can help someone (like Crain) out overall by making their other pitches more effective. That’s a very strange notion for me, and probably for anyone else, but it’s worth looking into.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for Part 4, where I’ll look at the flip side of this: soft-tossers with great fastball effectiveness.

Topics: Andrew Cashner, Charlie Morton, Esmil Rogers, Felipe Paulino, Jesse Crain, Joel Hanrahan, Josh Beckett, Juan Gutierrez, Matt Lindstrom, Sergio Santos

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