Fastballs: the Top 5 through the season's first two months

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Speed thrills, as they say, and no pitch does so like the fastball. The baseball world has been fascinated with the fastball since the invention of the radar gun, fixating on higher velocity readings. But the fastball is the most important pitch for a reason. Pitchers use it to set up other pitches, get a quick strike or grounder, and some even use it for whiffs. Even with the rise of the sinker, the four seam fastball reigns over all as the base for any successful pitcher.

To find the best fastballs in the sport, it’s important to define what makes a fastball good. Velocity is a good start, but pitch movement is just as important, if not more. We also want to reward good results, so pitchers with good whiff and ground ball rates will do better. Another way to track how good an individual pitch has been is using pitch type linear weights, which account for every result on every pitch thrown. And without further ado, here are the best fastballs in 2014, a third of the way through.

Johnny Cueto

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Cueto’s velocity is pretty unremarkable, coming in at 92.7 MPH on average, but his location and late rise make it almost unhittable. He has the third best whiff/swing% rate on the pitch at 25.16%, and hitters swing and miss on 10.3% of all fastballs thrown by him, another elite mark. Cueto’s 8.5 inches of rise make the pitch even harder to hit. To see just how much rise that is, look at how far down B.J. Upton’s swing is in the gif above. He’s ready for any sort of sink from the pitch, but the backspin creates late lift to keep it out of his bat path. He throws the pitch in the middle third of the zone, and even though power is higher there, so are whiff rates. He thrives on fooling hitters on the pitch, and has the best weighted value so far at 11.3 runs above average.

Michael Wacha

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While most of the nation is enamored with his changeup, Wacha quietly has one of the best fastballs in the bigs. Where a two pitch mix is rarely advised for a starter, Wacha’s pitches are both so good that he still generates a 25.2% strikeout rate, thanks to his well placed fastball. The heater hits the zone 58% of the time, forcing hitters to either take a strike or offer at a pitch with 27.9% whiffs/swing, second best in the majors. Wacha’s 11.3 inches of vertical rise are fifth in the majors, and his 4 inches of run are above average. Even though he sits at 93 MPH, he can ramp it up to 97, giving himself another strikeout pitch when he needs it. The 3 runs above average it gets are indicative of just how good his fastball really is.

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