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Entries in fastball (14)

Thursday
Dec192013

Missing: Matt Thornton's Fastball

Matt Thornton finally learned how to tame his upper-90s fastball in his thirties, emerging as one of the game's most lethal relievers after walking the yard in the minors and during his first few years in the majors with Seattle. The durable lefty dominated from 2008-11, posting the fifth-highest strikeout rate (10.7 per nine innings) and eighth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (59 percent above average) among qualified 'pen arms. Hitters knew what was coming -- Thronton threw his meal ticket fastball an MLB-high 86 percent over that time frame -- but that knowledge didn't help them look any less foolish at the dish.

The Yankees just signed the 37-year-old Thornton to a two-year, $7 million free agent deal, hoping he can serve as a lower-cost alternative to power lefty Boone Logan (now a Rockie after inking a three-year, $16.5 million contract). Unfortunately, Thornton seems to have misplaced his meal ticket. These days, Thronton's throwing his fastball slower -- and leaving it over the heart of the plate far too often.

Back in 2011, Thornton boasted the highest average fastball velocity (95.8 MPH) of any lefty reliever not named Aroldis Chapman. But his average heater declined to 95 MPH in 2012, and 94.2 MPH in 2013. As Thornton's fastball velocity dipped, hitters' contact rate against the pitch spiked:

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2012

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2013

 

Batters whiffed at Thornton's fastball 22 percent of the time that they swung in '11, well above the 18 percent average for relievers. However, that whiff rate dropped to 16.4 percent in '12 and just 13.9 percent this past year. For comparison's sake, J.P. Howell -- who throws 88 MPH gas on a breezy day -- got whiffs 13.6 percent of the time. Connecting much more frequently, opponents raised their batting average off Thornton's fastball from .256 to .275 to .298.

Thornton's fastball velocity isn't the only thing on the wane, though -- his command has also suffered. He has thrown more pitches over the vertical middle of the plate three years running (31 percent in '11, 36.3 percent in '12, and 36.8 percent in '13). When pitchers toss a belt-high fastball, hitters pretty much morph into Dustin Pedroia. They rarely whiff (a collective 14.2 percent miss rate in 2013), hit for average (.291) and drive the ball into the gaps (.464 slugging percentage). Poorly located fastballs lead to laser shows.

With diminished zip and command, Thornton's K rate has dipped from 9.5 per nine frames in 2011 to a career-worst 6.2 in 2013, when he couldn't crack the Red Sox playoff roster. It's not like the Yankees shelled out big bucks to bring him aboard, considering that $7 million now buys about a win on the free agent market. But, like many of his formerly elite teammates in the Bronx, Thornton has seen better days.

Monday
Dec162013

How is Bartolo Colon Still Doing This?

Absolutely nothing about Bartolo Colon screams longevity. His right shoulder is a science experiment, he's an ardent follower of the Body by Boomer Wells fitness plan, and he lobs not-so-fast fastballs almost exclusively. His body failing him, Colon appeared on the verge of retirement eight seasons ago. By looks alone, you might think he did hang 'em up and just decided to dust off his glove for a beer league softball start.

Colon still looks imposing to hitters, though. He's coming off one of the greatest age-40 seasons in history, posting a park-and-league-adjusted ERA 41 percent above average. Among quadragenarians qualifying for the ERA title, only Nolan Ryan (142 ERA+ in 1987), Pete Alexander (160 ERA+ in 1927) and Randy Johnson (176 ERA+ in 2004) were better. Colon's superb work with the A's just earned him a two-year, $20 million free agent deal with the New York Mets.

What makes Colon's late-career resurgence all the more confounding is that his stuff seems so ordinary, so predictable. He doesn't possess Ryan's heat, Alexander's hard curve or Johnson's wipeout slider. Colon practically doesn't even have secondary offerings, throwing his fastball a major league-high 85 percent of the time. It's not fast, either, with an average velocity (89.9 MPH in 2013) nearly two miles per hour under the MLB average for right-handed starting pitchers (91.6 MPH).

How can a one-pitch hurler with below-average zip nonetheless contend for the Cy Young Award? Here are three reasons why Colon is still getting it done with his fastball.

1.) He pounds the strike zone

Colon returned to the majors in 2011 following a year spent rehabbing and getting stem cell treatment for his then-shredded shoulder. Colon's ailments cost him some velocity, but he has compensated with improved control. Since 2011, he has thrown the ninth-highest percentage of fastballs (54.9) within the strike zone among AL starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 pitches). The league average over the past three seasons is just 49.1 percent. By attacking hitters, Colon surrendered the fewest walks (1.6 per nine innings pitched) among all Junior Circuit starters from 2011-13. A younger, harder-throwing Colon wasn't this stingy with walks (his career average is 2.8 per nine frames).

Highest percentage of fastballs thrown within the strike zone among AL starters, 2011-13

 

2.) He gets favorable calls on pitches thrown around the edges of the plate

If there's one advantage to being a soft-tosser, it's that umps are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on close calls. Colon is a prime example of this phenomenon, enjoying a higher called strike rate than the average MLB starter both on pitches thrown inside of the strike zone and off the plate:

Colon's called strike rate, 2011-13

 

Compared to the average MLB starter, Colon has received an extra 86 calls on pitches taken by hitters over the past three years. That's essentially one extra strike per start. It might not sound like much, but that close call can be the difference between a big inning and another spotless frame.

3.) He rarely gives up long drives on fastballs hit in the air

Overall, batters loft fastballs an average of 266 feet when they hit the ball in the air. Against Colon, however, hitters drove the ball just 259 feet from 2011-13. That puts Colon in the same rarefied air as power pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander (255 feet apiece). Hitters just don't square up Colon's heater, resulting in more cans of corn and warning track shots instead of three-run homers.

By peppering the strike zone, benefiting from umpires' generosity on borderline calls, and limiting hard contact, Colon allowed a .400 opponent slugging percentage on his fastball from 2011-13. That's about 40 points below the MLB average, and bests youngsters with humming fastballs like Stephen Strasburg (.409) and Chris Sale (.413). Colon's no super hero, but he should be able to anchor the Mets' rotation as the Dark Knight of Gotham plots his return in 2015.

Saturday
Oct262013

Joe Kelly Should Bring the Heat vs. Big Papi

Michael Wacha's game plan against David Ortiz in Game 2 of the World Series was simple: The St. Louis rookie wasn't going to let Boston's clean-up man beat him on a fastball. That makes sense, considering Ortiz boasts the fifth-highest slugging percentage (.633) in the majors versus heaters and Wacha possesses a deadly changeup. Wacha threw his change nine times out of 16 total pitches (60 percent) versus Ortiz, but Big Papi roped one of those off-speed pitches into the first row of the Green Monster seats. Throw him a fastball? You lose. Throw him a changeup? You still lose.

All of this might make Joe Kelly, the Cardinals' Game 3 starter, sweat. Kelly throws his fastball about two-thirds of the time, and he hasn't yet developed a knockout secondary pitch akin to Wacha's changeup. But he shouldn't necessarily despair. Crazy as it sounds, challenging Big Papi with fastballs might actually be a good strategy for Kelly.

Ortiz does have the best overall slugging percentage against heaters this side of Miguel Cabrera (.682), Paul Goldschmidt (.650), Jayson Werth (.646) and Edwin Encarnacion (.637). However, he does most of that damage against lower-velocity fastballs. Papi is Babe Ruth incarnate versus gas thrown at or below 93 MPH, but he's merely good when pitchers crank it up to 94 MPH or higher. Ortiz also expands his strike zone against fastballs with extra zip:

Ortiz vs. fastballs in 2013, by pitch velocity

Kelly's fastball has the extra zip that typically tames Ortiz's bat, with an average velocity (94.8 MPH) topped only by Nathan Eovaldi (96.1 MPH), Danny Salazar (95.9 MPH), Gerrit Cole (95.6 MPH), Matt Harvey (95.4 MPH), Stephen Strasburg (95.3 MPH) and Chris Archer (94.9 MPH) among starters. And as a starter, Kelly's fastball has been plenty effective: he's limiting batters to a .317 slugging percentage when navigating lineups multiple times. Ortiz, who's already gone deep five times this postseason, can spoil the best of pitches. But Kelly's best bet might be to try and blow Big Papi away.