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Entries in fastball (14)

Thursday
Aug082013

Jose Fernandez: Lineup Navigator

Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez has persevered over more challenges during his 21 years than most of us will during our entire lives. Three prison stints for failed defection attempts from Cuba. Diving off a boat into the Atlantic Ocean to save his mother from drowning during one of those tries. Finally reaching the States, via Trinidad and Cancun. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us, then, that he's unfazed by major league competition.

Fernandez, who just turned 21, ranks eighth among all major league starting pitchers in ERA+ (153). Such run prevention prowess at such a young ace is nearly unprecedented: Dwight Gooden (229 ERA+ in 1985), Bob Feller (154 ERA+ in 1939) and Don Drysdale (153 ERA+ in 1957) are the only other starters to post an adjusted ERA at least 50 percent better than the league average during their age-20 season.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Fernandez's historic season is that he's just as dominant while navigating opposing lineups for the third time during the game as he is the first time. Most hurlers become less effective as their pitch counts rise and opponents become familiar with their stuff, holding hitters to a .394 slugging percentage the first time around but allowing them to slug .409 the second time and .435 the third time. Not Fernandez, though: batters are slugging .287 when facing him the first time, .272 the second time and .283 the third time.

Fernandez is thriving late in games because the quality of his stuff doesn't slip. Most starters lose zip on their fastballs as the game progresses, but Miami's 6-foot-2, 240 pound ace retains his 94+ MPH velocity. Just when you think he's starting to slow down, he ramps it back up:

Fernandez's average and maximum fastball velocity by inning

1st: 95 MPH, 99 MPH max

2nd: 94.8 MPH, 97.9 MPH max

3rd: 94.8 MPH, 98.1 MPH max

4th: 94.5 MPH, 98.5 MPH max

5th: 94.1 MPH, 98.4 MPH max

6th: 94.9 MPH, 97.9 MPH max

7th: 94.2 MPH, 97.2 MPH max

8th: 94.1 MPH, 97 MPH max

Holding his elite heat deep into the night, Fernandez actually has a lower opponent slugging percentage with his fastball in innings 5-8 (.311) than in innings 1-4 (.344). When you've battled the churning waves of the Atlantic, facing Brian McCann or Bryce Harper the third time around doesn't seem so hard.

Monday
Jul082013

The Inside Story on Jeff Locke

Jeff Locke has made the leap from fifth starter to Pirates ace in a few short months, anchoring the NL Central leader's starting rotation while A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez heal. The lefty takes the mound tonight against the Oakland A's with a 2.12 ERA, trailing only Clayton Kershaw among qualified starters. Locke has been better at preventing runs than Stephen Strasburg. Better than Matt Harvey. Better than Adam Wainwright. Not bad for a guy battered for a 5.82 ERA in short stints during the 2011-12 seasons and dubbed "The Intern" by manager Clint Hurdle during spring training.

Whether Locke's success continues, however, is much less clear. His ERA is sparkling, but he doesn't induce a lot of strikeouts (6.1 per nine innings pitched) or limit free passes (3.9 BB/9). His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) -- what you'd expect his ERA to be based on Ks, walks and home runs allowed -- is 3.86.

The disconnect between Locke's expected and actual results is most pronounced when he throws inside -- supposedly a cardinal sin for soft-tossers. Few do it more often -- or with more success.

Locke looks like the stereotypical "crafty lefty" who avoids confrontation at all costs. He's on the small side, standing six feet and weighing 185 pounds, and he only tops 90 MPH with a gust of wind at his back. Despite his so-so velocity, the Pirates lefty has thrown more inside fastballs (47% of his total heaters) than any National League starting pitcher this side of Scott Feldman (48%), now in the AL with Baltimore. Among AL starters, only Derek Holland (55%) challenges hitters inside more often. Locke's thriving on the inner third, too:

Locke's opponent slugging percentage on fastballs vs. left-handed hitters

Locke's opponent slugging percentage on fastballs vs. right-handed hitters

Locke has limited hitters to a .186 slugging percentage when he tries to jam them with a fastball. That ties him with Cliff Lee for the third-lowest mark in the majors, trailing just flame-throwers Harvey and Jose Fernandez.

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on inside fastballs among SP (min. 50 PA throwing inside)

Locke's success in busting batters inside with his fastball is baffling for several reasons:

  • Locke has the lowest average fastball velocity (90.1 MPH) among pitchers on the list above, and Lee (90.7 MPH) and Alex Cobb (90.4 MPH) are the only other guys who throw under 92 MPH. Pitchers with Locke's fastball velocity tend to get spanked when they go inside. Pitchers throwing 89-91 MPH fastballs inside have a collective .464 opponent slugging percentage this year, compared to .475 for those throwing 92+ MPH heat.
  • Locke hardly ever gets hitters to whiff against inside fastballs. Hitters are swinging and missing just 8.6% of the time, well below the 12.4% MLB average. Even fellow soft-tossers Lee (16.3% miss rate) and Cobb (11.9%) induce more swings and misses on inside fastballs.
  • He doesn't back off even when he falls behind in the count, throwing his fastball inside 42% of the time when the hitter has the advantage. The MLB average, by contrast, is 26%. His opponent slugging percentage in such situations is .400, compared to the .585 MLB average.

Can Locke keep thumbing his nose at conventional pitching wisdom, beating hitters inside with not-so-fast fastballs? Or will he get his head handed to him in the second half? Stay tuned as we learn The Intern's ultimate fate.

Friday
Jun142013

Hisashi Iwakuma's Logic-Defying Fastball

Who would have thought that arguably the leading candidate for the 2013 AL Cy Young Award would be a Seattle Mariner not named Felix Hernandez? As good as King Felix has been, rotation mate Hisashi Iwakuma has been even better. In his second season stateside, Iwakuma ranks second among qualified major league starters in ERA+ (204) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.21).

The 32-year-old righty has emerged as an ace in part due to dramatic improvement with his fastball. Hitters are slugging just .362 against the pitch this season, compared to .595 in 2012. Iwakuma's success with his fastball flies in the face of baseball logic -- he's throwing it slower and putting it over the plate more often, yet he's getting swings and misses like a flame-thrower

Iwakuma didn't throw hard during his rookie season, with an average fastball velocity (90.3 MPH) that was one tick below the MLB average for right-handed starters (91.3 MPH). This year, he's lost some of his already modest zip, averaging 89.5 MPH on the radar gun. At the same time, Iwakuma has increased his percentage of fastballs thrown within the strike zone from about 58% to 62%. No starter outside of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has pumped more fastballs over the plate this season.

As you might imagine, slow fastballs get fewer swings and misses (11.8% for sub-90 MPH gas) than higher-velocity heaters (15.6% for 90+ MPH fastballs). And fastballs thrown over the plate get dramatically fewer whiffs (12.1%) than out-of-zone fastballs (22.1%). Iwakuma was already a soft-tosser who filled up the strike zone in 2012, and those tendencies only became more pronounced in 2013. Therefore, his fastball miss rate should drop, right? Wrong.

Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2012

 

Iwakuma's fastball contact rate, 2013

In 2012, Iwakuma got swings and misses with his fastball 14.5% of the time. This year, while throwing more soft strikes, he's getting whiffs at a 22.5% clip. To put that into context, Yu Darvish (27% fastball miss rate), Shelby Miller (25.5%) and Matt Harvey (24.2%) are the only starters to miss lumber at a higher rate. Darvish (92.9 MPH average fastball velocity) Miller (93.4 MPH) and Harvey (95 MPH) all bring the heat. One of these things is not like the other. Iwakuma's fastball remains a mystery, to hitters and analysts alike.