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Entries in Fastballs (15)


Verlander's Fastball Losing Favor with Umps

Justin Verlander's fastball has been a hot topic, as the once-untouchable offering has gradually lost some zip (his average fastball velocity had dropped from 95 MPH in 2011 to 94.6 MPH in 2012 and 93.9 MPH in 2013) and been lashed into the gaps more often (batters slugged .358 in '11, .389 in '12 and .442 in '13). One little-discussed aspect of Verlander's fastball woes is that he's not getting as many called strikes on heaters thrown outside of the strike zone. That, in turn, is leading to more free passes for opposing hitters.

A few years ago, umps were quite generous to Verlander when batters took a fastball located off the plate. Verlander's called strike rate on fastballs thrown out of the strike zone was 16.4 percent in 2011, well above the 12 percent major league average for right-handed starting pitchers. Among righty starters, only Livan Hernandez, Doug Fister, Shaun Marcum, Ryan Vogelsong, Dan Haren, Colby Lewis and Roy Halladay got more calls on out-of-zone fastballs.

Since then, Verlander hasn't been so fortunate. His called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs fell to 15.1 percent in 2012, and sits at a league average 11.9 percent so far in 2013. The main difference is on arm-side fastballs -- umps aren't calling as many strikes on pitches thrown well inside to righty batters, or off the outside corner to lefties.

Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2011


Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2012


Verlander's called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs, 2013

Verlander's declining called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs is made more puzzling by his decline in velocity. In general, there's an inverse relationship between fastball velocity and called strike rate on out-of-zone fastballs -- the slower you throw, the more called strikes you get. Out-of-zone fastballs thrown by righty starting pitchers between 90-92 MPH, for example, have a called strike rate of 12.4 percent over the past three years. That called strike rate dips to 11 percent for fastballs thrown between 93-94 MPH, and just 8.4 percent for fastballs thrown 95 MPH or harder. You'd think that a softer-tossing Verlander would get more called strikes, not fewer.

While the change in Verlander's called strike rate on fastballs thrown off the plate might not seem huge, those extra balls do add up. The difference between his 2011 and 2013 called strike rates on out-of-zone fastballs amounts to 20 additional balls thrown, which partially explains why his walk rate has climbed in recent years (from 5.9 percent of batters faced in 2011 to 6.3 percent in 2012 and 8.3 percent in 2013). When Verlander toes the rubber against the A's tonight, keep an eye on his off-the-plate heat -- the ump's generosity could be the difference between strike three and ball four.


Can Anthony Rizzo Handle the Heat?

The Chicago Cubs committed at least $41 million and potentially up to $73 million in Anthony Rizzo this past May, ensuring the 24-year-old would slug his way to the upper echelon of first basemen at Wrigley Field. At least, that was the plan. While he hasn't totally collapsed like fellow franchise cornerstone Starlin Castro, Rizzo has stalled out instead out breaking out.

Rizzo established himself as an extension-worthy hitter in 2012 after Chicago acquired him from San Diego for Andrew Cashner in a rare young player challenge trade, posting an on-base-plus-slugging percentage that was 17 percent above average (117 OPS+) once adjusting for league and park factors. This year, Rizzo's 103 OPS+ tops that of just Lyle Overbay and Mitch Moreland (99 OPS+) among first basemen qualified for the batting title.

To stop getting heat from fans, the media and his manager, Rizzo has to start crushing heat at the plate. The Cubs' would-be bopper isn't making loud contact against fastballs this season, manager Dale Sveum told ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg:

"An every-day player gets 600 at-bats, averaging one major [fastball about groin-high] an at-bat; that's four a day," Sveum said. "What you do with those four balls that you can drive out of the ballpark dictates your whole day. The difference is the guys that are the elite center about three or four of those. What centering is, I don't care if they pop it up to the catcher, it's on the four inches of the barrel."

Sveum's right -- Rizzo isn't centering fastballs like he did last season. While Rizzo is hitting more fastballs in the air in 2013 (42 percent of balls put in play) than in 2012 (36 percent), many of those fly balls are of the can-of-corn variety. Last year, Rizzo drove fastballs an average of 277 feet when he hit one skyward, above the 270 foot MLB average and the same distance as Nelson Cruz and Carlos Gonzalez. In 2013, Rizzo's fly ball distance on fastballs has dropped to 254 feet -- about the same average distance as Michael Brantley and Brett Gardner.

It's hard to say why the 6-foot-3, 240 pound Rizzo is hitting fastballs more like a top-of-the-lineup water bug. He's swinging at fewer heaters thrown out of the strike zone (his chase rate has declined from about 29 percent in 2012 to 21 percent in 2013), and he's actually pulling fastballs more often (28 percent of balls put in play in 2012, 30 percent in 2013). Whatever the cause, Rizzo's 20-plus foot drop in fastball fly ball distance has contributed to a near 150-point fall in his fastball slugging percentage.

Rizzo slugged .532 versus fastballs in 2012, easily besting the MLB average (.433). In 2013, however, he's slugging just .383 when pitchers challenge him. The difference is especially glaring on low pitches: he slugged .571 against stuff thrown at the knees in 2012, but a mere .226 in 2013.

Rizzo's fastball slugging percentage by pitch location, 2012


Rizzo's fastball slugging percentage by pitch location, 2013


Rizzo's fastball woes apparently come as a surprise to the hitter himself. "Look at my numbers," Rizzo told ESPN Chicago's Greenberg. "My fastball numbers are the best there are." Hopefully, Rizzo can start taking out his frustration on those heaters. Right now, his numbers aren't the best there are -- they're merely better than Lyle Overbay's.


Cole, Fernandez Getting Outs, if not Whiffs, with Blazing Fastballs

Catchers on both clubs will ice sore hands this afternoon, as Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole squares off against Miami's Jose Fernandez. Cole is tied with the Mets' Matt Harvey for the highest average fastball velocity (95.4 MPH) among starting pitchers, while Fernandez (94.6 MPH) also ranks in the top 10. You might think such premium gas would lead to lots of swings and misses, but you'd be wrong. Both hard-throwing rookies are attacking hitters with their fastballs, posting modest whiff totals with the pitch but beating batters nonetheless.

Cole (14.5% fastball miss rate) and Fernandez (14.4%) have nearly identical fastball whiff rates that are below the major league average for starters (15.1%). Yet, Cole and Fernandez sit near the top of the charts when it comes to limiting hard fastball contact.

Lowest opponent fastball slugging percentage among starting pitchers, 2013 (Min. 500 fastballs thrown)

How have Cole and Fernandez been so successful with their fastballs despite such modest whiff rates? They're pumping fastballs over the plate, challenging hitters to take their best shot against their high-speed heaters.

Cole's fastball location, 2013

Fernandez's fastball location, 2013

Cole has located 57% of his fastballs within the strike zone, tied with Clayton Kershaw for fifth-highest among National League starters and well north of the 53% MLB average in 2013. Fernandez has been similarly aggressive, throwing 56% of his fastballs in the strike zone. With heat like this, why nibble?

The battle between batter and pitcher can be a complex game of percentages, but sometimes, it's brutally simple. Cole and Fernandez don't think anyone can touch their searing fastballs. So far, they're right.