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Entries in strikeouts (19)


Matt Harvey's High Heat

The Mets are off to a 6-4 start this year, and Matt Harvey is a major reason why. Harvey has surrendered just one run while winning his first two starts, punching out 19 batters in 14 innings pitched. The 24-year-old right-hander with a blistering fastball is challenging hitters with high heat -- and he's winning.

Here is Harvey's fastball location so far in 2013:

Overall, major league starting pitchers have thrown about 35% of their fastballs to the upper third of the strike zone this season. But Harvey? He's going upstairs 53% of the time, highest among National League starters throwing at least 100 pitches. Harvey's high heat is getting results, too. He's getting hitters to swing and miss at his fastball nearly half of the time, putting him in a class all his own among MLB starters:

Highest fastball miss rate among MLB starters (min. 100 thrown)


Harvey has thrown his fastball, which screams towards home plate at an average of 94 MPH and has topped out at 98 MPH, about two-thirds of the time. Opponents are hitting .154 (4-for-26) against his heater, with a lone extra-base knock (congrats, Jimmy Rollins!) Eat your heart out, Verlander and Strasburg.


Weaver's Lack of Zip, Whiffs a Growing Concern

With a lanky, 6-foot-7 frame and a cross-fire delivery that baffles hitters trying to pick up the ball, Jered Weaver exudes deception. But can Weaver, coming off a 20-win season, keep tricking batters as he enters his thirties and becomes one of the game's softest tossers? Fangraphs' Paul Swydan isn't so sure (ESPN Insider subscription required):

"Over the past couple of years his velocity -- as well as his strikeout and swinging-strike rates -- has declined...With his 20s behind him, Weaver is unlikely to see these trends suddenly reverse themselves, and he will become even more reliant on his control and defense."

Weaver struck out a career-best 25.7% of batters faced in 2010. Since then, his punchout rate his nosedived to 21.4% in 2011 and 19.2% this past season. On a related note, Weaver's fastball velocity has declined three years running: 89.9 MPH in '10, 89.1 MPH in '11, and just 87.7 MPH in 2012.

Weaver's fastball beat out just R.A. Dickey's and Bronson Arroyo's in velocity among right-handed starting pitchers last year. Yet, the pitch has defied logic by remaining highly effective despite a gargantuan dip in swings and misses. Let's take a closer look at Weaver's not-so-fast fastball, and what that velocity loss could mean for him in 2013.

Here is Weaver's fastball contact rate by pitch location over the past three seasons:

Weaver's fastball miss rate by pitch location, 2010


Weaver's fastball miss rate by pitch location, 2011


Weaver's fastball miss rate by pitch location, 2012

Back in 2010, batters swung and missed at Weaver's fastball 19.6% of the time. That was seventh-highest among all qualified starters, beating out the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Weaver's fastball miss rate fell to 15.9% in 2011, and came in at a paltry 12% in 2012 -- below the 14% MLB average and in the same finesse lefties like Paul Maholm and Tommy Milone.

But while hitters are making  much more contact against Weaver's fastball, they're not doing any more damage. Check out Weaver's fastball slugging percentage by location from 2010-12:

Weaver's opponent fastball slugging percentage by location, 2010


Weaver's opponent fastball slugging percentage by location, 2011


Weaver's opponent fastball slugging percentage by location, 2012

Opponents slugged .393 against Weaver's fastball during his high-strikeout 2010 campaign, about 60 points below the major league average. Weaver's opponent fastball slugging percentage actually fell to .322 in 2011, and barely budged in 2012 (.333) as he started putting up radar gun readings that wouldn't get him pulled over by highway patrol.

Weaver's success with such a slow heater is exceptionally rare. Last year, hitters slugged .513 against fastballs thrown between 87 and 88 MPH. Basically, batters morphed into Albert Pujols when a pitcher lobbed a fastball in that velocity range. Can Weaver keep getting outs with a fastball that only the Zitos and Buehrles of the world consider fast? He does have some advantages over other soft-tossers:

  • His fastball command has improved as the pitch has slowed. Weaver threw about 24% of his fastballs over the horizontal middle of the plate in 2010, which is the MLB average for starters. He left 23% of his fastballs over the middle in 2011, and just 21% this past year. Perhaps Weaver's fine touch can counter the extra time that hitters have to react.
  • Weaver has one of the game's most diverse repertoires, as he tossed his changeup (14% of pitches thrown), slider (13%), and curveball (10%) more than 10% of the time, and nearly did the same with his cutter (9%). Not many hurlers have four other options with which to occupy hitters' minds.
  • Weaver's home park is death to power hitters. Angels Stadium decreased run-scoring by 14 percent for both left-handed and right-handed hitters last season, according to StatCorner. Long fly balls that become souvenirs at other stadiums die at the warning track in Anaheim.
  • He also benefits from playing behind arguably the best defensive team in the majors. The Angels led all clubs in Defensive Efficiency in 2012, converting about 72% of balls put in play into outs (the MLB average was about 70%). As a fly ball pitcher, Weaver can't ask for better support than Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos and Josh Hamilton keeping balls out of the gaps.
  • Weaver will also get to take on the Houston Astros, who join the AL West in 2013. Outside of pint-sized All-Star Jose Altuve and perhaps high-strikeout sluggers Chris Carter and Justin Maxwell, the Astros's lineup looks like a mess. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects Houston's offense for the second-fewest runs scored in the AL, topping only the division rival Seattle Mariners.

Weaver's lack of zip is concerning. Most pitchers who sit in his new, low-octane velocity range get pummeled. But if ever there were a case where a guy could Houdini his way to another 20 wins, it's Jered Weaver in 2013.


Cutters, Sliders Fuel MLB's Strikeout Surge

Bad news for fans who adore high-contact pests: Players punching out at Scutaro-esque levels are a dying breed. Strikeouts have spiked in the majors with the percentage of plate appearances ending in a K increasing from 17.5 in 2008 to 19.8 in 2012, highest in MLB history.

At this pace, poor umpire Jim Joyce is going to be hoarse by May. 

What's behind the strikeout surge?

It appears that pitchers are fanning hitters by throwing more two-strike cutters and sliders in place of fastballs. 

  • In 2008, pitchers threw fastballs or sinkers 52.8% of the time in two-strike counts.
  • In 2012, they threw fastballs 48.6% of the time in such situations.
  • The percentage of two-strike curveballs and changeups thrown has remained about the same between 2008 and 2012.
  • Pitchers are tossing considerably more cutters with two strikes (1.8% of two-strike pitches in 2008, and 5.5% in 2012) and sliders (19.4% in 2008, 20.7% in 2012).

As the table below shows, those cutters and sliders are driving the increase in Ks across the game.

The number of batters striking out on sliders has increased by about 22% from 2008 to 2012. Hitters struck out 342% more often against the cutter in 2012 than in 2008.

Increase in strikeouts by pitch type from 2008 to 2012

Here's another way of putting it: 

  • Cutters accounted for about 1.7% of total strikeouts in 2008, and 5.1% in 2012.
  • Sliders made up 23.6% of total Ks in 2008, and 25.2% in 2012.
  • Fastballs, meanwhile, have fallen from 45.3% of total strikeouts in 2008 to 41.9% in 2012. 

Cutters and sliders are fueling MLB's strikeout surge, but in different ways. Pitchers are freezing hitters with two-strike cutters thrown over the plate. By contrast, batters are chasing -- and whiffing -- more often against sliders.

The increase in Ks via the cutter has come mostly from pitches taken in the strike zone.

In two-strike counts, pitchers threw a cutter over the plate 38.8% of the time in 2008. By 2012, they threw in-zone cutters in two-strike counts 43.2% of the time.

While pitchers are throwing more cutters in the strike zone, hitters have actually gotten worse at recognizing balls and strikes. Batters swung at two-strike cutters thrown in the strike zone 90.1% in 2008, but that decreased to 88.4% in 2012.

When pitchers go out of the zone, batters are chasing fewer cutters and making more contact when they do swing.

Cutters in two-strike counts

Pitchers are throwing about the same percentage of sliders over the plate in two-strike counts, and hitters are actually swinging at more strikes.

However, batters are chasing more two-strike sliders out of the zone (41.7% in 2008, 44.4% in 2012) and whiffing more often (45% in 2008, 48.4% in 2012):

Sliders in two-strike counts    


In summary:

  • In two-strike counts, pitchers are throwing more cutters and sliders and fewer fastballs/sinkers.
  • Those cutters and sliders accounted for a higher percentage of overall strikeouts in 2012 (about 30% combined) than in 2008 (about 25%), while fastballs/sinkers accounted for fewer Ks (about 45% in 2008, and 42% in 2012).
  • Pitchers are throwing more two-strike cutters in the zone and batters are swinging at fewer of them, resulting in more looking strikeouts.
  • Batters are chasing more two-strike sliders thrown out of the zone, and they're missing those pitches more often.