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Entries in velocity (2)

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.

Sunday
Jan062013

Do Power Pitchers Get Squeezed?

When it comes to fastballs, pitchers who blow smoke reign supreme. The harder you throw, the better your results. Batters missed about 27% of the time that they swung at a fastball thrown 98 MPH or harder last year. By contrast, hitters whiffed at less than half that rate against fastballs lobbed under 90 MPH. But what happens when hitters don't swing? It looks like power pitchers are actually at a disadvantage compared to their soft-tossing brethren. The harder you throw, the smaller your strike zone from the umpire.

Here's a look at the called strike rate on fastballs taken in the strike zone and out of the zone, broken down by pitch velocity. Compared to flame-throwers, pitchers who can't bust through a sheet of Bounty with their fastballs get more calls on pitches taken both inside and outside of the strike zone:

Called strike rate on fastballs taken by the hitter, by velocity

 

It looks like hitters aren't the only ones who have some difficulty handling premium velocity. Big Blue correctly calls about 84% of fastballs taken in the strike zone when pitchers sit near the Barry Zito side of the velocity spectrum, but that drops to about 75% when pitchers unleash Aroldis Chapman-level gas. Though power pitchers still get a good number of calls on pitches thrown away to left-handed hitters (inside to righty batters), their strike zone shrinks everywhere else. They get no love on pitches thrown inside to lefty batters, and their vertical strike zone gets chopped down to Pedroia-sized proportions.

Called strike rate on 86-88 MPH fastballs taken by the hitter

 

Called strike rate on 89-91 MPH fastballs taken by the hitter

 

Called strike rate on 92-94 MPH fastballs taken by the hitter

 

Called strike rate on 95-97 MPH fastballs taken by the hitter

 

Called strike rate on 98+ MPH fastballs taken by the hitter

Power fastballs are still preferable, even if they do garner fewer called strikes on pitches taken. For example, batters slugged nearly 200 points higher against Zito-esque fastballs last year (.504 against 86-88 MPH fastballs) than they did against Chapman-quality heat (.307 against 98+ MPH fastballs). And hitters do swing at power fastballs more often (51.4% against 98 MPH+ heaters) than slower offerings (40.3% against 86-88 MPH ), so the impact of the lower called strike rate is lessened.

That said, this info suggests that even the world's best judges of balls and strikes have their physical limitations. Umpires, like hitters, have less time to process and react as the radar gun readings increase. When near-triple-digit pitches are screaming toward home plate, it's harder for umps to make those fine calls on the edges of the dish.

Hitters might want to take more hacks against the Zitos of the world, knowing that pitchers of that ilk enjoy a more generous strike zone. Against Chapman, though? Just keep the bat on your shoulder and hope for the best.