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Finding the best fastball strategy

Al Leiter and Bill Ripkin use walk off home run against Brewers to decry fastballs up and the launch angle revolution

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

As I am apt to do, I had the MLB Network on as I was getting my children ready for school. A new commercial popped up highlighting Christian Yelich with captions “on his way back to doing this” as he was shown hitting, and “he’ll do this” as he was working out in the gym. It was a cool commercial and drew my attention to the television.

Immediately after the commercial, a segment began with a voice over of Brian Kenny saying, “the launch angle revolution.” Cody Bellinger, J.D. Martinez, and others were subsequently crushing home runs on upper cut swings and other voice overs were extolling the merits of launch angle. The segment segued to Bill Ripkin and Al Leiter ready to counter the launch angle revolution idea with the idea that throwing fastballs low and away was still the best pitch even in the wake of so many hitters adopting the importance of launch angle. In point of fact, Ripkin and Leiter were countering the pitching philosophy that the best way to attack hitters today is by pitching up in the zone.

I should caveat that I love these segments by Ripkin, Leiter, Jim Thome, John Smoltz, and the plethora of baseball experts are people that know more about the game than I can ever expect to learn. Their analysis in this segment was relatively good and thought provoking. Yet the analysis in my humble opinion was flawed, or at least incomplete. You can see the entire piece below. I urge you to watch, because it is a thought provoking segment, and it will help you to follow this article better.

Their first point was to state that the blind acceptance of throwing up in the zone is problematic and not something that works for all pitchers. They demonstrated this by taking fastballs thrown up in the zone by Matthew Boyd, Rick Porcello, and Blake Treinen. The obvious result in each of those illustrations were home runs crushed by opposing pitchers. I do not think Leiter nor Ripkin are wrong about these pitchers. I have even written about this before suggesting in particular Porcello should use his two-seam fastball low in the zone more than his four-seamer up. Throwing fastballs up is probably not a good idea for several pitchers, because their stuff or talent does not lend itself to it. That was not their only point though.

The key point of the segment was to demonstrate the merits of throwing fastballs low and away. Again this is not a novel concept and it is how pitching has been taught for a very long time. Ripkin and Leiter demonstrated this by showing Jacob de Grom, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux painting the outside edge with all forms of nastiness (and in the cases of Glavine and Maddux getting six inches off the plate called for strikes). Of course that type of analysis constitutes “cherry picking,” which means that the analysis is flawed as a result. But when making a persuasive point, it is a very effective tool.

They next offered some analytics to back up their point, and they did a pretty decent job. They showed that slugging percentages and home runs on fastballs located low and away in the zone were lower than in any other part of the strike zone (slugging of .378 and 62 HR for right handed hitters and .405 slugging and 92 HR for left handed hitters). They also showed fastballs middle up were crushed (.516 slugging and 253 HR for right handed hitters and .531 slugging and 184 HR for left handed hitters).

Their point is well taken. If you can pitch down and away by painting the edge with a good fastball, you can be very successful. The two former players go on to point out that this pitch is such a good pitch because the pitch is the furthest from the batter’s line of sight, and that is a more difficult pitch to hit out of the ballpark. Both points seem to make sense logically and based on their analysis.

The problem with the analysis is that Ripkin and Leiter advocate for one pitch type and conclude that another pitch type is problematic. Leiter goes on to suggest that the fastball up is meant to be outside of the zone, but to miss in the zone means that a pitcher is more apt to get punished. He is right and he is wrong.

A pitcher that misses his spot up in the zone is likely to be punished. However if he makes his pitch up and out of the zone, he is likely to be quite successful. Just look at the graphs Leiter and Ripkin use for reference. The fastball up in the zone is meant to be a pitch to entice the hitter to swing and miss. It is the type of pitch that is hard to lay off of and difficult to hit. Hitters that utilize upper cut swings, like Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and Justin Turner have greater difficulty with these types of pitches. It does counter launch angle and force great hitters like these to alter their approach.

So if we operate with the premise that the fastball up is meant to be outside the zone (this is the premise Leiter used as well) then the pitch is even more effective than the fastball low and away in the zone in slugging percentage and still effective in terms of home runs allowed (slugging .258 and .260 and 87 HR and 60 HR against right handed hitters and .245 and .246 slugging and 38 HR and 45 HR against left handed hitters).

Leiter makes another great point that when a pitcher misses in the zone with a fastball up then that pitcher gets punished. The problem is that he does not make the concession that pitchers also miss down and away either for a ball or over the middle portion of the plate that often gets crushed. Again looking at the data used by Leiter and Ripkin it is apparent that missing low and in the middle of the zone is problematic (.549 slugging and 202 HR against right handed hitters and .584 slugging and 159 HR against left handed hitters). The key is execution of each pitch type. By the way, Jacob de Grom uses his fastball up with great effect as well as low in the zone.

Where this comes into play with Brewers is best illustrated by Josh Hader and Corbin Burnes. Taking Josh Hader first, he lives with the fastball up with extreme success.

Most base hits against Hader in 2019, and there were very few, came by missing location lower and in the middle sections of the zone. If he was on top or above the zone, he was almost unhittable. The Starling Marte home run below illustrates how missing one’s location, even when you have other worldly stuff, gets a pitcher in trouble.

To further illustrate the importance of locating pitches, Corbin Burnes is probably the best example for the Brewers. He tried to pitch to the lower outside portion of the zone, but he was often not successful. He tried to pitch up in the zone, but he often missed location to dire effect.

Whether trying to get an out by pitching on the lower and outer region of the zone or by baiting the hitter to swing and miss up and outside the zone, both pitches are highly effective when executed. For a pitcher, execution means:

  1. Is he locating his pitches with command?
  2. Is he sequencing his pitches to disturb the hitter’s timing?
  3. Is he and his team avoiding pitching patterns that become recognizable based on situation?
  4. Is he pitching to his strengths?
  5. Is he pitching to the hitter’s weaknesses?

Everything above goes into pitcher execution. To execute a pitch on the low and outside portion of the strike zone, the pitcher must command the pitch in the zone. He also must sequence his pitches to keep the batter off balance, such as change eye level or speed to set up that pitch. He must avoid getting into a pattern of going to that pitch too much in given situations. He must utilize that pitch type if his strengths lend themselves to it. And he must make sure that type of pitch works to the weaknesses of and away from the strengths of the hitter.

Anthony Rizzo is the type of hitter where this come into play. A pitcher can get him out if he locates properly on the outer and lower portion of the plate. However, Anthony Rizzo is the type of hitter looking for a mistake from a pitcher trying to hit that spot in the zone. Anyone pitching against him has to recognize his standing on top of the plate is all about that. His hitter profile also demonstrates this.

The final demonstration by Ripkin and Leiter illustrates my point better than the point they were trying to make. They highlight the Trevor Story home run against Matt Albers on September 29. Bill Ripkin attempts to take the Story home run full circle as proof that launch angle is a flawed concept, and that pitches up in the zone are more vulnerable to being hit hard. Both notions are conceptually accurate. However the more likely scenario of this home run is:

1. Albers was pitching to a spot in the zone that Story struggles with and the Brewers pinpointed as a point of weakness.

2. Story was looking for a pitch up in the zone because he was probably on to what the Brewers were trying to do.

3. Albers missed his spot and meant to get the ball up more (illustrates Leiter’s message, but in fact Story crushes pitches that miss low and middle-in thus demonstrating he is more dangerous if the pitcher misses trying to pitch to the lower outside region of the zone).

4. The Brewers and Albers may have been in too much of a pattern allowing Story to look for this pitch. The evidence suggests this as pitches 2 and 4 of Albers pitch sequence were located in about the same spot. Pitch 6 was meant to be in the same spot as pitches 2 and 4, but Albers missed that spot as you can see if you watch the video and the pitch track.

5. Albers had been struggling quite a bit and might have been dealing with command problems at that point in the season.

6. Because Story was looking for a pitch in that region, and Albers failed to execute the pitch, the mistake was distributed into the right field seats.

This is a better explanation than saying that pitching up in the zone is bad and launch angle is an empty hitting concept. Al Leiter and Bill Ripkin did a nice job of demonstrating that the fastball low and away in the zone is an effective pitch. That does not take away from the fact the fastball up delivered by a pitcher who executes the pitch effectively thrown in the right situation is a devastating combination. And by the way, all those home runs being hit by Bellinger, Martinez, and others to open the segment were on low pitches that were quite possibly pitches meant to be low and away.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant