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On the usage of high heat

A look at everyone's favorite pitching weapon, the high fastball.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best ways to get a strikeout is to throw a high fastball. As Jeff Sullivan noted at FanGraphs over the winter, the Rays have made something of an institution of it. The logic is that with two strikes, the batter is more likely to swing at something that looks like it's going to hit the zone in an effort to at least foul off the pitch and stay alive. So if you throw some nasty heat up, the batter will be likely to swing and if you do it well, they'll miss. Simple enough, right?

The Yankees are a team I'm rather fond of and I write for Pinstripe Alley in addition to BtBS, so I watch a ton of Yankees games. Not only do I notice the Yankees getting KO'd on these kinds of pitches fairly often, it's also a strategy that a good portion of their pitchers like to employ.

In the name of pure curiosity, I went to Baseball Savant to look at high fastball strikeouts. I set a completely arbitrary minimum of 94 MPH on these fastballs, because I want to see which pitchers just simply blow away batters. I also ran the search with a 90 MPH minimum, and we'll look at that later. The pitches must have been thrown in the upper third of the zone (these areas of the Baseball Savant strike zone were utilized), and the pitch must have been either a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball or a cutter. I debated including sinkers in the query, but decided against it. Sinkers, despite being a breed of fastball, by their very nature rely on downwards movement. The general theory is that sinkerballers rely on keeping their pitches down to survive, and therefore would likely not benefit in targeting the upper part of the zone when trying to induce a strikeout. Finally, the pitch must have been thrown with two strikes and resulted in a whiff. The full results are here. Below is a table of the ten pitchers who got the most strikeouts this way, and the number of times they did it (entering Wednesday).

Num Pitcher Strikeouts
1 Jacob deGrom 33
2 Chris Sale 31
3 Matt Harvey 28
4 Aroldis Chapman 27
5 Taijuan Walker 23
6 Danny Salazar 19
7 Max Scherzer 19
8 David Price 19
9 Gerrit Cole 18
10 Chris Archer 17

Jacob deGrom being at the top of the list is slightly surprising, but the rest of the table are the usuals suspects. All of them (especially Chapman, of course) are guys with big fastballs and excellent overall repertoires. When you change the baseline velocity to 90 MPH, a few new names enter that top ten.

Num Pitcher Strikeouts
1 Chris Sale 34
2 Jacob deGrom 33
3 Matt Harvey 30
4 Aroldis Chapman 27
5 David Price 25
6 Max Scherzer 24
7 Taijuan Walker 24
8 Yimi Garcia 23
9 Jeff Samardzija 23
10 Jose Quintana 22

You're probably aware that Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana are good pitchers. I won't hold anything against you if you haven't heard of Yimi Garcia. Yimi is a rookie reliever for the Dodgers who throws nearly 70 percent fastballs mixing in some sliders, and has pitched pretty well thus far. Garcia claims a 3.33 FIP and has struck out 44 men in 31.2 innings. 23 of those strikeouts have come on high fastballs. The man has thrust himself into a prominent role on a contending team by getting batters out on high fastballs.

Entering Wednesday's games, there had been 16,161 strikeouts in Major League Baseball. 1,673 of them came on whiffs on fastballs of at least 90 MPH or more in the upper third of the strike zone, which comes out to about 10.4 percent. Pitch F/X data is flawed and represents our best approximation of publicly available data, but that's still very impressive. This little study wasn't to say that the high fastball is the best way to notch a strikeout. There are pitchers that have genuine out pitches (Masahiro Tanaka's splitter, Clayton Kershaw's curveball, Felix Hernandez's changeup) and clearly those are the right weapons to fire when the time comes. However, the high fastball is a dangerous tool to utilize and its prevalence shows that.

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Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. Scouts say that he has a 60-grade fastball with plus movement, and wonder why he went undrafted. He also covers the Yankees and their Double-A affiliate, the Trenton Thunder, at Pinstripe Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.