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Ready for liftoff: Candidates for more high fastballs

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Several pitchers have turned to high fastballs and seen improved results. Who else should be considering elevation?

Trevor Bauer is one pitcher that might benefit from more fastballs at the top of the zone.
Trevor Bauer is one pitcher that might benefit from more fastballs at the top of the zone.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Elevated fastballs have been a hot topic in the sabermetric world for the last 18 months or so. Conventional wisdom says it's better to keep pitches low in the zone, and more rigorous analysis backs that up; batters generate the most power on pitches between their belt and their letters. But a pitch thrown just above that zone with enough velocity looks extremely appealing to hitters and can generate a lot of swings and misses.

Several pitchers have appeared to make an intentional decision to throw higher and undergone a substantial improvement, usually as a result of increased strikeouts. There's also at least one case of a pitcher for whom elevating hasn't seemed to work, which means it's possible to look for some patterns. In that linked piece, I looked at Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello, both of whom started to elevate but saw vastly different results, to try to identify what made one successful and one not. In this article, I want to expand that somewhat, looking at some of the other starters that have used this tactic and identifying what traits they share. Then, I want to look at the pitchers that are similar to that pool pre-elevation and try to identify some candidates for increased high fastball usage.

I picked eight starters who increased their use of elevated fastballs by a substantial amount in 2014 or 2015, six to good effect and two somewhat otherwise. The following four tables show each of these pitchers with some selected stats before and after the shift.

Drew Smyly Jacob Degrom
Time of Shift mid-2014 2015
Pre Post Pre Post
High FB% 21.6% 28.0% 22.6% 31.0%
K% 22.7% 27.5% 25.5% 25.3%
GB% 39.8% 36.2% 45.4% 42.6%
ERA- 83 54 78 60
FIP- 88 89 75 70
xFIP- 92 83 82 81
vFA 90.1 89.9 93.5 94.6

Max Scherzer Jordan Zimmermann
Time of Shift 2015 2014
Pre Post Pre Post
High FB% 20.6% 27.8% 33.3% 40.2%
K% 28.3% 29.8% 18.6% 20.8%
GB% 36.5% 33.7% 47.6% 40.0%
ERA- 76 55 87 78
FIP- 73 57 90 78
xFIP- 81 76 92 91
vFA 93.1 93.7 93.8 92.8

Gerrit Cole Lance Lynn
Time of Shift 2014 2014
Pre Post Pre Post
High FB% 19.0% 25.5% 29.9% 35.5%
K% 21.3% 24.4% 23.1% 22.5%
GB% 49.1% 50.8% 43.1% 43.3%
ERA- 89 85 108 76
FIP- 79 83 88 86
xFIP- 83 84 97 98
vFA 95.4 95.5 92.6 91.9

Doug Fister Rick Porcello
Time of Shift 2014 2015
Pre Post Pre Post
High FB% 18.7% 26.4% 20.8% 29.3%
K% 18.0% 13.5% 17.2% 18.3%
GB% 54.3% 46.5% 51.8% 44.5%
ERA- 90 80 96 144
FIP- 83 111 94 121
xFIP- 86 110 89 102
vFA 88.6 87.2 91.1 91.2

I'm using Baseball Savant for the high fastball rates (both two- and four-seamers), and I'm calling a pitch "high" if it's in the top third of the zone or the two high sections outside the zone. The other stats come via FanGraphs.

What traits do the successful elevators share, and what sets them apart from the not-so-successful elevators of Fister and Porcello? (Fister's ERA has improved from before his shift, but he was also pitching in front of the infamous Tigers infield defense back when Miguel Cabrera was still at third, so I think it makes much more sense to focus on FIP/xFIP, and by those measures he has definitely declined.) The first thing I notice is an already-decent strikeout rate. Pre-shift Zimmermann is the lowest of the successful pitchers, at 18.6 percent, with Cole the next lowest at 21.3 percent. By contrast, Porcello and Fister both had decidedly mediocre strikeout rates pre-shift, at 17.2 percent and 18.0 percent respectively. It seems that a baseline of an above-average strikeout rate is probably important.

The second point is related to the first, but it seems the pitcher should not have above-average ground ball rates. Cole had the highest of the successful shifters, at 49.1 percent, and a simple average of the six pitchers gives a ground ball rate of 43.6 percent. Porcello and Fister are again the odd ones out, at 51.8 percent and 54.3 percent. I would argue those are the two most important factors -- a pitcher with decent strikeout rates and not particularly high ground ball rates seems most likely to benefit from more fastballs at the top of the zone.

I don't know much of anything about the physics of pitching and hitting, so take the following with a heavy grain of salt, but those make intuitive sense beyond just what can be observed in the above tables. If pitchers are going to elevate, they're very likely to give up more fly balls and more home runs per fly ball. They need to be getting enough strikeouts and infield flies to make up for that. If they were ground ball-oriented to begin with, or didn't have strikeout stuff, that's going to be a lot harder.

So: what pitchers fit the mold? I'm looking for starters with at least 100 IP in 2015, a strikeout rate between 20 percent and 30 percent, and a ground ball rate less than 45 percent. I'm also going to limit to pitchers who are currently throwing between 20 percent and 30 percent of their pitches as high fastballs to ensure that the pitchers that make this list do rely on their fastball already but could plausibly elevate it more often. Those numbers are somewhat arbitrary, but they're based on the above trends, trying to be somewhat strict so as to get only the candidates that definitely qualify.

Name Team IP ERA FIP xFIP K% GB% High FB%
Trevor Bauer Indians 109.1 4.03 4.06 4.10 23.3% 37.9% 29.8%
Wei-Yin Chen Orioles 110 2.78 4.20 3.82 20.4% 40.4% 29.5%
Matt Harvey Mets 118.1 3.19 3.54 3.43 23.4% 44.3% 28.9%
Mike Fiers Brewers 107 3.79 3.92 3.94 22.9% 38.4% 27.8%
Madison Bumgarner Giants 124 3.27 3.25 3.20 24.6% 40.1% 27.3%
David Price Tigers 132 2.32 2.78 3.20 23.7% 39.2% 27.3%
Jason Hammel Cubs 103.2 2.86 3.05 3.12 25.6% 37.7% 26.0%
Nathan Karns Rays 104 3.63 3.71 3.73 22.6% 43.9% 22.8%
C.J. Wilson Angels 123 3.59 3.76 4.01 20.0% 42.7% 22.5%

Not all these pitchers need much (or any) help, but by this fairly rough measure, they might benefit from elevating their fastballs slightly more. Nate Karns and C.J. Wilson, at the low end of elevated fastball rate, seem like the most promising candidates, though it is somewhat surprising to see Karns on this list, given the Rays seeming enthusiasm for the high fastball. For a lot of the above pitchers, it was a change of team that prompted their shift. Three of them had played for the Tigers, so it's interesting to see Price on the list, who perhaps is leaving the Tigers in the next week and almost certainly in the next six months.

This is still a relatively new fad or phenomenon, and there just aren't that many pitchers who have made the conscious decision to elevate their fastball more often. There are enough, though, to start to outline what makes that move a successful one, and what pitchers might be primed for the shift. I make no guarantees that I'm right, or that any of the above pitchers would actually benefit, but I know I'll be keeping an eye on all of them.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.