Over the past week, the fine folks at FanGraphs have been illustrating the pitching revolution that has taken place throughout baseball over the past decade. Jeff Sullivan detailed how pitchers have pounded the lower third of the strike zone with aplomb, and mentioned how a few sluggers — Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez, in particular — are starting to adjust. Travis Sawchik followed that up with a look at the Tampa Bay Rays, who have gone in the other direction. The Rays threw more high fastballs than any other team in 2016, resulting in the highest swinging strike rate on high fastballs in baseball.
While the Rays and Detroit Tigers were in their own tier in terms of elevated fastball percentage last season, the Baltimore Orioles were not far behind. The O’s ranked third in that category, with roughly 18 percent of their team’s fastballs coming up in the zone. Baltimore also had one of the highest percentages of fastballs above 2200 rpm, considered the average spin rate for an MLB fastball.
Of particular note is righthander Dylan Bundy, who our own Joe Clarkin profiled last Friday. Joe took note of Bundy’s fastball, which was a little problematic in 2016.
Bundy certainly has the stuff to make the necessary improvements. Tommy John [Surgery] didn’t rob him of that, at least. As a starter, his fastball sat just a shade under 95 miles per hour, and he can run it up into the upper 90s with some nice fade when he really wants to.
He likes to work up in the zone with it, however, and that’s where his home run problems emerge. 11 of the 18 dingers Bundy surrendered came off of a fastball:
There’s more to this, though. Bundy threw 892 fastballs at 2400 rpm or higher* last season, the ninth-highest total in baseball. It generated an 11.0 percent whiff rate and 11.8 percent infield fly ball rate, both decent figures for a four-seam fastball. They compare favorably with Rays starter Jake Odorizzi, who was the main focus of Sawchik’s article.
*Sawchik and other have noted that the 2400 rpm threshold is where fastballs start to have a “rising” effect. This is not actual rise, but rather a decrease in how quickly the pitch drops due to the high rate of backspin.
Despite the lower velocity, Odorizzi managed a higher whiff and pop-up rate on his four-seam fastball last season. Opponents hit .240 with a .178 ISO off his four-seamer, and it rated as one of the best fastballs in the game according to FanGraphs’ pitch values. As one might expect after reading Sawchik’s article — and you should read Sawchik’s article — Odorizzi accomplishes this by living at the top of the strike zone with his fastball.
Bundy, on the other hand, did not elevate his fastball quite as often.
The lower fastball profile did not hurt him much, as he finished with a 110 ERA+ and 1.38 WHIP in 109 2⁄3 innings. Opponents hit .262 with a .168 ISO off his fastball, numbers similar to what Odorizzi produced. However, as the chart Joe used above shows, the 11 home runs he allowed on the fastball didn’t necessarily come on pitches up in the strike zone.
Meanwhile, when he went upstairs, Bundy was able to generate whiffs at an even higher rate than his season-long percentage of 11.0 percent.
When he elevated the fastball but didn’t let it tail outside — we’re looking at the six squares in the upper-middle portion of the above chart — opponents swung and missed a whopping 17.1 percent of the time! This is a small sample of 280 fastballs and will probably decrease slightly as he throws more pitches in the upper-reaches of the strike zone, but the data suggest that Bundy could benefit from joining the high fastball revolution.
It’s worth mentioning that Bundy does not have the same inherent advantages that Odorizzi does. Bundy plays his home games in a very hitter friendly park, and doesn’t have human black hole Kevin Kiermaier playing behind him in center field. He may ultimately give up more home runs as hitters start to adjust to a higher average fastball location. However, if he can contrast the high fastball with his changeup and curveball low in the zone, it may help him change hitters’ eye levels more effectively than he did in 2016. It may also make those pitches more effective, as hitters gear up for the high fastball.