Give Me a Rise

It is well established that having more rise on your four-seam fastball is a good thing. The question then becomes, can we identify the optimal amount of rise as compared to the league-average fastball. For the purposes of this analysis, we will look at swinging-strike rate, from all four-seam fastballs thrown since the dawn of the PITCHf/x era, in regular-season action.

We in the sabermetrically-inclined community tend to pooh-pooh popular baseball concepts, particularly ones where the science, on the surface, doesn’t appear to jive with the age-old baseball wisdom. Don’t worry, this is not a DIPS discussion, nor a discussion on a pitcher’s ability to manage contact. I bring up this concept in relation to the term “late life” as in movement later in the pitches trajectory. Physics tell us that the ball will have a very predictable trajectory from the moment the ball leaves the pitchers hand, until it reaches the front of the plate. That, however, is merely half the story. There are two important points I want to bring up:

  1. Batters cannot compute vertical trajectory explicitly; they essentially tap into a huge vault of experience telling them how far a pitch will drop based on their experience with pitches of similar velocity.
  2. A hitter’s swing is largely ballistic (very difficult to change mid-swing) and takes about 0.18 seconds to execute. That means that a hitter has roughly 0.2 seconds post-release of the ball to gather information and form an educated guess as to where the ball will end up.

Based on these assumptions, I computed late movement, in both the vertical direction and horizontal direction. I then compared this to the expected vertical movement based on the velocity (more velocity, less drop obviously). This to me is the optimal way to look at movement, since presumably they cannot gather any more information. A great hitter may be able to factor in their knowledge of the pitcher’s ability to rise the fastball, but they are fighting their memories of all the other fastballs they’ve seen, so more difficult than you would think.

Which brings us to a very interesting graph: The height and colours in the histogram reflect the magnitude of the swinging-strike rates, shown in sequential order of velocity. If you scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll see that the center of the histogram is somewhere around -.6, or 0.6 feet more rise than the average four-seam fastball when looking at the pitch 0.2 seconds after release until it crosses home plate.

We see a very clear normal curve, with more “normal” at higher n. Thus we can now compute the value of rise in a four-seam fastball, as distributed by a normal curve centered around 0.6 feet above the mean drop. Not really a stats guy, so not sure how to do that exactly. What I find interesting is that the 7 inches or so of rise is pretty consistent across the velocity spectrum. I’m not sure why it peaks at this point, though I would surmise that it’s probably the sweet spot where the hitter feels like they can make contact, but can’t, as opposed to extreme rise which would freeze the hitter.

This leads us to our last graph (warning: this one scrolls for a while). You’ll see the same graph as above, but you’ll see Whiff%, GB% and HR% stacked one on top of the other.

This actually paints a very intuitive picture. If there is more rise than average, you’ll get swinging strikes. If it drops more than average, you’ll get groundballs and if it drops about what you’d expect, you’ll get some groundballs, but also homers. Ignore the SSS noise with homers at the higher velocities. Again what is interesting with the GB% and Whiff% histograms are how consistent they are irrespective of velocity. So… if velocity doesn’t impact this analysis, let’s collapse it all into one final graph:

Paints a very clear picture: if your four-seam fastball isn’t getting at least 5 inches of late rise, you are going to be giving up a lot of homers. Note that swing% (swings/total pitches) is normally distributed around a mean of .2 feet of rise and appears to track pretty closely to HR%, implying that hard contact is not affected within 1 standard deviation.

Looking forward to the feedback.

Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and builds baseball data in Rust. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat, however you may be subjected to (polite) Canadian politics.

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This series has been fantastic. You’re asking the same type of questions I would ask with that data set. Keep it coming!