On Slow Fastballs

While thinking about Jeff’s post on the fastballs of over 100 miles per hour, I thought it might be informative to look at the pitchers who have pitched their fastballs the slowest this year.  No, it’s not as flashy as those who live at the top of what’s humanly possible, but it makes for an interesting contrast.  What’s more, you’ll often hear broadcasters say something along the lines of “you don’t need to throw 100 if you can locate your fastball.”  Is that true for pitchers who aren’t anywhere near 100?

There have been 683 fastballs this season (as of September 13th) that registered below 80 MPH according to pitch f/x (grouping together fastballs, 4-seamers, 2-seamers, and cut fastballs).  Two men alone account for 526 of them, with a third adding another 80.  Any guesses on who they are? (Hint: Jamie Moyer is retired.)

Pitcher Slow fastballs
Mark Buehrle 269
Barry Zito 257
R.A. Dickey 80

At first blush, it seems like a pretty good list, what with two Cy Young awards and ten 15-win seasons among those three gentlemen.  As we all know, though, these three aren’t what they used to be, and the low velocities are likely a big part of the reason why.

Let’s take a quick peek at their contact rates and in-play rates on these sub-80 fastballs:

  • Buehrle: contact rate 89%, in-play rate 47%
  • Zito: contact rate 85%, in-play rate 39%
  • Dickey: contact rate 76%, in-play rate 29%

R.A. Dickey is clearly the outlier here, of course.  The fastball is more of a surprise pitch for him, so you would expect a lower number for the contact rate and in-play rates than the others, small sample sizes be damned.  Of note: his contact rate and in-play rate on his slowest fastballs are lower than the contact rate and in-play rate of Bruce Rondon’s 100+ MPH fastballs (81% and 51%, respectively).  Of further note: “Hey, Dickey should throw that fastball more often!” is exactly the exact wrong reaction to learning the above factoid.

Some pretty pictures of where these fastballs are going:

Some thoughts about the above images:

  • I don’t know about you, but I for one am surprised to see the success (relatively speaking) Zito is having with his slowest fastball by elevating it.  He has a better swinging strike rate and in-play rate than Buehrle, whose slowest fastballs are all over the map, and he’s not exactly doing it by painting the zone down and away.
  • Does Dickey love to live in the right-hand batter’s box or what?  Not only is he throwing a lot of slow fastballs in there, but he’s getting more swings and misses than I would have guessed for pitches that are a foot off the plate.  My best guess is that hitters are just so happy to see something straight that they can’t resist swinging.
  • I know what you’re all thinking: who swung (and missed) at a 78 MPH fastball from Barry Zito that was nearly five feet off the ground?  Take a bow, Troy Tulowitzki.

I don’t know if we can draw any conclusions from this, except that to succeed with an extremely slow fastball, it’s better if your primary pitch is a knuckler.  If you simply want to have a job with a slow fastball, it appears to help if you’re a durable veteran left-handed pitcher.

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The Kudzu Kid does not believe anyone actually reads these author bios.

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Clarence in Austin TX
Clarence in Austin TX

I have noticed that a particular profile exists for LHPs who get swings and misses on high fastballs thrown at below average velocity. (I’m including the less extreme low velocities, like mid-80’s, rather than the harder-to-find sub-80 mph). Perhaps the swings and misses are just more noticeable because you are left wondering why the pitcher doesn’t get murdered throwing those pitches. My guess is that the high, low velocity pitch is just so tantalizing for the batter that he is coaxed into swinging at a pitch that is just a bit too high to make consistent contact.