Vertical Command – Or Lack Thereof

I read a great book by Mike Stadler called the Psychology of Baseball. In it he referenced that it is far more difficult for humans to control where a ball ends up vertically (due to the need for advanced spatial reasoning) compared to horizontally. You can find his discussion starting on page 86. Amazon Link

I’m going to show you three pictures which will illustrate this quite well. Data is inclusive of all pitches thrown in regular season games since 2010. The first is a heat map of sorts which maps vertical distance from the center of the zone (from PITCHf/x data sz_top and sz_bottom) on the y axis and velocity on the x axis. What we see quite clearly is that it is *much* better to throw a four-seam fastball up in the zone than down in the zone, almost irrespective of velocity. In fact, a 92 MPH four-seam fastball thrown 0.8 feet above the center of the zone will get about 13% swings and misses; a 98 mph four-seam fastball thrown below the center of the zone will get 12% swings and misses. Behold the graph, from a fan:

Four Seam Fastball, Depth x Velocity

Four-Seam Fastball, Depth x Velocity

The question then becomes, if a pitcher throws the ball up in the zone, how will the probability of a HR change? This brings us to picture #2, where we have the same x and y axes (apparently that’s the plural of axis, thanks google), but instead we have HR% (# of HRs/Total Pitches). I’ve removed 99+ MPHs from the graph as they were displaying SSS noise.

HR% by Depth and Velocity

HR% by Depth and Velocity

So interestingly, if you look at the totals on the right, it paints a visual that HRs are NOT hit on high fastballs, but rather on fastballs closer to the heart of the zone (vertically). In fact (and a story for another day) there is a 97% R-squared correlation between distance from the center of the zone and HR%. On an aside, this also reproduces other research which indicate that faster fastballs yield fewer home runs. The trend is also quite linear (don’t have a computed R2 for that, but that’s old news anyway).

Now, if you are far more likely to get a swinging strike and you aren’t putting yourself at risk for a home run by throwing up in the zone, if we looked at a distribution of four-seam fastballs, we should see a higher proportion of four-seamers up in the zone, ideally right at the top 0.8 to 1.0 feet above the zone, where whiffs are plentiful and HRs are scarce. Beware SSS in some of the higher velocities, but note that a 95 MPH fastball only .4 feet above the center of the zone will yield more HRs than an 88 MPH fastball thrown at the top of the zone (the 95 MPH fastball will still yield more whiffs, but just goes to show how important command is). This is what we actually see:

A nearly uniform distribution across all velocities, slightly skewed to below the center of the zone. I’m not ready to conclude that pitchers are not capable of pitching up in the zone with four-seam fastballs, it may just be old school “pitch down in the zone” thinking. I still find it astonishing how consistent the data is across the velocity spectrum. It almost appears to me that if a pitcher can simply pitch higher in the zone with a four-seam fastball, they can make their stuff play up a lot, sort of like MadBum:

Still not pitching at the top end of the zone, but definitely skewed higher, with his distribution centered around .3 feet above the heart of the zone.

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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