We’re In a Golden Age of the Lefty Fastball

The 2016 baseball season is well underway and we’re seeing an even more drastic version of the trends that we saw last year: There are more strikeouts, more home runs, and more challenges. And, notably, there has also been a steady increase in velocity across the league, assisted by the guys I’ll be highlighting here.

A “steady increase in velocity” might not be reason to stop the presses, but just soak in this Tweet real quick:

We’re basically seeing twice as many pitches thrown 95+ as we were in 2008. ¡2008!

Even left-handers, typically a step behind (always a bit of a quirky species, lefties), are chucking it. Across the league, lefties are throwing the ball 95+ mph just around 7.5% of the time. That’s way more often than the stereotype of the Tom Glavine-y, soft-tossing corner-nibbler would have you believe, but it’s 2016 and elite velocity isn’t just left to the elite pitchers anymore (Chris Sale is joined in that 95+ lefty fastball club by some guy named Buddy Boshers out of the bullpen for the Twins).

So…I’m not just interested in guys that throw hard; I want guys who throw hard and make the ball move, and I want them to be left-handed. (Truth: that lefty requirement is mostly an excuse so I can hopefully talk about Danny Duffy more, James Paxton for the first time, and because I already covered the right-handed side of things with my Charlie Morton post from the start of the season (The Unbelievable Emergence of Charlie Morton), and basically because lefties are more fun.)

A common refrain among pitching coaches is that movement is just as important as velocity. Velocity can get you to the majors, but big-league hitters will turn around 95+ fast if it’s straight. But when combined with some movement (and even better, control/command) 95+ is a high value commodity.

I’m after what I want to dub the best lefty fastball. Let’s start with the simple stuff: Who out there is throwing it 95+ most frequently? Note that the percentages here are for all pitches thrown, including the off-speed stuff.

Player Name Number of Pitches 95+ % of Pitches Thrown 95+
Zach Britton 152 93%
Sean Doolittle 118 84%
Aroldis Chapman 125 80%
Jake Diekman 111 73%
James Paxton 332 64%
Justin Wilson 81 62%
Josh Osich 58 57%
Enny Romero 86 54%
Tony Cingrani 102 53%
Jake McGee 32 51%
Danny Duffy 211 49%
Ian Krol 68 45%
Robbie Ray 208 41%
Felipe Rivero 61 35%
Sammy Solis 51 30%
Andrew Miller 52 30%
Andrew Chafin 6 26%
Carlos Rodon 90 23%
Blake Snell 45 23%

There are a number of relievers in there that I should probably get to know better. Zach Britton, Sean Doolittle, and Aroldis Chapman have all been flame-throwers for a while now; somehow their gas no longer brings the flicker to my eye that it once did. But Josh Osich and Enny Romero? Those are new guys that throw quite hard and are likely on their way to relevance.

The starters on the list are the most fun for me. James Paxton is there. Danny Duffy, too. But so are Carlos Rodon and Blake Snell. I’m not going to anoint any of these young guys just yet, but I’d venture that it’s been a long time since we’ve had four lefty starters out there throwing 95+ mph heaters at least 23% of the time. But…Carlos Rodon has a 4.16 ERA, and the other three all have fewer than 10 starts on the season. Let’s see if movement has anything to do with it.

We’re in search of the best lefty fastball and the best lefty fastball must move sideways, while also moving quickly. 10 inches of run seems like a pretty good place to set up camp.

Player Name Number of Pitches 95+
& 10+ inches of run
% of All Pitches
Jake Diekman 90 59%
James Paxton 171 33%
Josh Osich 24 24%
Cody Reed 18 20%
Chris Sale 90 16%
Sammy Solis 22 13%
Robbie Ray 58 11%
Brad Hand 26 11%
Clayton Richard 7 11%
Mike Montgomery 22 9%
Martin Perez 42 9%
Steven Matz 23 6%
Ian Krol 8 5%
Andrew Miller 9 5%
Ashur Tolliver 3 5%
Enny Romero 8 5%
Tony Cingrani 7 4%
Zach Britton 6 4%
T.J. McFarland 3 3%
Aroldis Chapman 4 3%
Sean Doolittle 3 2%
Carlos Rodon 8 2%

Look at that: Mr. Rodon and his 4.16 ERA bring up the rear, while Snell and Duffy dropped right off. But man, James Paxton is still up top there just behind Jake Diekman. Diekman is a very good reliever, who seems to be realizing his potential since his trade to Texas. Basically, by exclusively pounding the zone with that hard, running fastball, he’s posted an ERA below 2.00 since getting out of Philly.

Oh! Chris Sale, how did I forget to include him in my love fest of the young lefty starters in the league? Sale has thrown 110 pitches at least 95 mph, and of those, 90 have moved at least 10 inches. That’s nuts. His stuff is incredible.

We also see Steven Matz creep in there as 6% of his pitches are these 95 mph fastballs that move an unfair amount. Matz and his 2.96 ERA definitely belong in that quartet of young insanely talented left-handed starting pitching that I talked about before. He’ll be the fifth member of that group, and we instantly have to expand our Mount Rushmore of tantalizing excellence.

This is starting to feel a bit like the NBA where so much Amazing is happening. But it’s true: there’s a lot of amazing happening across the MLB landscape right now. These lefty fastballs are but one, tiny iota of all that is going on.

Let’s refine the batch of fastballs once more to include only those that have at least 10 inches of vertical movement, too. This admittedly feels like a laughable exercise. There’s no way that pitchers are actually throwing pitches that go 95 mph, while also running and rising that much….

Player Name Number of Pitches 95+
10+ inches of run
10+ inches of rise
Robbie Ray 15
James Paxton 14
Enny Romero 5
Rest of League 25

Oh. Damn. I see you Robbie Ray, James Paxton, and Enny Romero. I also see you Rest of League. That group included Danny Duffy, Sean Doolittle, Aroldis Chapman, Matt Moore, and Chris Sale. But really this is about those top three guys.

Ray was once a prospect known more for his feel and pitchability than a premier fastball. He’s starting for the Diamondbacks now and he’s striking out over 10 per game. His ERA sites at 4.59 and his WHIP is over 1.50, which are both significantly worse than his 2015 campaign, but still, if that pitchability from his earlier career outlook meets with his clearly impressive fastball, things could turn around quickly for the 24-year-old. I’m frankly surprised to see him here.

As for James Paxton, we know he’s throwing way harder now that he’s dropped his arm slot. I’ll save my full review of his stuff for the lengthier look that it deserves.

Then there’s Enny Romero. Romero isn’t well known in baseball circles just yet. He started a single game as a 22-year-old for the Rays back in 2013, spent 2014 throwing a 4.93 ERA in Triple-A, and hasn’t exactly torn things up in the majors since then. But he’s a young player, with a solid baseball name and a clearly electric fastball. He’s 25 and capable of figuring it out just like any other 25-year-old.

To be totally honest, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this group of pitchers. The guys atop this 95/10/10 club clearly have electric fastballs, but the electric fastball has not equated to big-league success so far. I guess that’s OK, and feeds back into the last bit of the the old pitching coach refrain: Velocity is nothing without movement…and control. But control is not sexy.

Speed is sexy, and all these guys throwing 95 are great, but Aroldis Chapman is the only one guy who’s ever thrown it 105 mph. He keeps the crown of best fastball. (All this talk of horizontal and vertical movement was really just an attempt to crown the best non-Chapman lefty fastball.)

So what is the takeaway?

This discussion mostly serves as a friendly reminder that we’re in the midst of a great revolution of left handed pitchers — all of whom make Clayton Kershaw old by comparison. These guys are throwing fastballs harder than we’ve ever seen before and there’s so many of them doing it.

Stat of the Day: I feel like I should also note that I unearthed an insane Andrew Miller pitch where he effectively threw a 95 mph slider on June 6th to some poor soul.

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