Written by: Trevor Powers (@TPowerProspects)
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As a baseball fan, it’s easy to be enamored with the fastball velocity of Jordan Hicks. Being able to throw 105 is something that is very rare, and it should undoubtedly be viewed as an impressive feats. But what if I told you Hicks doesn’t have one of the best fastballs in the big leagues? What if I told you he doesn’t even have a plus-plus fastball?
On the 20-80 scale, the 70 and 80 grades are distributed to pitchers very sparingly. These marks are considered plus-plus to elite, exclusivizing the best of the best. It’s extremely high praise, and an ’80’ has only been thrown around a handful of times in the history of present day scouting. The likes of Joey Gallo and Bryce Harper’s power, Billy Hamilton’s speed and Francisco Lindor’s defense all received 80 grades. Amongst players who possess elite, individual skills, the aforementioned quartet sits at the top of the mountain. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arguably the best prospect in recent memory in terms of production and potential, was the first prospect ever to be labeled with an 80-grade hit tool. This is the highest possible mark a player can be given, so why do we seem to have so many more highly-regarded fastballs compared to any other tool?
The easy answer to this is that individual pitches are relatively easy to project. When a prospect is consistently hitting the century mark with their fastball, it’s easy to assume the pitch is, at minimum, plus plus. One of the only things the scouting industry can project almost instantaneously is a pitcher’s fastball.
Contrary to public opinion, truly evaluating a pitcher’s fastball is not that easy. It’s officially time to extinguish the idea that the impact of a fastball can be measured solely with velocity. Let’s evolve with the times.
When analyzing the optimal outcome for a pitcher, a swing-and-miss is the most efficient way to avoid giving up hits. Batting average against a pitch that causes a swing and miss is–you guessed it– .000. A truly-elite fastball should be a pitch that has the lowest probability of giving up a hit, meaning it should possess swing and miss traits.
I looked into four, high-profile relievers with power fastballs: Sean Doolittle, Chad Green, Jordan Hicks, and Aroldis Chapman. Doolittle and Green might not throw 105 mph, but contrary to popular belief, they possess fastballs that should be held in the same regard as Chapman’s and Hicks’, if not higher.
|Pitcher||Fastballs/Sinkers Thrown||Avg Velo (mph)||Whiff rate|
As the graph above shows, velocity doesn’t always correlate with swing-and-miss tendencies. The lowest velocity of the group (Doolittle) has the highest swing and miss rate, while the highest average velocity (Hicks) actually has the lowest.
There are multiple variables that actually can be measured that have a direct correlation with a swing and miss. Examples of these variables are perceived velocity, deception and spin rate. Ever heard a TV personality say a fastball has ‘life’? Those heaters move vertically after exiting a pitcher’s hand. Turns out, ‘life’ is a measurable fastball trait.
|Pitcher||Spin Rate (rpm)||Vertical Movement (in)||Whiff rate|
The true-traits that lead to an elite fastball are high-spin rate and high, vertical movement. However, this does not mean we have found a true, 80-grade fastball. Naturally, the harder a baseball is thrown, the more revolutions it will take before arriving at home plate. The second chart above (courtesy of Driveline baseball) shows the swing and miss rate of pitches at the same velocity with a different spin rate. A 94 mph fastball spinning at 2300 rpm is much different than a 100 mph fastball spinning at the same rate. Jordan Hicks’s mean spin rate is well below average for his velocity, which plays a factor in his elite GB%. Amongst pitchers that fall in the 94 mph range, Doolittle has an above average spin rate. Driveline calculates this as Bauer Units, BU, which is the equation of BU=Spin Rate (rpm)/Velocity (mph). This calculates the true efficiency of the spin of a pitch.
|Pitcher||Avg Spin Rate||Avg Velocity||Bauer Units|
So why is a high-spin fastball so much more effective? A high spin, vertically moving fastball gives the perception to a hitter that the ball is rising. The idea that a pitch is rising is a misconception. In actuality, a high-spin fastball simply stays on plane longer. A hitter’s eyes have been trained to assume a pitch naturally has downward action, and when the pitch remains on plane for longer than normal, hitters often don’t have time to adjust.
When a fastball has low vertical movement and a low spin rate, it has a tendency to “drop” shortly before arriving at home plate. This fastball strain generates more ground balls than any other outcome. Those are often outs at the big league level, but there’s better ways to utilize a fastball nonetheless. Unmistakably, the most ideal trait of an elite fastball is its ability to induce swings and misses.
Now that we understand what variables form a truly-elite fastball, the new obstacle is handing out genuine grades to prospects. Unfortunately, most minor league parks are not privy to the same analytics that are readily-available in the big leagues. Still, while it’s far from an exact science, there are ways to evaluate fastballs using a simple eye test.
Watching a pitcher throw from the broadcast view or in highlight videos can give us a good perspective. Evaluating a pitching prospect in person? Watch them pitch from behind home plate. If hitters often swing under a pitcher’s fastball, it likely means the pitch has a high spin rate. Use pencil and paper to track swings and misses. Of course it’s not as reliable as the Statcast data from big leaguers we can pull up on our phones or computers with the click of a button, but it can still be just as reliable as watching velocity readings at the minor league park you’re attending (or the numbers being shown on your MiLB.tv screen).
Recently, Major League organizations have implemented Rapsado and/or Trackman, which are pitch trackers that obtain spin rate and vertical movement, at the majority of their affiliates. They’re also being utilized at amateur tournaments and college stadiums to begin collecting data on future professionals.
This data drives the decisions big league organizations make in trades, free agent signings and drafts. In an industry that relays information to the everyday fan, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to evaluate fastballs in the same manner Major League organizations do.
Ramon Laureano is projected to be the starting center fielder for the Athletics this season. They acquired the outfielder from the Astros in exchange for little-known pitching prospect Brandon Bailey. At the time, trading a future, big league starting outfielder for a minor league pitcher who wasn’t even in the Astros top-30 list felt like highway robbery.
Not so fast.
Bailey is a prospect that 99% of common baseball fans have never heard of. He went in the sixth round after dominating at Gonzaga. He was categorized as undersized, being 5 foot 10 175 pounds, and often overlooked by professional teams. He does his offseason training at Driveline Baseball in Seattle, Washington. I came across a video of him on twitter, and felt the need to ask the same question that inspired me to write this piece, to Kyle Boddy. Boddy is the founder of Driveline and one of the people at the forefront of the analytical advancements in baseball.
After that interaction, I decided if I was ever given an opportunity to write, I would attempt to shift the narrative around prospects, especially pitching prospects’ fastballs. Brandon Bailey is an often-overlooked prospect. He is widely considered an after thought, even though he has pretty much dominated pro ball since he was drafted. He has started and relieved and seems to dominate in both roles. His numbers are great and his strikeout rate (302 K’s in 256.1 minor league career innings) proves his stuff has big league potential. But for whatever reason (perhaps his age or height), Bailey doesn’t receive the recognition he rightfully deserves.
Only 5% of MLB pitchers are under 6 feet tall. My goal is to one day be a part of that 5%
First week at @DrivelineBB in the books!
📈📊💻@drivelinebases @ericjagers @billhezel pic.twitter.com/t9NIkywqte
— Brandon Bailey (@BBailey_19) January 29, 2019
In this video alone, Bailey topped out at 94.2 mph. He threw multiple pitches in the 91-92 range across the middle of the plate. For those that do not know, live at-bats at Driveline Baseball occur with professional hitters. Bailey made them look silly. His is a plus fastball. Forget the radar readings, and just look at the swing and miss rate. That proves the ideology. He continues to carve up hitters at every level. I don’t know what the scouting consensus is on Bailey’s fastball (Fangraphs has labeled it as a 50), but it should be in the 60-65 range, even if the radar only reads 91 at times.
Hunter Greene is a gifted pitching prospect who has the ability to throw 100+ mph fastball with relative ease. General consensus believes the pitch is a true, 80-grade offering. I’ve only seen the right-hander’s highlights and his performance in the Futures Game last season, but for a player with an assumed 80-grade pitch, Greene’s results from last season were a little startling.
In my opinion, a true, 80 grade fastball is one that obtains swings and misses even in fastball counts. It should be very rare for an opposing hitter to barrel a fastball to their pull side. The pitcher should be able to scream “A FASTBALL IS COMING!” at the top of his lungs and still induce whiffs with the pitch. Check out the video below from last summer’s Futures Game. In a 2-1, Basabe receives a heater on the inner-third of the plate. Based on the catcher’s setup, this was a well-thrown, well-located pitch. The stadium radar gun says the pitch was thrown at 102 mph. Yet, Basabe obliterates it for a 404-foot, mammoth home run to right-center field.
I say all of that not to diminish Greene’s value. The kid played full-season ball as an 18-year-old last season; he’s a prodigy and one of the better pitching prospects in baseball. Instead, it’s to point out a mistake we often make. It’s easy to fall in love with the radar gun. All pitchers should try to maximize their velocity capabilities, so the importance associated with radar readings isn’t baseless or without validity. If two pitchers throw with same amount of Bauer Units, the one who throws 100 mph often has inside-track of making it to the big leagues before the one who throws 90.
But from a scouting standpoint, we need to improve how we evaluate, grade, and discuss the fastball. Continuing to utilize the sport’s analytics (when it’s made available to us) to further our base of knowledge will help the overall success-rate of prospect lists, which are historically very low. I look forward to the day evaluators uniformly discuss spin rate and BU before velocity, and I think we’re trending in that direction. Journalists and baseball personalities serve as a source of baseball knowledge to the everyday fan, and to improve their knowledge of the game we must first improve our own.
Follow P365 contributor Trevor Powers on Twitter! @TPowerProspects
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Patrick McDermott and Getty Images
Statistics gathered from Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant