The Relative Importance of Fastball Velocity, Movement and Location
A recent post was made in the Fangraphs Community Research section that caught my eye. Thomas Karakolis wants to know what the most important quality of a fastball is: velocity, movement, or location? Thanks to Major League Baseball’s pitchFX data, there is quantitative data available to answer such a question about Major League pitchers.
While I would encourage readers who are familiar with advanced sabermetrics to check out the original post, I wanted to break down the findings into a more reader-friendly version and pull some lessons that can be applied to amateur pitchers who do not throw 98 mph.
But first, a quick note. These findings are based on the comparison between how likely a pitch is going to be swung on and missed (proxy for a good pitch) versus hit for a home run (proxy for hard hit ball). Only swings and misses and home runs are factored into this. You can look at the original post for more on his methodology.
1. Fastball velocity matters. But only if you’ve got elite heat.
This was what I consider to be the most surprising finding of this study. Fastballs that have below average, average, or above average velocity showed almost no difference in effectiveness. It’s only when you get to the extreme upper ranges of velocity (96 mph+ for the majors) that you find velocity having a big impact (2-4 times more effective). The takeaway? Having a below average fastball isn’t a big deal. But having an elite heater definitely helps.
2. Throwing outside is better than throwing inside.
This aligns with the common understanding of pitching. It’s harder to make great contact on the outside of the plate than it is to turn on an inside pitch. Inside pitches that paint the corner are about as likely to get hit for a home run as a pitch right down the middle! Outside pitches that paint the corner are 4 times more effective than the average fastball. And even pitches that are 3 inches from the paint are twice as effective.
3. Keep the ball down in the strike zone.
Another conclusion that matches the conventional wisdom, keeping the ball down in the zone is important. Pitches that touch the bottom of the zone are 3 times more effective than the average fastball. Pitches high in the zone are the same as the average fastball. But if you’re throwing high, consider throwing out of the zone: these pitches are twice as likely to end up as a swinging strike than the average fastball.
4. Movement is not that important for inducing swinging strikes
Another surprising result. Neither vertical nor horizontal movement had a particularly large effect on the ratio between swinging strikes and home runs. Now, this should be taken with a grain of salt: fastballs with downward vertical movement are much more likely to end up as ground balls, which is important. But even so, they don’t limit home runs any more than the average fastball.
The big takeaway from this lesson? Work on location. Velocity is only important if you’re way above average and is difficult to improve dramatically. Movement helps, but not as much as one might think. But consistently keeping the ball down and away? That’s a recipe for success that one can work towards.
(Jamie Moyer knows a thing or two about locating a below average fastball.)