Photo: (AP / Nam Y. Huh)
By Nolan Bruce, William Gregory, Daniel Mueller, Nick Durand, Daniel Pardi, Ilyas Adnane
Today, pitchers can be statistically analyzed in countless ways. Fans can look at simple outcomes through ERA, or more complex ones through FIP. They can look at the HR totals against a pitcher, or go as far as looking into the average launch angles and exit velocities of batted balls against that pitcher. They can measure the general performance of hitters against a pitcher using wOBA, or even the expected performance of hitters against that pitcher using the xwOBA of batted balls against that pitcher.
However, of all of the pitching analysis categories, the one that stands out as a fan favorite to scrutinize is the effectiveness of their pitch arsenal. How many pitches do they throw? How do they tunnel those pitches? How do they mix up different speeds and movement to catch the hitter off guard? How valuable is each pitch? These are almost always important questions to ask while evaluating the performance of a pitcher. That being said, have you ever wondered which major league pitchers don’t mix in any off-speed? Which pitchers subscribe to the hardball philosophy of almost exclusively throwing fastballs? We did too, which is why we are bringing you our analysis on the 2 starting pitchers and 5 relievers with the highest fastball percentages.
SP – TEX/CWS Lance Lynn: 92.6 Fastball%
Lance Lynn finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting in 2021 after a career year on the mound. 88.6% of his pitches were some type of fastball, which he mixes up between a 4-seam, sinker, and cutter. All of his pitches served him well and his unpredictable arsenal produced a career low 2.72 xERA.
However, a big change Lynn made coming into the season that likely contributed to his improvement was throwing 8% fewer 4-seams in favor of 9% more cutters. This provided him with a more balanced arsenal (42% 4-seam, 31% cutter, 19% sinker) that made him much more difficult to hit. Another change Lynn made was adding 0.6 inches of average movement onto his sinker, which took it into an elite 3 inches above average in terms of movement. As far as effectiveness goes, his 4-seam was still his best pitch with an elite -15 run value, followed by his cutter (-10) and his sinker (-7).
Lynn’s 4-seam’s -15 run value made it the 16th most valuable pitch in any pitcher’s arsenal during the 2021 season. The sinker, with the added movement, improved to the current -7 run value from just -1 in 2020 and 1 in 2019, which is a drastic change and shows why Lynn’s creative fastball diversification paid off in the 2021 season. The fact that his fastball pitches were his 3 most valuable pitches in a Cy Young contending season says all that needs to be said about why he throws them so often.
SP – CLE Cal Quantrill: 77.5 Fastball%
Cal Quantrill wrapped up his first season in Ohio with a stellar season, pitching to a 2.89 ERA and 3.9 bWAR in 149.2 innings, outpacing his FIP of 4.07. While earning an ERA at more than full run below your FIP does require a bit of magic, Quantrill’s penchant to induce soft contact allows for more balls in play, which leads to more opportunities for fielders to make outs for him. We shouldn’t try to judge this groundballer by his FIP any longer. What’s there to know about what he throws?
Quantrill featured six pitches with varying degrees of usage. His three fastballs were his 4-seamer, cutter, and sinker. The sinker and 4-seamer sit at about 94 MPH, while his cutter drops to about 88. His 4-seamer, which he only threw about 15% of the time, was actually a negative pitch. His 36% and 26% usage for his sinker and cutter, respectively, was where the gravy was made. Between those two pitches, Quantrill produced a -15 run value, with -11 coming from the cutter. The interesting thing is that Quantrill did not adopt that cutter until he came to Cleveland. It has been the it-pitch of the past couple seasons, and it shows.
Quantrill does not throw off-speed that often, but when he does the results are decent. His changeup and curveball are neutral pitches, but his slider is the one pitch he has that really puts away batters. His other pitches have a K% of around 10-20%, but his slider’s K% jumps up to 36%, but he only throws it 4.5% of the time. As Quantrill enters his prime, look for the Guardians’ staff to further develop his cutter as a slight off-speed complement to his sinker, with the slider being his true off-speed pitch.
RP – MIN Alex Colome: 100 Fastball%
Following a great 2020 season with the White Sox, Alex Colome was given a contract from the Minnesota Twins. The Twins’ front office decided to buy out the team option for 2022 due to a 0.1 fWAR, 4.15 ERA, 4.23 FIP season. He was not a bad pitcher in 2021, but the Twins didn’t believe he was worth the $5.5 million.
Colome has featured only a cutter and 4-seam fastball over the last two seasons. In 2021, he threw his cutter 70.5% of the time, and his 4-seamer the remaining 29.5%. He has stuck to these ratios since pitch value data has been available since 2017. In that time, his cutter has been a ++ pitch, with his 4-seamer having mixed, but generally positive, results. After having a -11 run value on his 2020 cutter, Colome’s 2021 cutter run value was +3. His fastball had a +3 run value as well. It’s the first time since 2017 that he has had a below average pitch, per run value.
The weird thing about Colome’s 2021 season is that nearly all of his basic sabermetric statistics stayed close to his career average. His velocity, walk rate, and strikeout rate all stayed consistent, or even improved, but his Statcast numbers like exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard hit percentage all tanked. It seemed that hitters were just hitting him harder than they were before.
In 2022, Alex Colome will play in Colorado. He has a low spin rate on his fastball, being in the bottom quarter of the league. Pitchers in Coors actually benefit from having a low spin rate (see: German Marquez), but Colome does not strike out batters often. Given the path his career has taken, and how his non-Statcast peripheral number have stayed relatively consistent, Colome will probably keep the approach that has kept him in the bigs for 10 years.
RP – SD Emilio Pagan: 98.9 Fastball%
Emilio Pagan was 2nd in fastball use among pitchers with at least 1000 pitches thrown at 98.9% He is mainly dependent on his 94.9 MPH 4-seamer, which he throws 61% of the time. Back in 2019, he was lights out, posting a 2.31 ERA in 66 appearances with 96 Ks, postinga 42.5% K% on his fastball and getting batters to whiff 35% of the time, accumulating in a -15 Run Value.
Recently, he hasn’t had the same success. After morphing from a 4-seam/sinker mix to a 4-seam/cutter mix and completely eliminating his curveball, Pagan struggled in 2021. Hitters slugged .538 against his 4 seamer, and his 55.5% Hard Hit percentage is a jump from the 39.5% he posted in 2019. His cutter was worse, posting a +3 Run Value while only putting hitters away 13.5% of the time. While pine tar may seem like an obvious reason for his regression, his vertical and horizontal movements have not changed that much from 2019, and his spin rate is up about 100 RPM.
In 2021, it seems that hitters were barrelling the pitches more often. His barrel percentage went from 61st percentile to the 1st percentile. Pagan looks like a case of regression to the mean, pure and simple.
RP – PHI Jose Alvarado: 96.6 Fastball%
Jose Alvarado came to the Phillies in 2021 after being a member of the Rays since he debuted in 2017. Alvarado has relied heavily on his sinker throughout his career, and has used it more than 76% of the time in each of his last three seasons, most recently 76.9% of the time in 2021. He also featured a cutter that he throws at 16.3% of the time, as well as a 4-seam fastball and curveball, at 3.4% and 3.3% respectively.
In 2021 he posted his highest career average sinker velocity at 99.4 MPH, as well as his highest career ground ball percentage at 57.4%. However, he also posted career highs in walk rate (18.7%) and hard hit percentage at 42.6%. Despite his high sinker usage, Alvarado’s cutter is a pitch that seems to generate solid results. In each of the last two seasons his cutter has been the piece of his arsenal that has generated the highest whiff percentage (66.2% in 2021) and lowest hard hit percentage (23.1% in 2021), but he has only thrown it about 15% of the time. Walks have become more of an issue for him in his last three seasons, hovering around 18%, and the jump in hard hit percentage can be a bit concerning.
Overall, Alvarado is a pitcher that tends to rely more on velocity than movement to miss barrels and generate whiffs. While this has mostly worked for him during his career, it can make him susceptible to hard contact.
RP – LAD Kenley Jansen: 84.6 Fastball%
Kenley Jansen has been one of the most successful fastball relievers of the past decade, with his heaters earning him accolades ranging from three all-star appearances to two reliever of the year awards. However, unlike some of the league’s flamethrowers, Jansen relies on the movement of his fastballs rather than the velocity.
Throughout his career with the Dodgers, Jansen has primarily leaned on his cutter, with his cutter percentage hovering above 80% from 2012 through 2018. However, in recent years, as he lost velocity, he started to cut down (pun intended) on the usage of his cutter in favor of his secondary pitches, his sinker and slider. Despite this, Jansen still threw his cutter 58% of the time in 2021 and finished the season in the top 5% of xBA, xSLG, wOBA, hard hit rate, and average exit velocity, with his fastball spin in the 97th percentile as well.
Kenley Jansen has proven throughout his lengthy career that his fastball has been a driver of his success. Look for him to continue his dominance in Atlanta in 2022.
RP – BAL Adam Plutko: 82.8 Fastball%
Adam Plutko joined the Orioles last season after playing for Cleavland since 2016. Having experience both as a starter as well as coming out of the bullpen, Plutko has never been a stranger to high fastball usage. Since adding his cutter in 2019, Plutko has thrown fastballs at least 72% of the time which increased to 82.8% in 2021. He is dependent mostly on his 4-seamer, however, the pitch has seen a decline by about 9.8% due to his increased cutter use. Plutko also features a slider and curveball which account for 10.2% and 7% of his pitches, respectively.
The heavy fastball usage did not serve Plutko well in 2021, as he gave up all but one of his 17 home runs off the two pitches. Looking at his stats for the season, the Orioles pitcher fell down to the bottom 1% among qualified pitchers in xERA, xwOBA, and xSLG, as well as being in the bottom-10% in xBA and bottom-5% in exit velocity.
In addition to poor peripheral stats, Plutko posted a not-so-impressive 30.4% ground ball rate. It is surprising to see how little he uses offspeed pitches being that his curveball accounts for much of his minimal success. The pitch leads his arsenal in whiff rate at 35% and ranks in the 93rd percentile for spin rate. Combine this with the fact that Plutko has never been one to win at-bats with the speed of his pitches, averaging 91 MPH on his 4-seamer, and one starts to wonder why he defaults to the fastball.
How would this team perform as a bullpen?
It turns out that if this group were made into a bullpen, it would’ve put up a 3.56 ERA on 616.0 IP in 2021, which would be the fourth best in baseball. This number is of course primarily brought about by the fact that Lance Lynn and Cal Quantrill take up just under half of those innings, but for a team that throws exclusively fastballs, it’s impressive nonetheless.
Overall, it seems that this heavy fastball strategy has worked out very well for some players, and very poorly for others, with factors such as spin rate, fastball movement, and different types of fastballs making the difference.
Whether it works out well for the pitcher or not, there is nothing more exciting than watching a pitcher with the guts to bring the heat every time he delivers, and we hope more guys like these continue to put this hardball product on the field in the future.
Categories: M-SABR All Stars