Once a pitcher’s average fastball drops below 90 mph, pitching in the major leagues gets a lot more challenging. For instance, a pitcher is 16 percent more likely to give up a home run on a fastball clocked at less than 90 mph than one at more than 90. As such, continuing to pitch in the major leagues is more challenging as well, as teams just don’t hand the ball to these guys very often. Of the 146 pitchers who have thrown 500 or more four-seam fastballs this year, only 14 of them have averaged less than 90 on the pitch.
The league’s throwing harder every year, and it’s getting harder to live on the edges. Just look at how all fastball velocities are distributed this year.
Amazingly, the Blue Jays have three of the 14 slowest fastballs in the league in Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Marco Estrada. What makes Estrada’s fastball the most impressive of the group is that it actually gets above-average whiffs despite the bad velocity, something his teammates can’t say.
Maybe the team’s front office read this research that suggests that location and movement are more important than velocity for fastballs slower than 95 mph. Maybe they didn’t, but Estrada’s secret to making his 89 mph fastball work for him has followed that playbook.
We don’t have a great statistic for command. Because pitchers often want to place pitches outside the strike zone in order to get the batter to reach, you can’t really use zone percentage. Because swings and misses turn balls into strikes, walk percentage isn’t great either.
Even one of the better attempts of our time, Bill Petti’s Edge% — a number that tries to quantify how often a pitcher hits the edge of the strike zone — ignores contextual cues that help us understand command better.
Contextual clues like count are huge. Marco Estrada shows up in the 50th percentile by Edge%, but look at his heat maps by count. He can command this fastball well.
Here he is trying to get a called strike while behind in the count. Take a look at that big hole in the middle of the zone when he throws his fastball in three-ball counts.
And when Estrada is looking for a swinging strike? He works higher in the zone, and often outside of the zone as he looks to get the batter to reach.
Why don’t hitters tee up on that 89 mph fastball up in the zone? Probably has something to do with…
Only one starter has more ‘rise’ on his four-seam fastball than Marco Estrada this year. Estrada’s fastball crosses the plate a whopping 12 inches higher than a spin-less ball would, and three inches higher than your average four-seamer from a right-hander. To get a sense of what this looks like, just look at the first batter in the highlights from the last time he faced the Yankees.
You expect the ball to drop, and when it rides in on you, it leads to pop-ups and whiffs. Only three pitchers with a fastball averaging less than 90 have an above-average whiff rate on their fastballs, and Estrada and his rising fastball is right there. In first on that leaderboard of below-average fastball velocity starters is Mike Fiers, who has top-ten rise on *his* fastball.
Estrada does this by putting a lot of spin on his four-seamer. He’s 13th among starters in spin rate on his four-seamer, and that spin, combined with the four-seam grip, leads to the backspin that counteracts the force of gravity and gives the ball the appearance of rise.
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But for why the rising fastball thrown high in the zone works so well, we may have to consult with the only pitcher that has more rise on his fastball than Estrada this year — Chris Young. Another low-velocity starter that has made a rising fastball strategy work for him, Young told me that “hitters are very good low ball hitters now.” You can see that in terms of home runs per fly ball, today’s hitters enjoy the pitch low and in more than any other.
That’s probably because the expanding strike zone at the bottom, and an increasing emphasis on getting the ground ball, has led to pitchers pounding the bottom of the strike zone. In response, hitters have developed swings that can match the plane of those incoming low balls. Now, even the best hitters of our time have weaknesses up in the zone. Now, even the best hitters of our time have a hard time catching up to 89 mph above the zone.
Maybe Estrada doesn’t always hit the sliver of the strike zone that’s called the Edge. He does a good job of avoiding the heart of the zone, and he can put the ball where he wants it most of the time. He’s in the zone. So it’s a good thing, then, that no pitch thrown by a starter at least 300 times this year has gotten as many whiffs on swings in the zone as his changeup.
And that fastball? It’ll surprise you as it ends up about three inches higher than you expect. Between location and movement, Estrada has found a way to hang with a league that throws, on average, three mph harder than he does.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.