On February 23rd, James Schiano of Pitcher List wrote a piece on trying to find fantasy sleeper pitchers by paying attention to the “rise” on their four-seam fastballs from 2021. While it was more specific to fantasy baseball play, it still fostered some food for thought, especially in regard to Royals pitchers.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term “rise”, it basically refers to vertical movement on four-seam fastballs. The higher the “rise”, the more effective the pitch is, especially since rising fastball generates more swings and misses, especially when they are combined with higher velocity.
After reading through Schiano’s piece, I began to wonder to myself as a Royals fan: which Royals pitchers had the highest “rise” on their four-seamers from 2021, and did that “rise” equate to success with the pitch in other metrics last season?
Furthermore, for those who didn’t see success with their four-seamer last year, could they find more success with minor adjustments? Or should they be looking to eliminate the pitch altogether, and maybe find a different primary pitch, such as a sinker or cutter?
Let’s take a look at the four-seam fastball data from Royals pitchers, and see what the Royals coaching staff could do to help those pitchers who may have struggled with their four-seamer, despite showing impressive “rise” with the pitch a season ago.
Royals Pitchers Four-Seam Fastball (FF) Data
In his piece, Schiano mentions Vertical Approach Angle (VAA) on fastballs, which correlates heavily with effectiveness, especially when it comes to generating swings and misses. Here’s what he says in the piece:
The concept of a “rising” fastball has swept across the league over the last few seasons. The Rays and Astros started attacking the top of the zone with high spin, high-velocity four-seam fastballs and the rest of the league has mostly followed suit.
Of course, there is a lot more that goes into understanding why a fastball can be successful than having a lot of ride and velocity. Alex Chamberlain gave an informative presentation at PitchCon about Vertical Approach Angle and has continued expanding on it at FanGraphs. VAA can certainly tell us a lot about why certain pitches are successful in certain locations…What I do know is that fastballs with more ride generally get more whiffs.“Finding Sleepers Based on Fastball Ride” by James Schiano; Pitcher List
Thus, in order to get a better idea, I took vertical movement data, as well as pitch arsenal data, from Baseball Savant and organized it into a Google Sheet. I trimmed the data from those two data sets to just focus on seven categories, which include the following:
- Velocity (MPH)
- Vertical Movement vs. Average (in inches)
- % Rise vs. Average (in percentage)
- Run Value
- Usage Percentage
- Whiff Rate
- K Rate
These seven categories in some shape or form exhibit whether or not a four-seam fastball is effective.
I also color-coded the sheet, with green-colored cells meaning that the pitcher was “above” average that category and yellow meant that they were “below” average. Thus, the more green-colored cells meant that a pitcher’s four-seamer was more effective overall (and vice versa with more yellow-colored cells).
Here’s a screenshot of the data I collected on the hyperlinked Google Sheet (embedding it on WordPress is a pain, so I decided to just do an image; click the link above if you want to organize the data in different categories):
In the image above, I have the data essentially organized by Vertical Movement vs. Average (which also organizes it by % rise vs. average; thus killing two birds with one stone).
What Are Some of the Initial Takeaways From the Data?
Based on the data organized above, the more vertical movement a Royals pitcher had on their four-seam fastball, the more effective it was overall.
Of the total Royals pitchers who employed a four-seam fastball last year, 10 demonstrated better than average “rise” on their four-seamer. Of that particular set of 10 Royals pitchers, eight of them rated as better than average in at least four of the categories (which means they had a majority of above-average categories to below-average ones).
The only two pitchers with above-average “rise” but with a majority of “yellow-coded” categories were Jon Heasley and Wade Davis (and Wader will not be back with the Royals next season).
What’s interesting to see from the data is that above-average velocity didn’t necessarily correlate with vertical movement. When it came to Royals pitchers in 2021 who showcased the most vertical movement (Duffy, Staumont, Holland, and Heasley), only Staumont possessed better than the average velocity.
Duffy for example employed the most effective four-seamer on a movement end (19 percent rise vs. average) as well as run value (-9). However, his four-seam velocity actually ranked 13th of Royals pitchers who employed a four-seamer.
Therefore, command of the pitch is more important than just pure power, and that is evidenced in this strikeout of Rafael Devers at Fenway Park in late June:
That being said, velocity did correlate highly with run value.
The five Royals pitchers who employed the highest-velocity fastballs (Coleman, Tapia, Hernandez, Brentz, and Staumont, in that order) all did well in run value on the pitch (remember, lower is better). Those pitchers who did have less velocity but higher movement were susceptible to higher run values, especially when they didn’t command the four-seamer effectively.
Case in point: Greg Holland.
Though Holland generated good rise on the four-seamer (8 percent vs. league average), his run value on the pitch was three. A big issue was when Holland’s four-seamer caught too much of the zone. Without elite velocity (92.8 MPH average), his four-seamer, despite the movement, could be incredibly hittable when not commanded well.
Here’s an example of Holland making a mistake with his four-seamer, and Akil Baddoo crushes it for a home run at Kauffman Stadium in late July.
Another interesting case was Tyler Zuber, who showcased above average velocity and movement, but still struggled with his fastball in 2021. His four-seamer produced a run value of six, which is pretty below average. And yet, Zuber rated as above average in the other six categories in the data set I compiled.
What does this mean? It’s hard to say for sure. That being said, it does hint at Zuber’s potential, should he be able to iron down his control and command issues, which have plagued him since he debuted during the COVID-affected 2020 season.
Could “Universal Targets” Help Royals Pitchers with the Fastball?
Lance Brozdowski of Driveline created a video (mentioned in Schiano’s article) about the Rays implementing “universal” targets for pitchers who struggle with fastball command. The video focuses primarily on Tyler Glasnow, who struggled with command in the Pirates organization, and became more effective once the Rays had catchers set up their targets in one spot (the middle) on a consistent basis.
Here’s the video below and it really is a phenomenal study from Brozdowski:
In Schiano’s article, he points out that the Rays were doing the same thing with Luis Patiño a season ago. Take a look in the GIF below how the Rays catchers are keeping the target in a consistent area on fastball-called pitches:
Now, let’s look at this from a Royals pitcher perspective and take a look at how Salvy tries to set up low in the strike zone for Zuber on a 3-2 count.
Due to his erratic control, Zuber walks JaCoby Jones, even though Zuber’s pitch generates some good vertical movement (Salvy doesn’t help by not framing the pitch well, in order to throw out the runner):
And in this clip below against the Twins at Target Field, Salvy once again moves the target to another place in the strike zone, and as expected, Zuber misses badly:
Furthermore, it’s not just Zuber who would benefit from more consistent targets from Royals catchers next season.
Here’s a look at Daniel Lynch against the Astros in August, where a “universal target” would be helpful. Lynch didn’t generate a whole lot of vertical movement on his four-seamer last year, especially compared to other Royals pitchers. However, he struggled with his control frequently a season ago (10 percent walk rate in 2021).
Once again, Salvy tries to target in one specific area, and Lynch ends up missing way high, which puts Martin Maldonado on base:
The Royals have a lot of young pitchers they will be depending on in 2022, with Lynch being a primary one. However, it may help for Cal Eldred and the Royals coaching staff to perhaps examine the Rays’ strategy of “universal targets” for their young pitchers, especially ones like Lynch and Zuber who have struggled with control and command.
That could possibly help maximize the vertical movement value on Royals pitchers’ four-seamers in 2022.
Vertical movement is something that can be debated and analyzed for hours. However, it can give a brief glimpse of how effective a pitcher’s fastball can be both in the short and long term.
Pitchers with good movement on the four-seamer, like Domingo Tapia, may utilize the pitch more in 2022 (Tapia was below average in usage). That could help him maintain the effectiveness he showed in 2021, which should give some stability to the Royals bullpen next season.
Additionally, pitchers who showed poor movement on the four-seamer, and struggled to be effective with it, may need to eliminate it from their arsenal.
Brad Keller is a good example of this scenario. His four-seamer was 17 percent below average in rise, in addition to producing a run value of 18 (the worst mark of all Royals pitchers’ four-seamers). Considering he threw it 29.8 percent of the time, it may be smart for Keller to utilize his sinker more and four-seamer less in 2022.
It will be interesting to see what the Royals do to help address pitchers who struggle with this primary pitch this Spring and early into the upcoming season. Will the Royals perhaps look at employing more universal targets for the young pitchers? Will they look at tweaking pitchers’ arsenals in Spring Training, once camp resumes after the lockout?
Whatever the solution, Eldred and the Royals will need to find a solution, if they hope to be more competitive and effective as a pitching staff next season.
Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports