The fastball is the basic building block upon which all pitching is built. If you were to describe the act of pitching to an alien, or someone from Norway, you would probably say something to the effect of “the attempt to throw a ball hard into an imaginary box of sorts past someone trying to hit it with a bat”. That’s what a fastball is.
You probably wouldn’t get into how that throw would then be appraised by a fallible human leaving perfectly good, and literally perfect, robots unemployed. Norwegians don’t care about robots. You would stick to the throwing hard shtick.
When it comes to making balls travel quickly to home plate it turn out the New York Yankees are quite good. The best, in fact. As it happens, it’s not particularly close.
Currently the Yankees throw fastballs with an average velocity of 93.5. Back in 2002 that number would have ranked fifth among qualifying starters between Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. It’s not 2002. However, the number is still impressive, 0.8 ahead of the next best team, the New York Mets.
Given all the press the Mets get you’d think they’d been by far the hardest throwers in the league. The thing about the press is that finicky as they are, and they sure are finicky, they tend to prefer good pitching. The Yankees haven’t been particularly good with their 4.44 ERA and 4.02 FIP.
It turns out that velocity isn’t everything. Not only is a vast array of fireballers no guarantee of victory, it’s not even a guarantee your team will throw good fastballs.
According to FanGraphs Pitch Value statistics, Yankees’ fastballs have been worth -23.8 runs this season, good for 28th in the league. Guys like Michael Pineda and Luis Severino have produced very respectable radar gun readings, but been slightly less reliable when it comes to getting hitters out.
To make things more peculiar the team has only gone to the heater 48.4 percent of the time, the lowest number in the major leagues, which is made especially surprising by the fact that spot is usually reserved for teams with a full-time knuckleballer.
Even their relief studs Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, who are both off to excellent starts, have been leaning more on the secondary stuff than last year.
To review, the Yankees have a staff that:
1) Throws harder than anyone else
2) Gets hit harder than 27 other teams on their fastballs
3) Throws fewer fastballs than anyone else
That very simply doesn’t not make sense. Two and three go together, but one doesn’t go with either.
Old-school baseball types will often say things like “velocity doesn’t matter, it’s all about location”. At this point sabermetric guys and gals often scoff, because they have evidence to the contrary in the form of a simple equation.
Higher velocity=More Strikeouts=A Big Contract=A garage with a frankly wasteful amount of super cars, but also a Chevy Impala for some reason.
What happens with the Yankees doesn’t commute, partly because command is perhaps the most difficult aspect of pitching to quantify. It’s been suggested in the past that HR/9 is something of a proxy for command because it shows how many pitches pitchers leave in the middle of the plate.
If you buy that logic then that’s your answer. They just aren’t locating. Maybe what’s happening with Yankees’ fastballs does make sense.
It would be comforting. The universe is filled with a literally infinite amount of things we as a relatively young and unaccomplished species do not understand. It would be nice to have one nailed down.
Photo: Kelley L. Cox / USATSI