What Sets an Elite MLB Fastball Apart from the Rest of the Pack?

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What Sets an Elite MLB Fastball Apart from the Rest of the Pack?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
BREAKING: Matt Harvey's fastball is fantastic.

"If you're going to make it as a pitcher, kid, you've gotta have a fastball. Develop a good one, and you'll go far."

I'm certain I had a little league coach tell me that once. You probably did too when you were in little league. Guys like Justin Verlander, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg probably heard the same thing.

The difference between us and them is that they, you know, actually did develop good fastballs. Elite ones, in fact.

But here's a just-for-fun question: What does an elite fastball have that an ordinary fastball doesn't?

This is a "just for fun" question because you probably already have a pretty good idea what goes into an elite fastball. The defining characteristics aren't exactly some big secret, so nothing I'm about to ramble on about should blow your mind.

And that's OK. There weren't many big secrets to uncover when I broke down what makes an elite changeup, but it was a good excuse to have fun with numbers and pictures. Fastballs offer another excuse to have fun with numbers and pictures. 

So let's have at it.

 

Velocity: A Lesson on Margin of Error with Justin Verlander

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Let's start this off with a bit of guided meditation. What I want you to do is conjure images of the best fastballs in baseball in your head.

Let me guess: You conjured images of particularly fast fastballs, didn't you?

Of course you did. When it comes to fastballs, velocity is more or less synonymous with excellence. That's just how it is, and there's something to that notion.

According to FanGraphs, the PITCHf/x tracking system has the league-average four-seam fastball in 2013 at 91.8 miles per hour. The five starting pitchers who have saved the most runs above average with their four-seamers are all averaging at least 92 miles per hour. For relievers, the top eight fastball merchants in the league are also all averaging at least 92 miles per hour.

The writing on the wall clearly states: "Yeah, velocity is a good thing."

Since you're a baseball fan, dear reader, you already knew that. For that matter, you must already know why that is. More velocity generally means a larger margin for error, as a fastball that's moving very fast is harder to hit than a fastball that's moving minus the "very."

A simple concept, to be sure, and one that can be easily illustrate with pretty pictures.

Consider Justin Verlander circa 2011. Per FanGraphs, he saved more runs above average with his four-seamer than any other right-handed starter in baseball that year. His fastball averaged 95.0 miles per hour, but we all remember him cranking it up much higher than that when he needed to.

And when Verlander did that, he could get away with pretty much anything. Such as the pitch he throws to Torii Hunter at the very end of this highlight reel:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.
 

In case you didn't quite catch it the first time around, the following image shows where that pitch to Hunter was supposed to be and where it ended up:

The catcher set up low and away. Verlander threw that heater up and in, technically making it a mistake pitch. It didn't matter, though, because it was 101 miles per hour. Plenty fast enough to render Hunter helpless.

Had that pitch been any slower, something bad might have happened to it. Willie Eyre can tell you all about it.

Who's he? Just a guy who appeared here and there with the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles between 2006 and 2011. His fastball was nothing special, and Hunter's a guy who can vouch for that.

I can't embed the video here, but go over to MLB.com and watch Hunter tee off on a 92-mph fastball from Eyre. I would tell you to note the spot Eyre was supposed to hit and where he ended up throwing the pitch, but I went ahead and did that for you:

Eyre basically did the same thing that Verlander did. He was supposed to throw a fastball low and away, but he threw one high and tight. He didn't get away with it because he didn't throw a 101-mph fastball. Eyre's margin for error was smaller, and sure enough, an error occurred.

In and of itself, increasing a pitcher's margin for error is really the only thing elite fastball velocity can do. That's not a bad function as far as functions go, but the point is that it doesn't erase a pitcher's margin for error. A guy with great velocity is going to be able to get away with more mistakes than a guy with average velocity, but he can't rely on his velocity alone to limit his mistakes.

He has to actually, you know, pitch. And like with any pitch, with fastballs that's all about location, location, location.

 

Location: Lessons on Avoiding the Sweet Spot with Zack Wheeler and Shelby Miller

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
If velocity was the only thing that mattered, Zack Wheeler's fastball would be one of the game's most unhittable pitches. Per FanGraphs, PITCHf/x has the average velocity of Wheeler's fastball at 95.1 miles per hour, which is right about where Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg are with their heaters.

But Wheeler's fastball isn't unhittable. It's quite the opposite, in fact. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters have a .293 batting average and a .610 slugging percentage against Wheeler's four-seamer.

There's a good reason for that: Wheeler has a live arm, but he can't locate his fastball worth a darn-and-a-half.

According to FanGraphs, Wheeler is only throwing 44.9 percent of his pitches within the strike zone. It doesn't help that only 51.0 percent of his fastballs are finding the strike zone, which is a less-than-ideal rate.

The worst part is that the fastballs Wheeler has managed to put in the zone haven't always been well placed. Just ask Juan Francisco:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.
 

Here's a more precise look at that fastball's location, complete with a rough-guess representation of the strike zone:

The pitch Wheeler threw was 96 miles per hour, but it was right down the middle and closer to Francisco's belt than his knees. That's otherwise known as the "middle of the plate," an area where no pitcher should ever throw a fastball regardless of the margin of error he has thanks to his velocity.

Alas, it's something of a habit for Wheeler. Here's the fastball he threw that Jayson Werth launched for a home run:

And here's the fastball Wheeler threw to Adam LaRoche that also left the yard:

Like the pitch to Francisco, the fastballs Wheeler threw to Werth and LaRoche came across the plate in the mid-90s. But also like the pitch to Francisco, they were in the middle of the plate.

There's hope for Wheeler. He has velocity, and that's good because velocity is a thing that's extremely hard to teach. But until Wheeler learns how to locate, he'll be a perfect example of "how not to be" for other young pitchers.

On the flip side, there is Shelby Miller. 

Miller, 22, is close in age to the 23-year-old Wheeler, and he also throws his fastball hard with a 93.6-mph average. What makes Miller different is his beyond-his-years ability to locate his fastball.

According to FanGraphs, 56.6 percent of Miller's fastballs have found the strike zone this season, which is a big reason he ranks in the top seven among starters in overall Zone%. And when Miller is locating, he's really locating.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Miller's one-hit shutout of the Colorado Rockies back on May 10 is the single most dominant performance achieved this year in the eyes of of Bill James' game score statistic. Miller did it with fastballs, as a staggering 93 of his 113 pitches were heaters, according to TexasLeaguers.com.

What's more, Miller picked up all 13 of his strikeouts on heaters. You can watch them all here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Let's take a closer look at those 13 fastballs. Here's an overlay that shows the location of the seven strikeouts Miller racked up against left-handed batters, complete with another rough-guess strike zone:

Note: Yes, the camera angles did change slightly throughout the course of the game. I had to improvise by lining up home plate as approximately as possible.

You don't see anything in the middle of the plate here. The strikeouts Miller got against lefties were either on fastballs on the inner part of the plate and low or on pitches up above the belt. 

And now here's a look at the fastballs with which Miller got right-handed batters to strike out:

A couple of these fastballs flirted with the middle of the zone but were more away than down the middle. Thus, Miller avoided giving the righties he faced fastballs to drive.

Want to know why Miller is so good at 22 while Wheeler looks like he still needs to some fine-tuning at 23? There you go. Miller can already locate his fastball with the best of 'em, and former pitching great Curt Schilling will testify that a pitcher is throwing more than just one pitch when he does that:

 

A pitcher who's able to mix big-time velocity with outstanding command has the two main ingredients of an outstanding fastball. With these two things alone, a heater can do wonders.

A pitcher who can also make his fastball dance, however, is going to be even better off.

 

Late Movement: Super-Cool Visuals with Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer and Others

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
A well-located fastball that has some velocity is a pitch that's very hard to hit, but you know what's even harder to hit?

That would be a well-located fastball that has some velocity and some very wicked late movement.

Now, every fastball "moves" to a certain degree. That's the impression one gets from looking at the PITCHf/x leaderboard over at Baseball Prospectus, as there's not a four-seamer in baseball that registers 0.00 in both the horizontal and vertical movement categories. There's really no such thing as a "straight" fastball.

The trouble is that fastball movement is different from changeup or breaking-ball movement in that it's not always easy to see. This is especially true of left-handers due in large part to the slinging nature of their deliveries and baseball's preferred camera angles.

For example, Chris Sale's fastball may have more horizontal movement than any other fastball in baseball, but I couldn't find a video that showed it off. Clayton Kershaw has more vertical movement on his fastball than anyone else, but I'll be damned if there's a video out there in which you can see it.

It's a good thing, then, that there are right-handers with elite fastball movement, too. Those who have it tend to have little trouble making it show on video.

If you recall that leaderboard we looked at way back when, you'll remember that Matt Harvey has saved more runs with his fastball than any other pitcher this season. He certainly has velocity and the ability to locate, but one thing he doesn't get enough credit for is the late movement on his fastball.

Here's a GIF that shows the late movement of a fastball with which Harvey struck Jordan Schafer out back in June: 

That's a 97-mph fastball that was on track to hit Schafer square in the elbow, but it reversed course and caught the inside part of the strike zone.

That's the kind of movement you generally see on two-seam fastballs, but Brooks Baseball classified that pitch as a four-seamer. That's not surprising, as a typical Harvey four-seamer really does tend to move that much. He's getting an average of 6.49 inches of horizontal movement on it in 2013.

But that's nothing compared to Max Scherzer. He ranks third among starters in runs saved with his fastball but first among all right-handed starters in horizontal movement with an average of 8.07 inches on his four-seamer.

Let's see it in action with a GIF of a fastball with which Scherzer struck Jason Kipnis out back in May:

That's a fastball that looked like it was going to go right down the middle, and it would have if Scherzer threw a straighter fastball. But he doesn't, so this fastball naturally decided to make a beeline for the outside corner and hit it with ease.

Late-moving four-seam fastballs are hardly a new invention. It's a notable trait of quite a few mega-awesome fastballs that have popped up here and there throughout history, including the ones belonging to Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood in the late 1990s.

Pulled from a video of a start he made in 1997, here's a GIF of a vintage Pedro fastball:

And here's a GIF of a vintage Wood fastball, straight from his 20-strikeout game in 1998:

Martinez and Wood had other weapons besides their fastballs, as Pedro had one of the best changeups ever and Wood had an absolute hammer of a curveball. Likewise, Harvey and Scherzer also have other weapons besides their fastballs, as Harvey throws three solid offspeed pitches and Scherzer owns a devastating slider.

But one thing these four guys have in common with pitchers like Justin Verlander, Shelby Miller and, well, virtually every other pitcher under the sun is that they all worked/work off of their fastballs. It's the pitch that sets the tone, hence the reason every kid with big league dreams needs to have one.

For those who are determined to make good on those dreams, it's simple: velocity, location, movement. Develop a fastball with all three of those, kid, and you'll go far.

 

Screenshots and GIFs courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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