Boston’s Best Tools: Fastball

Continuing our look at the best tools, we move to pitchers and look at the primary weapon in a hurler’s arsenal: the fastball. The Red Sox feature some strong contenders for best fastball, both in relief and in the rotation. Three pitchers on the staff have averaged better than 94 mph on their fastballs over the past three years and only knuckleballer Tim Wakefield averages less than 90. While it is easy to assume that Daniel Bard's 97.7 mph heater is tops based on sheer velocity, there is more to fastballs than just being fast. We can look at movement, velocity and the results the pitchers get to find our best heater.

Name

FB%

FBv

wFB Total

wFB/C

V-Mov

Variation V-M/ AVG

H-Mov

Variation H-M/ AVG

Daniel Bard

72.90%

97.7

10.9

0.77

9.6

0.129412

-5.3

0.019231

Jonathan Papelbon

77.30%

94.9

37.6

1.44

8.9

0.047059

-7.8

0.5

Josh Beckett

61.10%

94.1

11.4

0.23

9.4

0.105882

-6.9

0.326923

Clay Buchholz

52.60%

93.6

1.2

0.04

9.4

0.105882

-6.9

0.326923

Jon Lester

53.90%

93

20.1

0.38

9.5

0.117647

4.9

-0.15517

Once again using a three year sample, the top pitch values on fastballs belong to Jonathan Papelbon (37.6 runs above average), Jon Lester (20.1), Josh Beckett (11.4) and Daniel Bard (10.9). Bard has the fewest innings over that sample size, however, and he ranks ahead of everyone expect Clay Buchholz based on 2010 data alone (with 12.7). Buchholz had the best total fastball value last year (20.8), but had negative values the two previous seasons. Both Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon saw their pitch values head in the other direction in 2010. Beckett’s case is truly alarming, since he was almost unrivaled with the heater before posting 14.5 runs below average on the pitch in 2010. Pap didn’t have a negative fastball value during his rough 2010 season but he was well behind Buchholz and Bard with only 4.5 RAA.

Papelbon and Bard get the highest value above average out of the fastball per 100 pitches, with 1.77 and .77 RAA respectively, though once again, recent history gives the edge to Bard (1.57) and Buchholz (1.38). Beckett would be a contender for the top spot by this method as well if not for his awful 2010 season. Papelbon was just ridiculous with the fastball before struggling last year; his 2.24 RAA on the heater was among the best in baseball during that time. Even with the off year last season, Pap has a pretty elite heater based on pitch value metrics.

While results are very important to this debate, the wonders of Pitch/FX allow us to look at the stuff itself and not just what happens. Looking beyond velocity to movement is extremely revealing in this particular case. In the fantastic 2011 Hardball Times Annual, Jeremy Greenhouse writes, "the worst type of fastball is one that has no special movement…a fastball with average movement-six inches of tail and eight inches of rise*- is actually a substandard pitch." This sounds pretty obvious, but really it is rather profound. Instead of considering the raw vertical and horizontal movement, we should consider them with respect to their variation from the norm. Looking at 2010 Pitch/FX data, there are some interesting clues that can help us determine who has the best fastball and also just what has been going on with Papelbon, Beckett and Buchholz.

*Physicists are quick to mention that fastballs do not really rise, but rather fall at a slower rate than expected. Hitters are quick to suggest that physicists actually try to hit a fastball.

Daniel Bard not only has the fastest heater, but he has the most rise as well. His fastball rises 9.6 inches or 1.1 inches more than the average. His horizontal movement however, is decidedly average. With his velocity and rise, Bard sports one killer fastball, but I think he is getting away with lesser horizontal movement because he pitches in relief. We would expect a slight decline in both velocity and rise if he moved to the rotation (he won’t, of course) and then his lack of horizontal movement might cause him more problems.

Papelbon seems to be suffering from a decline in his rise, though not in his velocity, but he has some really incredible horizontal movement. The league average is 5.2 inches of tailing movement in on the right hand hitter, but Pap gets 7.8. His fastball just explodes up and in on righties. Well, last season it exploded in much more than up and that may have hurt him. He may also have been struggled because while his 7.8 inches of movement is great, it is a far cry from the 8.4 inches he averaged the two previous seasons. It is absolutely clear to me that if this article had been written last year, choosing anyone but Papelbon would be absurd. Now, though it is very unclear.

Beckett and Buchholz have exactly the same numbers for vertical and horizontal movement, which seems amazing to me given that they were on opposite sides of the spectrum by results. Unfortunately their velocities are heading in opposite directions, with Buchholz gaining more than one mph since he came up and Beckett losing almost one mph since 2007. I am not sure that explains the difference, though. It is hard to understand why two pitchers would have such incredibly different outcomes on such similar pitches. I suspect Buchholz was lucky to the extreme and Beckett almost as unlucky. It certainly is strange, though.

As interesting as all of these considerations are, they haven’t cleared up the question. As I said, Papelbon would have been the easy choice not so long ago and he is still a good pick. Bard’s speed and rise are elite and though he doesn’t have the track record of some of the others, he was tops last season. Jon Lester has is near the top in both results and movement and while his velocity is no where near Bard’s, but he is left-handed and a starter, both of which lower the bar on sheer speed. He has better vertical movement than anyone but Bard and had respectable horizontal movement. Still when all is said and done, I have to give it to that crazy fast, 97 mph cheese from Daniel Bard.

Is this how it is going to go? Every skill gets 1000 words of analysis to come to the obvious easy conclusion? I guess we will see. Who do you think has the best heater?

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