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In my last article we looked at pitch grips, the importance of keeping hitters off-balance, and how many pitches you really need. Today I want to take a closer look at something I touched on there, and that’s the importance of commanding your fastball. Changing speeds is important, but nothing beats a well located fastball.

The other day I was reading a blog post by my friends at GameChanger (great scorekeeping app, by the way) where they talked about a recent analysis in the Community Research section of Fangraphs.com (good resource for your inner baseball geek). In the report, “What is More Important for a Fastball: Velocity, Location, or Movement?” Thomas Karakolis uses MLB’s PITCHf/x data to better understand what separates a fastball that results in a swing and a miss from one that gets knocked out of the ballpark.

Now I should point out, the analysis only looks at fastballs that resulted in a swinging strike or a homerun, and doesn’t take into account a whole slew of other factors that can affect the outcome of a pitch. But while the analysis is far from perfect, it’s a good start and did result in some interesting findings. Here are some key takeaways:

[h5]Velocity matters, but only if you can really bring it[/h5]
Interestingly, the analysis found little difference in the effectiveness of below average, average, and above average fastballs. Only when fastball velocity exceeded 95 MPH was there a noticeable impact. Heaters at 96+ were 2-4 times more effective than the average major league fastball.

[h5]Fastballs away are better than fastballs inside[/h5]
You might guess that fastballs away were tougher for hitters to reach and make solid contact. In fact, according to these findings, fastballs on the outside corner were 4 times more effective than ones down the middle. Interestingly, fastballs on the inside corner weren’t any better than fastballs right over the plate. Part of this could be due to the nature of the study though. Most inside fastballs are intended to jam a hitter or move him off the plate. So you wouldn’t expect to get a lot of swinging strikes here. I firmly believe a good pitcher has to be able to throw the ball inside. But the data does highlight the importance of hitting your location – miss your location inside and you might strain your neck watching it fly out of the ballpark.

[h5]Pound the bottom of the strike zone[/h5]
Here’s where I think this analysis has the most value. It showed that pitches at the bottom of the strike zone are 3 times more effective than the average fastball. This again is great confirmation of what most pitchers and coaches already understand. I like to tell pitchers their goal should generally be to throw 80% of their pitches down in the zone, and only come up with a purpose. Interestingly, fastballs up in the zone proved no more effective than the average fastball. Only when elevated out of the strike zone, did high fastballs show better success. High pitches out of the zone were twice as likely to result in a swinging strike. So if you’re going to try to blow that 0-2 fastball by them, make sure you elevate!

[h5]Movement is less important that you might think for inducing swinging strikes[/h5]
You hear people say a pitcher has good “stuff” when he’s got a lot of movement on his pitches. One goal of the analysis was to see how movement really impacts a fastball’s effectiveness. The findings go somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, as neither horizontal nor vertical movement had any meaningful impact. But I wouldn’t read too much into this since, again, we’re only looking at swinging strikes and home runs. In general, a good sinking fastball is designed to induce ground balls rather than swinging strikes. But it is interesting that pitches with good movement, if not located well, were just as likely to be hit for a HR as an average fastball.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Mark Twain

When looking at studies like this I’m always reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote. Sure, it makes sense that looking at the result of a pitch would be a good indicator of the quality of that pitch. But by focusing only on two outcomes (homeruns and swinging strikes) the analysis leaves out a whole range of outcomes along the good-pitch/bad-pitch spectrum. It also fails to take into account other important factors like the previous pitch and the game situation.

All that said, I think there are some lessons here that all pitchers should take to heart. Velocity may be more glamorous, but throwing gas doesn’t do any good if you can’t control it. You can learn a lot by watching some of the better pitchers in the game who’ve been able to dominate despite less than stellar velocity. It’s a shame, but a lot of the young pitchers I work with never got the chance to really watch Greg Maddux in his prime. The man was a master when it came to carving up hitters with well located fastballs. He had a line that carries a great lesson for any aspiring ace:

“When they’re in a jam, a lot of pitchers…try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better.”
– Greg Maddux

So just like I wrote in my article on changing speeds, job number one is always to establish command of your fastball. Velocity, movement, and changing speeds all play a role, but location may trump them all. Pound the bottom of the strike zone and stay away from the heart of the plate and you’ve got a good recipe for success at any level.