More fastball spin typically translates to more swings and misses. In 2019, on four-seam fastballs coming in at a velocity over 95 mph with a spin rate above 2500 rpm, pitchers were able to generate a 30.8% whiff rate. When the spin rate dipped below 2500 rpm on those same 95+ mph heaters, the whiff rate fell to 24.8%.
While fastball spin does not guarantee success, it is a good indicator for future success as it is essentially the potential for movement on a given pitch.
Here is a look into the success of the best four-seam fastballs of 2019:
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Houston Astros
When talking about fastballs, what better place to start than the 324 million dollar man, Gerrit Cole.
Cole transformed himself into one of the game’s premier pitchers after arriving in Houston in 2018 where he discovered the wondrous effects of spinning the baseball.
Here is a look at Cole’s vertical movement by season on his four-seam fastball.
By no surprise, in his career year in 2019, Cole’s average spin rate on his four-seam fastball was the highest of his career and the 4th highest mark among all qualified starting pitchers.
After posting career-bests in basically every statistical category, Cole was essentially robbed of a Cy Young award by his teammate, Justin Verlander. The now Yankee posted an ERA of 2.50 (1st in the AL), along with 326 strikeouts, and a 13.8 K/9 ratio, both of which led all of baseball. His 20 wins were second in baseball to Verlander, as was his .89 WHIP.
His Statcast page is more of the same.
Cole pretty much dominated baseball with his four-seam fastball. He was truly able to overpower hitters. He dialed his fastball up to the 97mph range and effectively elevated it in the zone, aiding him in generating his, again, league-leading 134 swinging strikes on fastballs at the top of the zone.
The former first overall pick out of UCLA was also able to command the heater well, firing it to a ridiculous K-BB% of 35.2 and a maybe even more ridiculous .259 wOBA against, en route to a 34.3 pVAL – the highest pVAL of any pitch in the majors.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets
The ever-masterful Jacob deGrom will most likely find himself on quite a few of these lists. With arguably the best all-around arsenal in the game, the Stetson University product generated at least a 30% whiff rate on four different pitches.
Like Cole, deGrom spun his four-seam fastball at a career-high rate last year on his way to a second consecutive National League Cy Young award honor.
The Florida native turned to his fastball more than ever in 2019, shoving it down opponent’s throats at a 48.1% clip. What is most impressive about deGrom’s fastball is his ability to pinpoint it at any location at any given time. As one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game, he knows when to elevate that fastball and use it as his putaway pitch when hitters are shaking in their cleats over the thought of trying to hit his slider. The late rise on his fastball allowed the right-hander to garner swings and misses on over 12% of attempts.
Opponents could rarely catch up to this late break and could only muster a .355 xwOBAcon and an anemic average exit velocity of only 88.7 mph against the heater.
deGrom is like a fine wine and is seemingly getting better and better with each start. The 25-year-old, curly-haired, Jacob deGrom averaged 92.9 mph on his fastball, 85.2 mph on his slider, and 84.6 mph on his changeup throughout his major league debut. 6 years later, in his last start of 2019, the 31-year-old, short-haired, clean-shaven, veteran Jacob deGrom averaged 97.7 mph on his fastball, 92.7 mph on his slider, and 91.4 mph on his changeup.
And all he’s done in between is win a Rookie of the Year award, two consecutive Cy Young awards, make three All-Star teams, post a career ERA of 2.62 (1.70 in 2018), and set two major league records with his streak of 30 straight starts allowing three or fewer runs and striking out the first eight opponents he faced in a September start against the Marlins.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Jake Odorizzi being on this list may come as a surprise to some readers, but his fastball was actually one of the most consistent pitches in all of baseball. Despite lacking an “elite” spin rate, the fastball from Odorizzi still moves, on average, vertically, 16.7 inches and horizontally, 10.6 inches, and was able to hold opponents to a measly .284 xwOBA and .388 xwOBAcon in 2019.
It seems some of the methodologies Odorizzi picked up from his time in Tampa Bay have carried over to Minnesota. The 29-year-old’s fastball usage was a career-high in the Twin City last year at 57.9%.
His technique was not revolutionary. Hitters did not square up his fastball well in the past, so he threw more of them. And his aforementioned approach was pretty direct.
Here is a look at Odorizzi’s pitch locations when ahead in the count in the first half of last season from Fangraphs:
As you can see, Odorizzi’s approach is pretty straightforward: get ahead in the count and elevate a fastball to generate swings and misses. The approach he picked up as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays has been working extremely well for the right-hander in his new uniform.
Here is a look at his swings and misses over the last few seasons:
I touched on Gerrit Cole’s dominance at the top of the strike zone. Well, guess who was directly behind this year’s Cy Young favorite in swinging strikes at the top of the zone. Jake Odorizzi. He generated 94 swings and misses when throwing the four-seamer up at the letters.
Behind his 17.4 FG pVAL fastball that ranked in the top five in the majors, the former Brewers first-round pick had a mini coming out party last year posting a career-high 15 wins. Mr. Odorizzi is in position to be a solid 1b option behind Jose Berrios for the 100-win Minnesota Twins team in 2020.
Lucas Giolito, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Sticking with the theme of coming out parties, next up on the best fastballs list is former Nationals top prospect, Lucas Giolito.
The former first-round pick posted a 3.66 SIERA and 24.2 K-BB% in 2019 after being, statistically, the worst starting pitcher in the majors in 2018. This was in large part due to his fastball command improving greatly.
The four-seamer posted a horrendous 19.9 BB% in 2018, but Giolito was able to drop that to a much more respectable 9.1% last year. The lengthy right-hander is able to generate 18.2 inches of vertical movement on his four-seamer, on average, paired with 7.6 inches of horizontal movement. This led to an 11.4 SwStr% – a decent rate for a fastball – and held opponents to an xwOBAcon under .400.
Giolito’s fastball, which sat in the mid-90s, was able to avoid barrels with all that vertical movement. Opponents only hit the offering solidly on 3.2% of attempts, resulting in weak contact over 62% of the time. Much like Odorizzi, when Giolito elevated his fastball, opponents were often baffled. In fact, Giolito posted the 4th lowest xwOBA on fastballs up in the zone at a ridiculous .146.
Perhaps the most remarkable stat about Gioltio’s fastball is that it’s pVAL jumped from -13.5 (gross) in 2018, to 20.5 in 2019, making it one of the best weapons in today’s game.
Walker Buehler, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
I imagine most are not surprised to see a guy who can dial it up to 100mph on this list. The not-so dark horse Cy Young candidate had a stellar campaign in 2019 headed by a monster fastball.
The 25-year-old turned to his fastball more than half the time in 2019, and why not when it can hit triple digits? He hummed it by hitters at a rate good enough for a 21.6 pVAL as it yielded a 25.7 K-BB% and a SwStr% over 10%. Beuhler’s heater also possesses one of those elite spin rates that can be used to increase rise and run. When it wasn’t his day off, Buehler whipped the fastball at nearly that magical 2500 RPM number. At only 25, that bodes well for his pitching coaches as pitch movement is often fine-tuned as pitchers mature.
The Dodgers landed another good one.
Koufax, Kershaw, Buehler.
Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Brandon Woodruff is one of my favorite players headed into the 2020 season. While a bit older, he is one of those guys that has the chance to make a Chris Paddack type jump into stardom. He was well on his way into that realm through his first 20 starts of 2019 until he was sidelined due to a left oblique strain. That oblique strain kept him out for practically the remainder of the season. Woodruff was only able to return for 4 brief innings over 2 starts in late September, but he picked up right where he left off.
Part of what allows Woodruff’s four-seamer to be so dominant is that it plays extremely well off of his two-seamer. In 2019, Woodruff found himself among the top five starting pitchers in terms of xwOBA against his sinker and his four-seamer. He was the only member of both lists.
Woodruff has raised his velocity every season since 2017 hitting the gun at 94.3, then 95.1 in 2018, and 96.3 in 2019.
The 2014 mid-round draft pick is one of the best in the business at avoiding barrels with his four-seamer. Last year, it yielded a wimpy 87.5 average exit velocity and was only barreled about five times per 100 attempts. The four-seamer baffled hitters with the late explosion into the glove, posting an insane 31.4 K-BB% and nearly a 12% SwStr rate. Opponents had difficulty squaring it up as it dove 15.2 inches vertically and slid 8.7 inches horizontally across the strike zone.
Much like Giolito, when Woodruff got the ball up in the zone, he was basically untouchable. Opponents were only able to muster a measly .103 xwOBA against Woody’s fastball at the top of the zone – the best mark in all of baseball.
There is a case to be made that this is the best fastball in all of baseball. Oh, yeah. And it came with a .352 BABIP.
The floor is yours, Mr. Woodruff.
Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals
Would it really be a list of the best starting pitchers without MadMax? Even through the back and shoulder pain, Max Scherzer was able to continue his dominance for another year at age 36.
The horizontal break of 12.2 inches on the four-seamer prevented opponents from barreling the baseball on more than 9% of attempts and hitting it solidly on more than 8% of attempts.
The Nationals staff is probably the biggest benefactor from the delayed season after their arms led them to the top of the baseball world late in October. As the league’s most fierce competitor, Scherzer will be good to go for Opening Day, whenever that may be.
Expect him to be among the leaders across all categories in 2020. His black eye will be gone, his back will be healed, and his 17.1 graded pVAL fastball will be ready to go when MadMax’s name is called.
Lance Lynn, RHP, Texas Rangers
The workhorse that is Lance Lynn is the last starting pitcher to make this list. Lynn had a resurgence for the ages in Arlington last season and put together a stellar campaign. Lynn made 33 starts last year and faced more batters than anyone in the majors across his 208 innings of work.
He cut through the AL West with his heavy fastball. He shoved it over the dish between 94 and 96 mph and spun it at one of the most elite rates in the game. His 2482 rotations per minute left him in the 90th percentile among all qualified starters.
The average exit velocity on Lynn’s fastball was among the best in the league at 89.4 mph. This was a result of opponents only being able to get a barrel on the heater at a less than 6% clip. In turn, it generated weak contact at a 62.7% rate. That is the highest rate on this list.
Watching Lynn, it is obvious that he has an overpowering fastball. But the second-best fastball in the league in terms of pVAL? Who knew.
Lynn should find more continued success with his fastball in 2020 in the new ballpark in Arlington. He and his teammate, Mike Minor, who just missed this list, should be fighting for a Wild Card spot this fall.
Josh Hader, LHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Hard to make a list of the best fireballers without the Brewers closer. Josh Hader slung his heater from the left side at an 83% rate in 2019. As most premiere closers do, Hader possesses elite velocity and bombards hitters with a 95+ mph sweeping fastball.
Leaving aside the unmatched success Mariano had in his career, Hader is somewhat of a modern-day Mo. Opponents knew Mo’s cutter was coming and they still couldn’t hit it. Opponents know Hader’s fastball is coming, and they very often cannot hit it.
In 7 appearances last year, Hader threw only fastballs. Opponents swung at 69 of those fastballs during those seven outings and missed on 43 of them. The ball was put in play only 10 times. That is sheer dominance.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, New York Yankees
Again, how can you make a fastball list without this guy?
Aroldis Chapman slung his fastball at an average velocity of 98 mph last year. The heater had a vertical movement of 18.2 inches, leading to a soft contact rate of 68.1%, and holding opponents to an average exit velocity of only 86.3 mph.
It was barreled on only 5.8% of attempts and hit solidly on only 1.4. This aided “The Cuban Missile” in holding opponents to a .340 xwOBAcon, as he powered his way to 37 saves for the Bronx Bombers.
When it comes to fireballers, Chapman is in a class of his own.
Chris Paddack, RHP, San Diego Padres
The 23-year-old made Miami Marlins fans everywhere bite their tongue last year as he emerged as one of the game’s bright, young arms for the San Diego Padres.
The rookie bombarded opponents with fastballs at a 61.1% clip last year. He sat in the mid-90s, consistently around 94mph, with a deadly changeup to complement the gas.
He generated a Whiff% of 23.4 and put opponents away with the heater at an 18.6% pace.
Hitters stood little chance against the young gun’s electric arm. They were only able to tag his four-seamer for a .209 xBA, .381 xSLG, and .275 xwOBA. This was a result of the hard, vertical movement of Paddack’s heater. The 18-inch change of plane left hitters looking foolish as “The Sheriff’ strutted back to the dugout with his 24% K-BB% tucked into his boots.
Jack Flaherty, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
After a Cy Young caliber season and posting the best numbers in baseball in the second half, Jack Flaherty made himself a household name. However, when taking a deeper dive into his metrics, Flaherty was among the luckiest pitchers in the game last year.
His four-seam fastball landed in the 31st percentile in terms of spin rate and only the 67th percentile in terms of velocity. He did not overpower hitters, only generating a 9.6 SwStr% and an 18.8 K-BB%. The lack of spin on his fastball resulted in minimal movement and weak contact at only a 58.5% rate. Additionally, his BABIP of .230 on the heater is certainly not sustainable.
Jack Flaherty owners, beware.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Houston Astros
Justin’s Verlander, while remaining dominant over the last few seasons, has many red flags attached to him. The first being his age. Verlander comes into the season at 37 years old with a lot of wear and tear on his arm. The ace is clearly on the tail end of his career and pitching in a division loaded with some of baseball’s biggest superstars.
Perhaps the biggest red flag attached to JV is his 2019 career-low BABIP of .218.
Despite the excellent counting stats, Verlander got hit HARD last year. His fastball was barreled more than 15% of the time with an average exit velocity over 92 mph. It was hit solidly on almost 10% of attempts and only induced weak contact just over half of the time.
As his .218 BABIP suggests, those sharply hit balls are going to find some more grass next year.
Opponents had a slugging percentage of .551 against Verlander’s heat last year and beat it up to the tune of a .464 xwOBAcon. Since 2017, opponent’s ISO against his fastball has skyrocketed from .104 to .178 in 2018, to .305 2019.
And 135 of his innings were against sub-.500 teams.