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The 2012 Blue Jays and Hitting Fastballs

Kelly Johnson re-signing with the Jays got me thinking about the Jays' ability to hit fastballs, and of course their relative inability to hit non-fastball pitches. Is there something to this thought of mine that the Jays have a lot of fastball-minded batters or is it nonsense? To find out, I thought I'd take a look at some stats. Specifically, pitch values. For those new to the subject: pitch values give an indication how good a batter is against a certain pitch, but because they are heavily influenced by luck, they only work well when used in large sample sizes.

To find out how common it is to be good at hitting a certain pitch, I took a look at the 246 hitters who have had at least 1500 Plate Appearances (PA) in the 2007-2011 period (that's 300 PA per season):

2007-2011 Hitters Pitch Values
Pitch Type Below Average Hitters Median Pitch Value
Fastball 53 (21.5%)
Changeup 106 (43.1%)
Slider 157 (63.8%)
Curveball 100 (40.7%)

The Median Pitch Value is Value/Count, so it is not dependent on how often the batter got a chance to hit that pitch. It is supposed to indicate how many runs above average a hitter will create per 100 pitches of that type.

Things of note:

  • Every team is likely to have good fastball hitters, as they are just more common. This does make some sense: if you can't hit a fastball you'll be gone from the major league team pretty soon. All major league pitchers have fastballs (and most of them are major league worthy fastballs), so they can expose that weakness more often than they can expose other weaknesses.

  • The slider is the toughest pitch to hit in the MLB. This also makes sense: a major league pitcher will only throw a slider if that's a good pitch for him, he won't throw it if it's bad one. But in the case of a fastball, a pitcher will throw it out of necessity rather than because of the quality of the pitch.

  • The group of hitters that can hit curveballs well is slightly larger than the group of hitters that can hit changeups, but the difference isn't that big. Are pitchers throwing curveballs out of necessity, for example to have a second pitch against opposite-handed batters, rather than because the pitch is good?

  • Since I'm looking at the data now, anyway, here are some of the most extreme fastball hitters: Josh Hamilton, Carlos Pena, Ryan Howard, Carlos Beltran, Victor Martinez and Evan Longoria.

After the break, I'll take a look at the 2012 Blue Jays and how they compare to the rest of the league.

Kelly Johnson - Let's start with him, since he was the one that inspired me to write this article. Kelly Johnson is a good fastball hitter. He has been 0.85 runs above average per 100 fastballs, which is 0.345 above "average" (ok, median) for a regular. But his value against changeups is 0.65, and that's an even bigger difference with the average changeup hitter. At -0.19 and -0.85 against curveballs and sliders respectively, Kelly is decidedly below average at hitting breaking balls. In 2011, Kelly whiffed a lot against all types of pitches, but he did crush sinkers when they were thrown to him. He had 0 homers on sliders, 2 on curveballs and 3 on changeups, but he whiffed slightly more on curveballs and changeups than on sliders.

Jose Bautista - As with his overall production, his pitch value numbers show a sharp split between pre-2010 Bautista and the new, awesome Bautista. Pre-2010 Bautista struggled against fastballs and sliders, while crushing changeups. Awesome Bautista is totally different: over the last two years he has been 2.5 runs above average (per 100 pitches) against both sliders and fastballs, 1.43 against curves and 1.11 against changeups. It's like he's now a mirror universe Bautista! It's hard to tell whether we should expect Bautista to continue being this awesome against sliders and fastballs, but it does seem like Bautista is not a one-dimensional fastball hitter.

Yunel Escobar - If you don't look at the median pitch values like we did, you might think that Yunel Escobar is a pure fastball hitter. However, his 0.68 value against fastballs is just slightly above average and his -0.24 versus sliders is actually a tiny bit above average as well. The 0.04 runs per 100 pitches versus changeups aren't great, but the -0.17 versus curveballs is his worst value. Basically, Yunel is indeed a fastball hitter, but he's not a particularly one-dimensional hitter.

Colby Rasmus - Young Rasmus has only played three seasons in the majors, so the sample size isn't ideal, but we can only work with what we've got. And what we've got is 0.7 versus fastballs, 0.05 versus changeups, -0.63 versus sliders and -0.89 versus curveballs. Somewhat like Yunel then, but with a much more pronounced weakness against breaking balls, especially the curves. Was actually above average versus sliders and good against changeups until struggling against those pitches in 2011, while his curveball value was positive for the first time the past year. Had 3 homers against curveballs and none against changeups or sliders, which is probably the main reason for this reversal.

Adam Lind - Appearances can deceive, as Adam Lind proves. His 0.13 career value (per 100 pitches as always) versus fastballs is unimpressive, especially compared to the 1.62 versus changeups and 0.80 versus curveballs. The -0.28 versus sliders isn't good, but it's actually not that strange compared to his below par fastball value. In 2011 Lind was actually pretty bad against curveballs, but he did crush some sliders from right-handed pitchers and deposited three of the 35 splitters he supposedly got over the fences. As Lind seems to hit sinkers very well, too, a platoon role seems more ideal the longer I think about it.

Edwin Encarnacion - Well hello, platoon partner to Lind! Encarnacion has a very similar fastball value to Lind at 0.15, but he crushes changeups quite a bit more efficiently at 3.19 runs per 100 pitches. That's insane! His weakness is the slider at -0.73, but Edwin's actually quite good against curveballs at 1.13. In 2011, Edwin finally had a positive value against fastballs again after two years of struggling badly against them. So the one weakness for a potential Lind/Encarnacion platoon: fastball heavy pitchers.

Eric Thames - No, the sample size is nowhere near big enough to accurately use pitch values for the rookie left fielder. But he is a potential three-way platoon candidate at DH, so let's see if anything jumps out enough to make us forget the small sample. Well, there happen to be some things. One, whiffing at curveballs like he's Alfonso Soriano (who is similar to Thames in more ways than this one). Two, whiffing at left-handed sliders but crushing the ones thrown by righties. Three, being a badass versus changeups. Okay, four: despite hitting around 25% of the sinkers he faced for line drives, none of those line drives went for a hit. Despite a mediocre pitch value against fastballs (small sample!), an inspection of batted ball ratios does seem to indicate that Thames could be a better fastball hitter than Lind and EE. Both Lind and EE should probably play over Thames in "curveball situations" though.

Travis Snider - I wrote about him earlier this year, stating that I thought he struggled most against curveballs and possibly against fastballs too. Pitch values (small sample warning applies) have him as pretty balanced with a pronounced weakness against sliders and curves as (marginally) his best pitch to hit. Looking at the 2010 stats I see a very, very sharp split between sliders thrown by lefties and those thrown by righties. However, the sample really is too small to tell what Snider's actually good at hitting. Eric Thames is unlikely to be a good platoon partner, though, a righty would be much better.

Rajai Davis - Not a good hitter by any means, Davis does have some qualities. Hitting sliders is not one of them: -1.69 over his career. So the 0.06 against fastballs, -0.19 versus curves and -0.20 against changeups seem great in comparison. So with Thames and Snider both being lefties, and both probably good at hitting right-handed sliders, does a platoon not seem pretty logical here? Davis could also alternate between spelling Rasmus and Snider when facing lefties. Davis' lefty/righty splits agree, but does John Farrell?

J.P. Arencibia - Hard to tell yet because he's only played one season, but the early indications point to a fastball hitter who could struggle against offspeed stuff. The cutter was his main nemesis this season, and his ineptitude against it was striking enough for me to mention it here despite the classification issues that usually plague the cutter. The early signs of JPA versus stuff that breaks away from him are not good, but neither are the early signs of Arencibia winning the battle versus the changeup, although homer on a decent number of changeups and he wasn't fooled by changeups thrown by lefties.

The Verdict

Yes, the Blue Jays are a bit of a fastball hitting team, probably more so than most. But they are also a changeup hitting team, with no hitters on the team with a really pronounced weakness for changeups (except Jeff Mathis, but he's not a hitter, he's a catcher only). It is somewhat striking that AA's trade acquisitions Escobar, Rasmus and Johnson are all fastball hitters. Is that the scouting, the organizational philosophy or just random coincidence? Perhaps we'll find out in the future. In the meantime, don't be too quick to place a bet on the Blue Jays if they're facing a pitcher who throws a lot of sliders. It might not work out so well.