JUPITER – The radar gun readings at Roger Dean Stadium are listed after every pitch on the scoreboard. Bench coach Rob Leary before Saturday’s Nationals-Marlins game said he’d take a peak every now and then.
The readings for Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez didn’t tell Leary anything he doesn’t already know.
“You can see when the ball is coming out of someone’s hand really well,” said Leary, who is managing this weekend while Mike Redmond and a split squad are in Panama playing the Yankees. “It comes out differently when you see guys throwing that way, and Jose and a guy like a Strasburg, you can tell there’s something a little different coming out of the hand.”
Two of the game’s better four-seam fastballs were on display through four innings of the 2-1 Nationals’ win. Last season, Strasburg’s average velocity on four-seam, or straight, fastballs was the majors’ sixth-best at 96.06 miles per hour. Fernandez was two spots behind at 95.05 miles per hour according to PITCHf/x, a Sportvision-created tracking system that records the velocity, movement, release point, spin and pitch location of every major league offering.
Per Brooks Baseball’s PITCHF/x analysis, Fernandez threw 1,297 four-seamers, 48 percent of which he dropped in the zone. Of Strasburg’s 1,625 four-seamers, he threw 44.7 percent for strikes.
“They’re comparable,” said Marlins’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who’s faced Strasburg and caught Fernandez. “I think Jose’s mechanics, as a hitter, he comes at you really hard, almost full force it seems like where Strasburg is a little more fluid and his arm is whippy.”
Velocity is a significant component, but arguably it’s not the most important. Any successful pitcher, regardless of how hard he throws, needs fastball command. Strasburg and Fernandez last season both showed great ability to move the pitch all over the strike zone.
In seven of the nine quadrants that comprise the zone, Fernandez last season filled seven of those with 10 percent or more of the 623 four-seamers he threw for strikes, the exceptions being glove-side up and glove-side down.
Strasburg topped the 11 percent mark of 727 four-seam strikes to six of the nine quadrants in 2013. The three boxes he missed to hit double figures was arm-side up and down, and glove-side up.
“Both are getting really good at not falling into patterns,” said Nationals’ first baseman Adam LaRoche, who totaled five plate appearances against Fernandez last season and two off Strasburg as a Brave before joining the Nationals. “You go in with a scouting report on some guys and it’s, ‘Hey, this guy stays away.’ He may show in for a ball, but he’s going to stay away and you see that in those boxes.”
Neither pitcher shied away from using four-seamers in two-strike counts. Strasburg went to it 23 percent of the time and Fernandez 22.3 percent. The swing and miss rates on the pitch virtually were the same: Fernandez’s at 7.02 percent and Strasburg at 6.95 percent. Fernandez did have the edge in whiff rate on two-strike counts, 12.8 percent to 9.6 percent.
Opponents also logged a batting average and slugging percentage off Fernandez’s four-seamer of .232 and .335, respectively. They hit .245 and slugged .394 off Strasburg’s, per Brooks Baseball.
Among other tools for measuring the effectiveness of individual pitches are linear weights. On Fangraphs, the statistic “wFB” represents total runs saved using the fastball. Fernandez’s 2013 wFB (13.9) ranked 12th, 11 spots ahead of Strasburg (6.4). Another statistic (“wFB/C”) corrects for usage and gives a value on a per 100-pitch basis. Fernandez (0.90) was 14th and Strasburg (0.62) was 23rd in that category.
Evaluating a fastball in and of itself doesn’t offer a complete portrait. As LaRoche and Marlins infielder Ed Lucas pointed out, the quality of secondary pitches directly impact the effectiveness of a fastball. Both Fernandez and Strasburg feature multiple “plus,” or above average, offerings they’ll throw anytime.
“If a guy is throwing 97, 98 but he doesn’t have a breaking ball, it’s a completely different mindset for a hitter than facing a guy who you know can throw his breaking ball for a strike,” Lucas said. “Knowing he has that other stuff in his back pocket makes whatever he’s throwing – 94, 95 – play even a little bit harder. That’s also what makes Jose special and allowed him to flourish in the second half last year, his ability to throw any pitch, any count.”
Added LaRoche: “You can throw 100 in this league and if you don’ have anything to back it up and you get guys comfortable sitting on that fastball, you’re going to get touched up a little bit. When you have to honor a couple of other pitches, that’s what makes it more difficult to be on time with the fastball.
“For starting pitchers, I’d put them both top two for the ability to rear back and let it go when they need it, and it’s not just early in the game. I don’t know that you’ll find [better]. They may go top two, top three as far as what I’ve faced.”