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Focus on the Fastball: Explaining the Royals' Season

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A four-seam fastball is the most frequently used pitch in baseball. This season, MLB pitchers have thrown a four-seam fastball over 35% of the time, and the second pitch on the list is a two-seam fastball, at 14.8%. Because that pitch is used so often, a team would do well to be successful with it, both offensively and defensively. A pitching staff wants to establish their fastballs, and a lineup wants to punish them.

The 2014 Royals are accomplishing one of those goals, and I’m guessing you know which one.

As a group, Royals pitchers have been getting terrific results with their four-seam fastballs. Using the Pitchf/x data from FanGraphs, no team in baseball has had a more valuable fastball than the Royals, and it’s not particularly close. That pitch has been worth 27.5 runs above average. The next closest team, the Angels, is sitting at 18.7 runs above average.

You might guess that Yordano Ventura would be leading the pack in that category, but you would be wrong. The young flamethrower has been great, obviously, but he ranks third on the team. Ahead of Ventura is James Shields, and way ahead of both of them is Danny Duffy. Duffy’s fastball has been worth 10.1 runs above average this season, which is kind of mind-boggling, considering he’s only pitched 25.1 innings. But when you look at the numbers, it makes sense.

Duffy’s thrown his fastball about two-thirds of the time this season, and while that may seem high, it’s tough to argue with the results to this point. Opponents are hitting .069 against his four-seamer in 2014, which includes only 1 extra-base hit. He’ll probably need to mix his pitches a bit more as the season rolls on, of course, but clearly the fastball is working.

Not every Royals pitcher is excelling with his fastball, as you can see in the link, but it’s easy to see why this pitching staff has done so well this season. They’re throwing a lot of fastballs, they’re throwing a lot of strikes with fastballs, and they’re getting results with fastballs.

All of those good things do not apply to the Royals’ offense, however.

As a team, the Royals are being dominated by four-seam fastballs, as shown by their Pitchf/x pitch value of 18.1 runs below average, ranking 29th in baseball, leading only the Brewers. This is an epidemic up and down the lineup, too.

Only three Royals have a positive run value on fastballs: Salvador Perez (4.9), Danny Valencia (0.1), and Nori Aoki (0.1). And while Aoki appears to have been contributing against four-seam fastballs, his production against that pitch is down from the previous two seasons. Beyond those three hitters, this list is pretty sad.

Mike Moustakas, unsurprisingly, has been the worst against fastballs, but Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon have also had their struggles. You may recognize those last four guys as the 2-3-4-5 hitters in the Royals’ lineup. In other words, pitchers have been able to dominate the heart of the order without having to rely on their secondary pitches. That’s a problem.

I will point out that Butler and Gordon seem to be turning things around a bit lately, but for the season, Butler’s hitting .259 against four-seamers, with just 1 extra-base hit. Gordon’s hitting .188 against that pitch, although he does have 5 more extra-base hits. For their careers, Butler (.325 AVG, .559 SLG) and Gordon (.284 AVG, .491 SLG) have been much, much better against that pitch. The Royals could really use some positive regression from both of those players.

Struggling against the fastball isn’t a guarantee for overall offensive failure – evidenced by teams like the Dodgers and Indians having issues with that pitch – but generally speaking, that has been a key to success for many teams this season. It’s the same story on the pitching side, as well. There are exceptions, but pitching staffs who get results with their fastballs tend to do a better job at run prevention than those staffs who have negative pitch values with their fastballs.

A fascinating dichotomy exists within this Royals’ squad. The excellence of the pitching staff is almost perfectly balanced with a horrid offensive performance. That balance shows up in the team’s .500 record, which is convenient for this exercise. There are numerous ways to quantify the difference in the two sides of the team, but perhaps the best depiction comes from their relative success, or lack thereof, on four-seam fastballs. The offense simply must get better against that pitch, because as we’ve seen, the pitching staff can only do so much.

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