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How have the Giants fared against high fastballs?

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Pitchers are aiming up with the heat more and more. Have the Giants made a counter-adjustment?

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

As more teams and pitchers embrace things like spin rate and Edgertronic cameras, we’re seeing more and more high fastballs. Part of this is a response to the fly ball revolution which caused hitters to swing slightly up. Every pitch comes across the strike zone at a slightly downward angle, so pitches lower in the strike zone tend to get punished by the uppercut swings because the path of the pitch aligns with the path of the bat. Higher spin allows a pitch to resist gravity better which in turn, keeps it off the bat path.

Low fastballs are getting crushed, but high fastballs are reigning supreme. Against fourseam fastballs in the lower third of the strike zone, hitters have a .355 wOBA (league average against all pitches is .318). Against fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone, hitters have just a .304 wOBA. Low fastballs and fastballs across the middle get hit harder than average whereas fastballs at the letters stymy hitters.

The Giants are the second-worst team at hitting fastballs of any height and location. Only the Tigers have a worse wOBA against fourseamers than the Giants’ .322. Just from watching the Giants, you might surmise that the Giants struggle with elevation. They surely aren’t staying ahead of the curve. The Giants are especially inept at catching up to the high fastball, but they aren’t the worst at it. Looking only at fastballs high in the upper third of the zone, the Giants rank 24th in the league at .278. For this, I’ve only looked at fourseam fastballs because those are the ones thrown in the upper third with the most intention. Sinkers are still thrown, lower and cutters are often thrown to the edges.

You may notice that the three teams at the top, are three of the four best offensive teams in the majors this year. This would indicate that being able to handle the high heat is a prerequisite of an elite offense in present day baseball. The logic makes sense. If more pitchers are trying to throw high fastballs, it makes sense to stock up on hitters who do well against those pitches.

You may also notice that the Astros, the best offensive team, don’t rank much higher than the Giants in this category. It’s a bit surprising considering the Astros were the best team against high fastballs last year, and they haven’t had any major personnel changes.

The White Sox and Rockies also do well in this area though they aren’t much better at hitting than the Giants in general. This doesn’t appear to be some great predictor of success; there’s more than one way to sock a dinger and these are fairly small samples (around 300-400 per team). Perhaps it can illuminate something about organizational philosophy. Maybe the Twins have been targeting players who don’t wilt under high heat. Maybe this is another area where the Giants failed to adapt in the post-championship years.

The poor numbers the Giants have put this year might indicate that the Giants are still lagging behind, but several of the players bringing down the Giants are no longer with the team. Yangervis Solarte, Erik Kratz, Tyler Austin, and sweet, sweet Joe Panik have been swapped out for better hitters. Evan Longoria is leading the Giants at .461 and close behind him are Pablo Sandoval and Kevin Pillar. Steven Duggar, Alex Dickerson, Buster Posey, Mike Yastrzemski, and Austin Slater have all been better than average.

If you’ve been wondering why Brandon Belt is so willing to take strikes at the top of the zone, it’s might be because he’s not doing anything with high fastballs. Through his career, he’s hit them about as well as the average hitter, but this year he has a .090 wOBA against them. Somehow, that’s not the worst mark on the team. Stephen Vogt has been just slightly worse at .088 albeit in fewer plate appearances.

Even with Belt and Vogt bringing down the numbers, the average wOBA among players who are still with the team is .307. That’s just about average. By cutting out those who were cut, I’ve made a small sample even smaller, so take that with a grain of salt.

Again, this might not be a glaring weakness or indomitable strength, but it seems like an area the Giants could stand to improve. It might make sense to target high-ball hitters in the offseason or to focus instruction on covering pitches at the letters. High fastballs are more common than they’ve ever been since pitch tracking was implemented, and I imagine that tide will continue rising.