Why Tigers’ AJ Hinch is emphasizing adding elevated fastballs to pitchers’ toolboxes

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It’s been a recurring theme throughout camp, especially last week.

Michael Fulmer, a power sinker pitcher, trying to throw his four-seam fastball up in the strike zone only to serve it over the heart of the plate — home run by George Springer, home run by Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., home run by Randal Grichuk.

Casey Mize, whose bread and butter is sinkers and splitters that dive down in the zone, trying to throw a four-seam fastball by Bryce Harper on an 0-2 count. The ball finds the middle of the plate and, even at 97 mph, Harper knocked it 436 feet over the center-field fence.

Jose Urena, forever a power-sinker pitcher, is trying to adjust to throwing more four-seam fastballs that ride through the top of the zone. Relievers Jose Cisnero, Joe Jimenez and Buck Farmer also have been encouraged to exploit that area of the strike zone with velocity.

All are finding it a challenge.

It’s a high-risk but potentially high-reward tool. But is it for everyone? Manager AJ Hinch believes it could be and probably should be.

“When hitters have holes up there, what are you going to do?” he said Sunday morning. “Are you just going to throw to their strengths and hope the game protects you? Or are you going to attack a weakness? The weakness across the league has been the high fastball.

“Maybe it’s difficult for some guys, but we need to try it in these games and risk a little failure for us to get comfortable with it. Down fastballs to down fastball hitters get hammered in this league. You have to have ways to attack hitters up in the zone, whether you are comfortable with it or not.”

The hole at the top of the strike zone has increased proportionally to the average increase in hitter’s launch angles. And it doesn’t take upper-90s fastballs to exploit it. FanGraphs and other data sites show that in 2019 and 2020, even a 90-mph fastball located at the top of the strike zone dramatically increased the swing-and-miss rate for pitchers.

“Mechanically, hitters have changed in the launch-angle era to trying to get their bat on (the pitch) plane a little sooner…There is a love affair right now with getting on plane with the ball and that’s advantage velocity. The approach of trying to get the ball in the air and getting on plane with the ball has been a challenge for hitters in terms of adapting to velocity.”

Hinch doesn’t believe that’s the ideal approach for hitters, but he certainly understands why it’s in fashion.

“Slug gets paid,” he said. “Homers get paid. It’s turned into a huge part of the compensation package and a huge part of the satisfaction package for players. I’m not sure that’s good, but power, OPS and slugging percentage, doing damage, are more put on a pedestal.

“That’s going to come with some risk and cost (higher whiff rates), but it’s compensated as if it’s OK.”

So, again, if you are trying to get these types of hitters out, why not attack that risk and expose that dead area above the belt that the swing can’t get to?

“I don’t want to confuse everybody that we’re all going to be throwing high fastballs,” Hinch said. “I think it’s a weapon we need to use against hitters that struggle with getting to the top of the zone. Obviously, execution is going to be the key.”

It can be a hard-sell on low-ball pitchers to raise their sightlines and trust throwing to an unfamiliar area of the zone — an area where, less than a decade ago, hitters feasted.

“The hard thing is, you have to change your sightline,” Hinch agreed. “You are taught so often to throw to the (catcher’s) glove, throw to the target. And the high strike is more about raising your sightline and throw to the catcher’s mask or above the target.”

For a pitcher like Urena, who has built his career on his power sinker and has a funky, almost three-quarters arm angle, it’s even more problematic to try to stick riding four-seamers above the belt. The Marlins pitching coaches tried unsuccessfully to get him to add that component to his arsenal for years.

“The way his arm angle is and the way he holds the ball, he’s definitely a down-sinker guy,” Hinch said. “But what are you going to do when a (hitter) handles the ball down? Bottom line, it’s a competition with the hitter and you’re working against his strengths and weaknesses.

“If you want to accept fate and throw down pitches to down hitters, it’s a tough league. It’s going to be hard for him given how his arm angle is and how he’s so used to being comfortable down in the zone. But he can be effective up in the zone if he keeps his focus and continues to work on it.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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