Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch: The art of elevated fastballs and attacking weaknesses

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers pitcher Casey Mize had just made a mistake.

He worked Bryce Harper into an 0-2 count and wanted to end the March 13 at-bat at BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater with a strikeout of the former National League MVP. His wipeout pitch is the splitter, dropping below the strike zone and making hitters look foolish.

But Mize’s offering wasn’t that esteemed splitter.

Before spring training started, manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter were already preaching the art of the elevated fastball. Lately, the concept has become a greater focus in hopes of attacking weaknesses.

“It is a weapon that we need to use against hitters that struggle with getting to the top of the zone,” Hinch said. “When hitters have holes up, what are you going to do? Are you just going to throw to their strengths and hope the game protects you? Or are you going to attack a weakness?”

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Mize tossed Harper a 96.6 mph fastball, but it was hit 436 feet away, landing beyond the center-field wall for a two-run homer. Although Harper is a former National League MVP, his metrics from the 2020 season reveal he swung-and-missed on fastballs up more than anywhere else in the strike zone.

The pitch Mize threw in his attempt at a strikeout, by that logic, was wise — yet his execution was poor.

“I didn’t get the four-seamer up enough,” Mize said. “I left it over the heart of the plate, and he smashed it.”

Hinch reiterated: “Execution is important. There’s some danger up there if you throw it to the wrong hitter or if you don’t execute it. Middle-middle fastballs are bad mistakes, regardless of where you’re going in the zone.”

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For some, like left-hander Tarik Skubal, executing the elevated heater comes naturally. Skubal used his four-seam fastball 58.9% of the time last season. That pitch averages 94.4 mph but maxes out in the upper 90s, and with an average spin rate of 2,422 rpm, it’s devastating for opponents.

High spin rates create an illusion where the ball looks like it’s rising, giving pitchers like Skubal success up in the strike zone. Gerrit Cole, who averages 2,505 rpm on his four-seamer, generated 56 swings-and-misses on his fastball at the top of or above the strike zone last season, fourth-most in the majors.

In 2019, Cole paced MLB with 219 swings-and-misses in this area. That year, he led the AL with 326 punchouts, accompanied by a league-leading 2.50 ERA. Throwing elevated fastballs worked, so he abandoned his sinker.

Justin Verlander, a former Tiger, was fourth on the list in ’19, when he got 300 strikeouts and won his second Cy Young. He finished with a 21-6 record and 2.58 ERA. Also that year, current Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd was 10th with 114 whiffs generated.

Cole and Verlander’s manager that season as members of the Houston Astros? Hinch.

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It’s becoming common to see pitchers take a north-south approach, altering eye levels and speeds with four-seam fastballs up and offspeed pitches down — but everything must stay over the plate for as long as possible. If a batter sees a pitch following the lane of the plate, as opposed to inside or outside, they’re more likely to swing.

And miss.

By throwing away from the plate, aka an east-west approach, the baseball breaks out of the lane, leaving hitters to rein themselves in rather than swing away. Likewise, if a pitch is inside, then hitters can recognize how close it is to their body. Most hitters’ pitch recognition skills are focused on inside/outside, rather than up/down.

“That weakness, across all the league, has been the high fastball,” Hinch said. “Certainly, we need to try it in games and risk a little bit of failure for us to get comfortable with it. Down fastballs to down-fastball hitters get hammered in this league, so you’ve got to have a way to attack hitters that have holes up in the strike zone, whether you’re comfortable with it or not.”

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So far, it’s obvious Mize, Michael Fulmer and Jose Urena — to name a few in the Tigers’ rotation — aren’t as fine-tuned at working up in the zone with their fastballs. Fulmer and Urena used elevated fastballs to get two and four swings-and-misses, respectively, last season.

Mize recorded 14 swings-and-misses on these offerings. He had a lackluster 6.99 ERA across seven games in his debut campaign last year and continues to struggle with his command this spring.

“It’s not just throw more high fastballs. Throw more high fastballs to the guys that can’t handle them,” Hinch said about Mize. “I just want him to throw to where the hitters are going to get soft contact or swing and miss. … Don’t miss an opportunity to expose a weakness in a hitter. He has just about anything you need to attack a weakness of a hitter, and it’s still a strength for him.”

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Skubal and Boyd have already found success with the approach, prior to Hinch’s arrival.

In 2020, Skubal earned 35 swings-and-misses with fastballs at the top of or above the strike zone, 35th in MLB. Boyd was 26th in the majors with 31.

“It’s about going out there and attacking with whatever you’ve got that day,” Skubal said. “That’s something this coaching staff has really preached. The way they talk about it is that your intent has to dictate your results.”

Spencer Turnbull often works on the outside of the plate. But he could benefit from increasing his usage up in the zone. He got whiffs with 32 fastballs at the top of or above the strike zone last season — 19th most in the majors. Still, the Tigers want him to elevate even more often, perhaps entering a level with Cole and Jacob deGrom for frequency of elevated fastballs.

Throwing high fastballs, deGrom got 128 swings-and-misses (eighth most) two seasons ago. The NL Cy Young winner in 2018 and ’19, he paced the majors in 2020 with 65 en route to a 2.38 ERA (and a third-place finish in Cy Young voting).

The Miami Marlins asked Urena to elevate his fastball in recent years, but his arm angle gives him a power sinker, which he uses more than his 2,161 rpm four-seamer. Still, he can do what the Tigers are asking with the proper practice.

“What are you going to do when the guy handles the ball down?” Hinch said. “That’s the bottom line. It’s a competition with the hitter in his strengths and weaknesses. If you want to just accept fate and throw the ball down to down hitters, it’s a tough league.

“It’s harder for him given how his arm angle is and how he’s so used to being comfortable with throwing the ball down, but he can be effective up there if he continues to keep his focus and work up there.”

Historically, pitchers were told to locate the fastball down and away in the strike zone to paint the corners. But the game is changing because of the launch-angle era. Hitters are eager to match the descent angle of the fastball with an upward swing.

This means they’re more interested in swinging at fastballs lower in the strike zone to generate home runs.

“Slug gets paid,” Hinch said. “Homers get paid. It has turned into a huge part of the compensation package, and it has turned into a huge part of the satisfaction package for the player. I’m not sure that’s good, but I think that’s what’s driven power.”

But the elevated fastball ideology is deeper than just trying to pump a heater up in the strike zone.

The high fastball only works when command, control and velocity work together to exploit weaknesses.

“You don’t just want to be the guy that says, ‘I’m going to throw down in the zone, down in the zone, down in the zone,'” Boyd said. “And then the guy gets up there, and he’s a down-ball hitter. Or vice versa. It’s knowing that.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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