Is elevated fastball trend in MLB declining? ‘Not at all’ says Tigers’ Robbie Grossman

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — So what do we make of this?

For the first time since 2015, the average launch angle, swing-and-miss percentages and strikeouts across Major League Baseball went down in 2021.

Launch angles on balls put in play by hitters, after steadily climbing from 11 degrees to 13.4 degrees in 2020, it dropped to 12.6 degrees last season, according to Statcast.

Swing-and-miss rates, after climbing from 22.8% to 26.7%, fell to 25.6% last season. And strikeouts (not including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season), after climbing from 37,446 to 42,828 in 2019, dropped to 42,145.

Could the trend of pitchers countering steeper launch angles with elevated fastballs be jumping the shark? Have hitters started, finally, to adjust and level out their swing a bit more? Will pitchers counter again and start attacking down in the zone like they did back in the day?

We won’t know the answer to those questions, most likely, for another couple of years, but it makes for some lively debate in the clubhouse.

“Pitchers aren’t coming off the high fastball,” Tigers’ outfielder Robbie Grossman said. “No. Not at all.”

Grossman is so certain of that, he spent a good part of his offseason in Houston hitting with the Astros’ Alex Bregman, one of the best high-ball hitters in baseball. Bregman posted an .875 slugging percentage and .537 weighted on-base average on pitches up in the zone, inside, middle and outside.

Pitches in those three spots — up and in, middle up and up and away — vexed Grossman last season. Though the switch-hitters generally laid off them more than most (just 173 swings at 360 pitches up in the zone), his whiff percentages (26-29-28) and strikeout percentages (33-41-67) were well above those down in the zone, from both sides of the plate.

“Until hitters make the adjustment on that pitch and start doing damage, then maybe you’ll see some sinkers,” Grossman said. “But until then, I don’t see pitchers coming off of it.”

Veteran catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who has front-line access to both sides of this debate, believes a correction to the mean is inevitable.

“Fastballs with high spin rate is the new hot-button, exciting, swing-and-miss pitch,” he said. “But then hitters will make an adjustment, eventually, and the pitcher will make an adjustment back and start throwing something else.

“Like everything in baseball, like everything in the world, it’s cyclical. Shoot, high-waist pants are coming back in. Stuff I wore in high school is coming back in.”

If you walk across the room and ask for the pitchers’ perspective, you get the sense the adjustment away from elevated heaters is in progress.

“Yeah, I think it already has,” said lefty Tyler Alexander, who’s had his own love-hate relationship with steepening launch angles. He gave up 16 home runs in 106 innings last year. He also posted a career-high 87 strikeouts.

“There’s a lot of sinker-ballers now,” he said. “It used to be high four-seam (fastball) to curveball. Now guys are starting to go more two-seam sinkers, trying to front-hip hitters with two-seamers. I’m trying to do that more, too.

“If you do something enough, hitters are going to make the adjustment to it. It used to be, when I was growing up, it was always, ‘Keep the ball down.’”

Alexander said he remembers a drill where the coaches would put a string across the plate at the bottom of the strike zone and they had to hit it. That was the target.

“Well, hitters got so good at hitting that, now you’ve got to throw four-seamers at the top of the zone,” Alexander said. “Eventually they will get used to that and you’ve got to go to something else.”

Casey Mize has given this topic a lot of thought, especially since he decided to all but scrap his two-seamer this offseason.

“I’m not really sure how that’s going to play out, but it’s definitely in my mind,” Mize said. “There are definitely trends in this game. Hitters haven’t really adjusted to the shift yet, so I don’t know if they are going to adjust to the high fastball.

“I think they would, eventually. I know hitting is really tough and to switch back and forth between those things is pretty difficult for them.”

Preaching to the choir, Grossman said.

“Think about it,” Grossman said. “Five years ago, anything above the belt was a ball and now anything letters down is a strike. If you can imagine, just raising everything about four or five inches and we’re talking about a whole different plane of pitching that you have to cover now.

“But, hey, I like the challenge. I’m up for it.”

Tigers manager AJ Hinch wishes maybe Grossman would leave well enough alone.

“I kind of like that he takes that pitch (up in the zone),” he said. “He’s one of the best hitters in the league at laying off those high strikes. Be careful what you wish for trying to cover it, because you may start trying to cover the one above it, which is even harder to hit.”

On the high fastballs vs. launch angles debate, Hinch would prefer the focus be more micro than macro, more on the individual pitcher-hitter matchup.

“We talk too much, as an industry, about percentages of pitches and where we throw it,” he said. “What we want is 100% of the pitches to be thrown in the right area to the right hitter. I don’t care if a guy throws 70% fastballs up if he throws them to the guys who can’t hit them.

“The way the numbers get portrayed, you have to do certain things one way or the other. No. It’s about beating the hitter that’s in the batters box.”

That said, Hinch does see hitters trying to make an adjustment to the high heat. Not that it’s ever going back to the way it was a decade or less ago. There’s too much money being made by hitters who hit home runs and produce runs.

“I don’t think we’re back to the era where it’s just trying to get hits,” he said. “They’re still trying to hit homers, walk and do damage. We’ll see if that changes over time with the evolution of the sport.”

Grossman has a suggestion, though, if baseball ever wanted to hasten a return to pitchers attacking down in the zone and hitters leveling out their swings.

“Bring the juiced balls back,” he said, referencing the tighter-wound baseballs that led to a sudden spike in home runs three years ago. “That’s a game-changer. Bring the juiced ball back and guys just start touching balls up in the zone and they start flying out of the park, then we might see a change. Until then, I don’t see why pitchers would deviate from throwing it up there.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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