An old Tom Seaver quote explains a lot about the success of the Houston Astros: “The good rising fastball is the best pitch in baseball.”
Now, we know a fastball can’t actually rise. So what was Seaver talking about? The lingo has changed, but Seaver was essentially talking about what we now refer to as spin rate. A fastball with a higher spin rate appears to have a rising effect to the hitter. What’s actually happening is the pitch holds its plane longer than a pitch at the same velocity with a lower spin rate. The batter, with a brain shaped after thousands and thousands of swings, swings under the pitch. Thus, the mythology of the rising fastball.
Major league batters are very good at hitting fastballs. They aren’t very good at hitting fastballs thrown by Astros pitchers. The Astros held batters to a .225 average on four-seam fastballs, the lowest rate in the majors. They also held batters to the lowest OBP and lowest wOBA on four-seam fastballs. If you include all fastballs, including two-seamers, the Astros rank first in lowest slugging percentage and lowest wOBA allowed. In fact, the four remaining playoff teams all rank among the top five in lowest wOBA allowed on fastballs.
As a staff, the Astros had the second-highest average four-seam fastball velocity at 94.8 mph, as well as the highest average spin rate. The Astros have constructed an entire staff of Tom Seavers. No wonder it’s one of the best team-pitching seasons we’ve ever seen. Houston’s ERA+ (adjusted ERA) of 130 — 30 percent better than league average — ranks sixth best in the divisional era, since 1969. (Last year’s Cleveland Indians staff actually ranks first at 138.) Via FanGraphs WAR, Houston’s staff ranks second since 1969 to the 2017 Indians and tied for third in adjusted ERA.
In one sense, modern analytics merely confirm age-old baseball theories with new data and specifics. The smart teams, however, find the best ways to apply that data and make their players better.
Gerrit Cole is the obvious example.
Cole has been a talented pitcher since the Pirates selected him first overall in 2011. He finished fourth in the 2015 National League Cy Young voting, but he had stagnated in Pittsburgh and had a 4.06 ERA in 2017. The Astros acquired him in the offseason — and promptly changed his approach.
The Pirates aren’t averse to analytics; heck, Travis Sawchik wrote an excellent book titled “Big Data Baseball” that outlined how analytics helped the Pirates end a 20-year streak of losing seasons and make the playoffs three seasons in a row. The Pirates, however, had a different philosophy: They linked two-seam fastballs and ground balls.
With the Pirates last season, Cole threw 60 percent fastballs — 42 percent four-seamers and 18 percent two-seamers.
With the Astros this season, Cole threw about 56 percent fastballs — and more than 50 percent four-seamers. This meant more fastballs in the upper half of the strike zone:
2017: 45.8 percent
2018: 68.2 percent
Guess what that led to: Cole’s swing-and-miss rate on all fastballs improved from 17.7 percent to 28.3 percent. His batting average allowed dropped from .264 to .184. The ripple effect is that a better fastball can improve your other pitches. Cole fanned a career-high 276 batters and his ERA fell to 2.88.
Spin rate also is used in analyzing other pitches. Ryan Pressly had been an up-and-down middle reliever with the Minnesota Twins over parts of six seasons — with a 3.75 career ERA in 317 innings — when the Astros acquired him at the trade deadline for two minor leaguers. Pressly might be the hottest reliever among the four teams remaining. Since joining the Astros, and including two scoreless innings against the Indians in the American League Division Series, he has a 0.72 ERA, with 34 strikeouts and just three walks in 25 innings, and he has held batters to a .129 average.
So how did the Astros turn a so-so reliever on a bad team into one of the best relievers going? They noticed the spin rate on his curveball. Studies show that a high spin rate on breaking balls leads to more effective results. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, Pressly’s average spin rate on his curveball ranks second in the majors, behind Garrett Richards.
With the Twins this season, Pressly threw his curveball 24.4 percent of the time; with the Astros, he has thrown it 36.9 percent of the time (while throwing fewer of his mid-90s fastballs and maintaining a similar rate with his slider). Batters are 2-for-34 against the curveball since he joined the Astros.
“They’ve reiterated that my curveball’s probably one of the best in the league, so you should be able to use it more,” Pressley told The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan in September.
To be fair, Pressly refined his curveball in spring training under Twins pitching coach Garvin Alston and said it took him awhile to find a consistent release point. He can throw it more effectively for strikes, making hitters less able to sit on his fastball. Initially, the trade looked simply like a depth pickup for the Astros. Eight of his first 14 appearances with the Astros came in losses and three others in blowout victories. Now he has become the top setup guy to Roberto Osuna. Oh, and give Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow even more credit for the trade: Pressley is under team control through 2019.
Of course, there are many other things that make the Astros great — after all, their plus-263 run differential is the third highest of the wild-card era, behind only the 1998 New York Yankees (plus-309) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (plus-300). Houston’s expected Pythagorean winning percentage, based on runs scored and runs allowed, is the second highest since World War II:
1969 Orioles: .694
2018 Astros: .690
1954 Indians: .687
1948 Indians: .686
2001 Mariners: .686
1998 Yankees: .684
Cole isn’t even the Astros’ Game 1 starter. That’s Justin Verlander, who led the AL with 290 strikeouts and edged Jacob deGrom for lowest OBP allowed among major league starters. Verlander has recovered from a midsummer slump to put everything together since the beginning of September. Over his past six outings, he has a 1.41 ERA with one home run in 38.1 innings and a 57-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The bullpen depth is incredible, and the offense — while not as dominant as last season — just hit .317/.421/.615 in the three-game wipeout of Cleveland. Alex Bregman — our pick as the new Mr. October — hit .556 with four walks and two home runs in the three games.
The Astros are trying to become the first team to win back-to-back World Series since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000 and the first team to win consecutive World Series and win 100 games both seasons since the 1977-78 Yankees.
Who can stop the Astros?
The Boston Red Sox were the second-best team in the majors hitting against fastballs — and the best against fastballs of 95-plus mph.
Strength against strength. Bring it on.