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The Rays and the Rising Fastball

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It's no secret around these parts that the Rays have certain pitching philosophies, and that those philosophies tend to proliferate through the staff. The changeup is the classic example, thrown to either-handed batter and to either side of the plate by Rays pitchers. The staff favors the knuckle curve and often eschews the slider. When James Shields roamed these parts, the pick-off move was a weapon, and his motion was duplicated by several other pitchers.

The most recent trend, however, is rising fastballs located high in the zone. In fact, in our discussion on what makes a "True Ray" pitcher, rising fastballs were part of that moniker.

As the Rays adjust to the game, they value aspects of pitching that might be undervalued by the market. The deepening strike zone has led many teams to value players who can attack the bottom of the zone (Yankees and Red Sox have each latched onto this concept). Therefore, the Rays have gone in the opposite direction, prioritizing pitches that "rise" -- which is to say, don't fall as much as batters are used to seeing -- and locating them to maximum effect at the upper edge of the zone.

These trends come in phases, and eventually the national media takes notice. In this case, it's Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs who zeroed in on the topic with the Rays' minor league signing of Everett Teaford.

You can be forgiven for asking, "Who?" It wasn't a heralded signing. I'm not sure we covered it on this site anywhere outside the comment section. The former Royals reliever has pitched a mere 106 innings at the MLB level since 2011, and then traveled to Korea for the 2014 season where he was about league average. But when you pull up the data on his pitch movement, you see a typical Rays thing: a vertical fastball movement that tops ten inches on gun.

Sullivan did a lot of leg work running with this observation, and there's a few things I'd like to call your attention to.

First of all, as Sullivan notes, there are 17 names on the Rays' pitching depth chart, and only three of them don't have fastball movement that tops ten inches (league average is just below nine): Kirby Yates, whose fastball can touch 95 but settled in at league average vertical movement last season, prospect C.J. Riefenhauser whom we only have late season data for, and the recently acquired Burch Smith, who relies on deception in his throwing motion.

We have limited data on Smith, but it's worth noting his three most recent performances at the Arizona Fall League featured a fastball that stayed high. You can watch that fastball at work in the video below. Smith is still sporting his Padres jersey, as this performance was prior to the Wil Myers trade, but he uses that fastball on three occasions to stay above the swinging bat of Yankees prospect Dante Bichette Jr., resulting in a strikeout:

If Smith is able to do that to major league hitters, he might earn the fifth starter's job out of Spring Training and banish Alex Colome to the 'pen earlier than expected.

All of that is to say, the three Rays on the depth chart below 10" vertical movement might be working to change that rather soon. And as Sullivan notes, the Rays have been jettisoning the players who didn't adjust. He explains by using the league average of 48% high fastballs as a dividing line for the staff:

16 of 23 Rays topped the league average [in 2014]. Cesar Ramos didn't, and he's gone. Jeremy Hellickson didn't, and he's gone. Juan Carlos Oviedo didn't, and he's gone. Brandon Gomes didn't, and he was designated for assignment. Of the 16 Rays who topped the average, 15 topped it by a fairly broad margin. Jake Odorizzi led the way, at 71% high fastballs. Even Alex Cobb and Chris Archer elevated heat, even though they primarily feature sinkers. Even a running fastball can work as an elevated fastball, according to the Rays' apparent belief.

The exception here would be the recently traded Joel Peralta, whose fastball was rising. His replacement in depth, Jose Dominguez, has a lot of heat but hasn't exhibited that same movement just yet, but he probably will be working on it shortly.

Sullivan has much and more to say on the topic, quoting Jim Hickey on high fastball use, showing differences in high fastball rates for pitchers before and after Rays careers (Drew Smyly increased his high fastball use from 50% to 66% after his acquisition), and noting flyball rates based on standard diviations of vertical movement. It's a good read, and you should check it out.

The main take away is that the Rays love the elevated fastball right now, and that's intentional given the pitchers' park they play in. Look for more of the same in 2015.