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Stop throwing Jose Altuve the high fastball

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Maybe.

MLB: SEP 27 Astros at Rangers Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’ve been watching the first three games of the ALCS, there are probably two things that you’ve noticed about Jose Altuve:

  1. He’s had some trouble throwing the ball to first base.
  2. He’s absolutely crushed pitches up in the zone.

The first thing is not what one expects out of Altuve. The second one is, although the level of crushing has been a little bit absurd. Overall this series, the Rays have thrown Altuve seven pitches at or above the top of the zone: four fastballs, one cutter, one slider, and one curve. He’s hit those pitches for three homers, one double, and a hard groundout to third.

It’s enough to give one an unpleasant bout of deja vu.

So, uh, what’s the deal? Why do the Rays keep looking for strikes up there?

The first question is whether what we’ve seen this series is small sample size madness, or whether Altuve really is great at catching up to the high fastball. The answer is pretty clear: yes, this is something he can do.

Looking at all four-seam fastballs thrown to the “shadow” of the zone (strikes just below and balls just above the top of the strikezone) in 2019 and 2020, here are the league leaders at making contact:

2019 and 2020 FFs, shadow of the top of the zone
Data from Baseball Savant

Altuve has been 16th best in the league at making contact with high fastballs over the past two years, and unlike many of the players above him on this list, his contact has been hard. His .319 Isolated Power (SLG-AVG) would put him 26th in baseball.

But 2019 was a year ago, and Altuve just isn’t the same player he was back then, right? Well, wrong, mostly. Yes, Altuve has had a much worse offensive year. Yes, he hasn’t looked like himself. And yes, he hasn’t hit for any power on pitches at the top of the zone.

2020 FFs, shadow of the top of the zone
Baseball Savant

It’s been a really bad 210 plate appearances. It’s been a really bad 48 pitches. But shucks, he’s still making contact, guys. If a guy was hurt, if his bat had slowed, if his mind was in a bad way — if any of that were the case, we’d expect him to actually miss on some of these swings, right?

Ball in play data is extremely noisy. Contact data is a little bit less so. When ball in play data ziggs and contact stays static, come prepared with your grains of salt.

It’s possible that the Rays came to this series with their advance scouts and their statistical analysis telling them that there was a hole in Altuve’s swing at the top of the zone that they could exploit, but I doubt that. The Rays are many things, but foolish is not one of them.

More likely, what we’re seeing is a clash of two strengths. Because high fastballs are what the Rays do. Here, over the past two years, are the 35 pitchers with the highest percent of four-seam fastballs thrown at or above the top of the zone.

2019 and 2020 high fastballs
Baseball Savant

Blake Snell comes in at number 17, despite being a true four-pitch pitcher. Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks, both featuring prominently in the Rays playoff plans, are numbers 21 and 31 respectively. Glasnow is further down the list, but he’s on the list.

The Rays have been throwing Jose Altuve high fastballs because that pitch is a big part of what makes Rays pitching good.

Where to Attack Altuve

So the Rays came into the series figuring their high fastballs were an unstoppable force, and they found that Jose Altuve’s quality contact on high fastballs was an immovable object. Good try, everybody’s wrong sometime, now throw those fastballs somewhere else, right?

Well, it’s not that simple, because actually Jose Altuve can hit a fastball anywhere. Here’s a comparison of how Altuve has done since the start of 2019 against fastball on the upper edge compared with how he did on fastballs on all other edges.

Altuve On the Edges
Baseball Savant

The results for pitchers when they’ve gone to the upper edge have been bad. The results when they’ve gone to any other edge have been worse.

This means that there’s no good place to go when a pitcher needs to get a fastball over — when they’re behind in the count and can’t afford to fall behind further or issue a walk. The top of the zone is as good a place as any, better than most. In that situation the Rays can and probably will keep trying 98 mph at the hands.

But there are other times when a high fastball is a choice; when the pitcher thinks of it as his out pitch. In those cases, the Rays should probably stop featuring their generally-very-good high fastballs. Altuve has only a 4.6% swinging strike rate on fastballs, but a 15.9% swinging strike rate on sliders, a 12.5% rate on curves, and a 10.4% chance on changeups.

When possible, throw him something else.