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Pete Fairbanks and the cutting, rising fastball

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Fairbanks continues to do weird things

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I have always been fascinated by Pete Fairbanks.

In 2020, Ian and I documented the changes he made to his slider, which helped turn him into the elite bullpen arm we know him to be today. But in 2021, he made another interesting change, this time to his four-seam fastball.

When you think of Fairbanks, you probably think of a few things right away. Maybe you think of his intimidating stare. Perhaps you think of his high velocity, or his slider that gets swings and misses in droves. What may not be as apparent is that he has one of the more unique fastball shapes in baseball.

Over the past two years, Fairbanks has netted a whiff rate of over 30 percent on four-seam fastballs, which is one of the highest rates in the sport.

Fairbanks’ four-seam fastball has the attributes one would expect of a pitch with a whiff rate that high. At a 97.1 mph average pitch speed, that ranks in the 95th percentile. With a spin rate just shy of 2400 rpm, that puts him in the 89th percentile. And finally, with 9.58 inches of rise according to Pitch Info, Fairbanks’ four-seamer also ranks above the 90th percentile.

But what truly makes his four-seamer an anomaly is the amount of horizontal movement it gets. To illustrate, let’s take a look at this pitch.

It’s hard to see if you’re not looking for it, but you should have noticed the ball taking an ever so slight turn to the left. Fairbanks isn’t the only Rays pitcher who has added some glove side movement to his four-seam fastball—It is part of what fueled Tyler Glasnow’s breakout in 2019, and it is also part of what made Andrew Kittredge an all-star.

But the difference with Fairbanks is that, unlike Glasnow and Kittredge, is that he has not had to sacrifice vertical movement for horizontal movement.

Kittredge lost three inches of rise when he switched from his more traditional four-seamer that he threw in 2019 to the cutter hybrid that he implemented in 2021, and Glasnow gets one less inch of rise than Fairbanks, despite not having nearly as much glove side movement.

Fairbainks, on the other hand, added both rise and cut to his fastball between 2020 and 2021, which is really weird!

Digging a little deeper into how Fairbanks spins this pitch, we see how he gets this unique shape. With a spin direction of 12:15, Fairbanks throws his fastball from a nearly perfectly vertical arm slot. But thanks to a lower spin efficiency of 82 percent, he is able to get that sharp glove side movement.

This is a phenomenon is called Seam-Shifted Wake. In short, the positioning of the seams while the ball is in flight can induce movement that the hitter is not expecting, since the movement is based less upon Magnus forces. For Fairbanks, the vertical release point combined with the lower spin efficiency allows him to get that horizontal movement while maintaining the rise of a traditional four-seam fastball.

For an illustration of how this works, we can use the spin direction tool on Baseball Savant, which differentiates how a pitch should move (spin-based) from how it actually moves (observed):

The right side of the 12 is typical for a right-handed pitcher for a four-seam fastball, while the left side of the 12 is what we would expect from a lefty. With an 11:45 observed movement direction, this means that Fairbanks’ fastball moves like like a left-handed pitcher’s fastball would. A few left handed pitchers who have the same 11:45 observed movement direction include Sean Doolittle and Drew Pomeranz.

This type of crossover on it’s own is not super unique, especially on true cutters, but what is unique is that the pitch still has a lot of rise—that is just not something a lot of pitchers are doing.

Essentially, Fairbanks throws a left handed four-seamer from a right-handed arm slot. Combined with his sharp slider that breaks straight down, this could also explain the pretty neutral platoon splits for his career, as Fairbanks has posted similar marks against both righties and lefties.

As a result, not only is Fairbanks getting swings and misses, but his four-seamer is also one of the best in the game when it comes to inducing weak contact. Of the 392 pitchers who faced at least 50 batters in 2021, Fairbanks ranked 30th in xwOBA and 18th in hard hit rate on four-seamers.

It’s hard to say whether Fairbanks could add even more rise and cut to his fastball in 2022, but he has been able to to it two years running, so there may room for even more. Along with the extra rise on the fastball, he also added drop to his slider, creating even more movement separation.

If you were to look it up, by ERA, Fairbanks took a bit of a step back in 2021. Some injuries he battled throughout the year were definitely at play, as well as some bad luck metrics that should correct themselves in 2022; however, by FIP (FanGraphs) and xERA (Statcast), which puts xwOBA on an ERA-scale, Fairbanks posted the best marks of his career.

Assuming Fairbanks is still wearing a Rays uniform come April, we can expect him to continue to pitch important innings in The Stable.