Which Cardinals Pitcher Has the Best Fastball?

Cardinals beat reporter Jenifer Langosch recently held a Q and A on Twitter where she answered questions using Statcast's search query, prompting me to check out the website for myself. After the original wave of euphoria upon learning there are a ton of nerdy stats to analyze Ruben Tejada and Daniel Descalso on the mound, an array of question popped up in my head with the answers only a few clicks away.

I was in a conversation the other day and a debate over whether or not Alex Reyes has the best fastball on the Cardinals prompted me to consult Statcast. A spreadsheet later, I had compiled information about every Cardinal's fastball which not too long ago would have been impossible to access from my home computer. I looked at every Cardinal pitcher who will be returning in 2017 (plus Tejada and Brett Cecil because why not?) to answer the question: which Cardinals pitcher has the best fastball? First a few ground rules:

  • This is obviously a flawed practice. Asides the small sample size of one season, the type of data I collected hasn't been around long enough for us to know exactly to interpret it.
  • There are different variations of the fastball, so the stats below are from the type of fastball that pitcher threw the most. Of the 18 pitchers (Ruben is a pitcher at heart), the primary fastball was the four-seamer for 13, the two-seamer for three, the cutter for one, and the sinker for one.
  • All the data can be categorized under one of two broader umbrellas: the numerical characteristics of the pitch itself and its performance against opposing batters. (Wow that sounds really geeky as editing Tyler reads this aloud.)
  • Side note: all stats are from the aforementioned Statcast search tool or FanGraphs.
Fastball speed
Player (Pitch) Actual Velo Perceived Velo Velo Margin Spin rate
Alex Reyes (4-seam) 97.3 96.7 -0.6 2158
Trevor Rosenthal (4-seam) 97.2 96.8 -0.4 2333
Sam Tuivailala (4-seam) 95.9 95.8 -0.1 2142
Carlos Martinez (2-seam) 95.3 94 -1.3 2118
Jonathan Broxton (4-seam) 94.8 95.5 0.7 1826
Kevin Siegrist (4-seam) 93.4 94.1 0.7 2289
Michael Wacha (4-seam) 93.3 94.5 1.2 2312
Mike Mayers (4-seam) 93.1 92.6 -0.5 2225
Seung Hwan Oh (4-seam) 93.1 92.1 -1 2100
Brett Cecil (4-seam) 92.2 90.8 -1.4 1989
Luke Weaver (4-seam) 92.1 92.3 0.2 2129
Matt Bowman (2-seam) 91.4 91.4 0 2052
Tyler Lyons (4-seam) 90.8 90 -0.8 2081
Mike Leake (Sinker) 90.8 89.2 -1.6 1568
Miguel Socolovich (4-seam) 90.4 90.2 -0.2 1982
Zach Duke (2-seam) 90.1 89.7 -0.4 1724
Ruben Tejada (4-seam) 86.8 85 -1.8 2206
Adam Wainwright (Cutter) 85.4 85.9 0.4 872

Although Alex Reyes and Trevor Rosenthal are virtually deadlocked in velocity, Rosenthal's superior spin rate by nearly 200 revolutions per minute makes his fastball slightly harder to square up.

Michael Wacha's 6'6" frame allows him to release the ball on average nearly seven feet from the pitching rubber. He essentially shortens the ball's distance to home plate down to about 53 feet, making it "appear" to travel faster. Wacha tops the team with a perceived velocity 1.2 miles per hour above his fastball's actual velocity.

Fastball movement

For some sort of context here are some average movement statistics for right handed pitchers (all movement stats are in inches):

Pitch Horizontal movement Vertical movement
4-seam -4.2 8.9
2-seam -8 6.1
Cutter 1.4 5.8
Sinker -8.4 4.6

I didn't forget about the southpaws:

Pitch Horizontal movement Vertical movement
Four-Seam 5.5 9.4
Two-Seam 9.4 6.8
Cutter 0.6 5.7
Sinker 9.8 6.1

Now for the Cards:

Player (Pitch) Break length Horizontal movement Vertical movement
Zach Duke (2-seam) 7.9 8.6 0.7
Mike Leake (Sinker) 7.1 -7.5 2.4
Matt Bowman (2-seam) 7 -9.7 3.9
Adam Wainwright (Cutter) 7 2.2 3.5
Carlos Martinez (2-seam) 6.5 -9.6 3.4
Miguel Socolovich (4-seam) 5.6 -7.4 6.9
Ruben Tejada (4-seam) 4.9 -6.7 9.8
Mike Mayers (4-seam) 4.9 -7.5 7.9
Luke Weaver (4-seam) 4.6 -6.5 8.3
Brett Cecil (4-seam) 4.5 4.8 8.8
Tyler Lyons (4-seam) 4.1 4.4 9.6
Sam Tuivailala (4-seam) 4.1 -6.1 8.3
Kevin Siegrist (4-seam) 4 5.8 9.7
Jonathan Broxton (4-seam) 4 -3.7 7.9
Seung Hwan Oh (4-seam) 3.9 -4.8 9.2
Michael Wacha (4-seam) 3.3 -3.6 10.8
Trevor Rosenthal (4-seam) 3.3 -4.9 9.9
Alex Reyes (4-seam) 3.3 -4.1 9.3

No surprise here: the two-seamers, sinkers, and cutters had much more movement than the four-seam fastballs. Of particular note is Carlos Martinez, whose average two-seamer broke 6.5 inches in addition to recording the highest two-seam actual velocity, perceived velocity, and spin rate on the Cardinals. Martinez also ranks second in horizontal movement, only to Matt Bowman's two-seam fastball.

The vertical movement column is nothing incredibly significant but it is worth noting that the harder, four-seam pitchers dominate that chart. Tejada, Rosenthal, Reyes, Wacha, Seung Hwan Oh, and Kevin Siegrist all exceeded the average length in vertical movement, but pitchers like Sam Tuivailala and Jonathan Broxton, both noted for their heat, lagged behind. The difference between the two classes appears to be a difference in spin rate, with Broxton checking in at 15 in the spin rate rankings.

Batted ball breakdown

Player (Pitch) Exit velo Hit distance Launch angle
Adam Wainwright (Cutter) 84.5 207 11.4
Jonathan Broxton (4-seam) 84.9 216 15.7
Sam Tuivailala (4-seam) 85.1 232 19.8
Matt Bowman (2-seam) 86.7 172 0.6
Alex Reyes (4-seam) 87.2 222 19.3
Carlos Martinez (2-seam) 87.6 174 0.0
Mike Mayers (4-seam) 87.9 214 6.1
Brett Cecil (4-seam) 88.9 232 13.0
Kevin Siegrist (4-seam) 89.4 242 21.8
Michael Wacha (4-seam) 90.6 221 11.1
Mike Leake (Sinker) 90.6 209 5.0
Trevor Rosenthal (4-seam) 91 207 7.8
Seung Hwan Oh (4-seam) 91 238 21.9
Luke Weaver (4-seam) 91.9 232 15.0
Zach Duke (2-seam) 92.8 188 3.3
Tyler Lyons (4-seam) 93.8 228 13.5
Ruben Tejada (4-seam) 94.5 331 40.1
Miguel Socolovich (4-seam) 94.9 226 8.0

The first thing that struck me when I looked at my spreadsheet was how Trevor Rosenthal's exit velocity was higher than the other high-velocity pitchers at the top of the list. While the .457 BABIP attached to his fastball in 2016 will (in some capacity) regress towards the mean this season, his hard contact rate was up and his soft contact rate was down this past year according to FanGraphs. There is a silver lining in Rosenthal's statsheet: his average launch angle of 7.8 degrees. breaks launch angle, the angle of the ball as it leaves the bat, down into four distinctions: Ground ball: Less than 10 degrees; Line drive: 10-25 degrees; Fly ball: 25-50 degrees; Pop up: Greater than 50 degrees. Fewer fly balls for Rosenthal, like his launch angle suggests, is a good sign going forward as the number of extra base hits he allows would therefore be limited.

High launch angles from Siegrist, Oh, and Reyes were juxtaposed with lower ones from ground ball machines Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez, and Matt Bowman. It's important to remember that none of these stats alone accurately portray a pitcher. Mike Leake was rated favorably by launch angle and hit distance but lower velocity on his sinker can lead to him getting hit hard, which his exit velocity reflects.

In game performance (all percentages)

Player (Pitch) Whiff Called strike Fouls Ball Hits In play
Seung Hwan Oh (4-seam) 14.3 17.4 22.9 31.6 4.2 9.7
Alex Reyes (4-seam) 12 14 23.6 41.1 2.7 6.6
Trevor Rosenthal (4-seam) 11.9 17.3 24.5 35.2 5.1 5.9
Matt Bowman (2-seam) 11.4 19.7 14.1 34.6 6.3 13.9
Kevin Siegrist (4-seam) 10.9 21.7 20 32.9 4.6 10
Adam Wainwright (Cutter) 10.6 13.4 20 32.5 6.9 16.6
Jonathan Broxton (4-seam) 8.9 16.5 25.7 33.8 5.4 9.7
Mike Mayers (4-seam) 8.9 12.7 21.5 32.9 15.2 8.9
Brett Cecil (4-seam) 8.1 20.8 16.1 30.9 8.7 15.4
Tyler Lyons (4-seam) 6.9 21 22.2 33.1 4 12.9
Sam Tuivailala (4-seam) 6.8 22.6 23.3 34.6 3.8 9
Michael Wacha (4-seam) 6.8 20.2 21.3 33.4 7.1 11.2
Luke Weaver (4-seam) 6.7 21 21.8 36.6 5.2 8.7
Carlos Martinez (2-seam) 5.2 19.3 16.7 35.9 6.6 16.3
Mike Leake (Sinker) 4.5 22.2 15.9 33.2 8.5 15.6
Zach Duke (2-seam) 3.6 19.3 19.3 43.5 4.5 9.9
Miguel Socolovich (4-seam) 3.3 17.5 17.5 41.7 2.5 17.5
Ruben Tejada (4-seam) 0 7.7 7.7 61.5 7.7 15.4

The power arms were surprisingly varied in their whiff rates with Rosenthal, Reyes, and Siegrist all cracking the top five while Martinez, Wacha, and Tuivailala all finished 11th or worse out of 18.

This is a table full of tradeoffs, as Reyes and Rosenthal were both near the bottom in called strike rate and near the top in ball rate. The tandem did, however, have the lowest percentage of balls put in play while Carlos Martinez was joined in the pitching-for-contact-club by the likes of Leake and Adam Wainwright.

Pitch value

This is a metric that calculates a run value for every type of pitch a pitcher throws. You can then adjust those values and compare players by looking at the value per 100 pitches (with 0 being average) which is what I did:

Player (Pitch) Value per 100 pitches
Seung Hwan Oh (4-seam) 1.7
Adam Wainwright (Cutter) 1.61
Alex Reyes (4-seam) 1.38
Miguel Socolovich (4-seam) 1.36
Kevin Siegrist (4-seam) 1.02
Matt Bowman (2-seam) 0.97
Carlos Martinez (2-seam) 0.95
Zach Duke (2-seam) 0.57
Sam Tuivailala (4-seam) -0.28
Trevor Rosenthal (4-seam) -0.31
Luke Weaver (4-seam) -0.49
Brett Cecil (4-seam) -0.51
Michael Wacha (4-seam) -0.51
Jonathan Broxton (4-seam) -0.6
Tyler Lyons (4-seam) -0.76
Mike Leake (Sinker) -0.99
Mike Mayers (4-seam) -5.95
Ruben Tejada (4-seam) -14.97

The verdict

There are three main candidates for title of Best Cardinals Fastball, so I'll leave a poll at the bottom of this article. The three are: Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, and Alex Reyes, so I'll make the case for each one.

Martinez: Despite throwing a 2-seam fastball, Martinez's actual velocity ranked fourth among the 18 players examined. Martinez finished fifth among Cardinals in break length, while Rosenthal and Reyes' flat four-seamers tied for dead last. Martinez owns the lowest launch angle on the team and his average hit distance was the second lowest. Martinez also listed sixth best in terms of exit velocity, besting Rosenthal by a good 3.4 miles per hour. Martinez makes up for a few miles per hour on his fastball by putting superior movement on his two-seamer and inducing ground balls to shut down opposing lineups.

Rosenthal: Rosenthal brings heat, leading the team in spin rate and perceived velocity in 2016. His vertical movement ranked second among all Cardinals. He finished third among all Cards in whiff rate while throwing his fastball for a higher strike percentage than Alex Reyes. Rosey easily eclipsed Reyes in terms of launch angle, 7.8 to 19.3. Rosenthal placed fourth in hit distance while Reyes fell behind at tenth. More batters facing Rosenthal were forced to foul off their pitches than Martinez or Reyes. No Cardinal allowed a lower percentage of batters to put the ball in play than Rosenthal did with his four-seamer. On top of all that, he did this in what was the worst season of his career–this was a bad performance by Trevor's standards. The numbers are calling for a rebound in 2017, and having the best fastball on the team will only help.

Reyes: Alex Reyes had the highest actual velocity on the Cardinals and placed sixth in spin rate. Reyes doesn't need as much movement on his fastball because he can blow it by you. Among the three, Reyes held hitters to the lowest exit velocity, posted the highest whiff rate, and let the lowest percentage of his fastballs go for hits. On their fastballs, Reyes had the highest run value per 100 pitches of the three and it wasn't even close. Rosenthal's fastball had below average value in 2016! Alex Reyes has the most overpowering fastball, he has the most effective fastball, and he has the best fastball.

Thank you for reading. If you want more of my shenanigans you can follow me on Twitter @Tyler_Opinion

Go Cards!