The term "rising fastball" has been used in baseball for decades, even after science has given us the understanding that fastballs can't really rise as they come to the plate.Just don't tell that to hitters after they face Max Scherzer. The Nationals' ace throws a fastball with the kind of
The term "rising fastball" has been used in baseball for decades, even after science has given us the understanding that fastballs can't really rise as they come to the plate.
Just don't tell that to hitters after they face Max Scherzer. The Nationals' ace throws a fastball with the kind of spin that can overwhelm opposing lineups, and that dominance was on display Sunday night during Washington's 6-3 win over the Mets.
Scherzer entered his start at Citi Field leading Major League pitchers with an average spin rate of 2,570 rpm on his four-seam fastball, as tracked by Statcast™. Why does that matter? Statcast™ tells us that elite-level spin helps Scherzer's fastball fall more slowly as it comes in to opposing batters. High-spin fastballs defy gravity longer, giving it the illusion of "rising" and causing hitters to either whiff completely or make weak contact with the bottom part of the ball. Scherzer's four-seamer averaged 2,580 rpm on Sunday night, and the results spoke for themselves: Nine swinging strikes on the pitch (including three strikeouts) and four popups over eight innings of three-run ball.
Over the first two seasons of Statcast™, we've seen 2,600 rpm emerge as an elite benchmark for high-spin fastballs. From 2015-16, opponents hit just .213 and slugged .348 against fastballs with spin rates of 2,600 rpm. Here's a look at how that compares to other spin rate benchmarks on that pitch:
2015-16 MLB averages against four-seam fastballs
(MLB average rpm: 2,264)
.213 AVG / .348 SLG / 27.5% whiff-per-swing / 35.8% GB rate
.253 AVG / .432 SLG / 21.6% whiff-per-swing / 35.8% GB rate
.280 AVG / .473 SLG / 17.1% whiff-per-swing / 39.4% GB rate
.309 AVG / .509 SLG / 13.1% whiff-per-swing / 47% GB rate
Four-seamers that touch the "platonic ideal" of 2,600 rpm have typically led to more swings-and-misses, more weak popups and, generally, a lower batting average against. Over that two-season sample size, Scherzer led MLB starters in whiff-per-swing rate (25.7 percent, min. 1,000 thrown) and posted the fifth-lowest opponents' batting average against his four-seamer (min. 400 at-bats) while also leading MLB with a 7.5 percent popup rate on the batted balls he allowed (min. 500 balls in play). Spin rate is far from the only factor in Scherzer's success with his heater, but it seems to make life tougher for his opponents who already have to deal with his mid-90s velocity.
"He gets great finish," said Matt Wieters, Scherzer's catcher Sunday night and a player with one of the best views of Scherzer's fastball. "He works hard at being able to get through the ball, and that allows him to really have life at the plate.
"Whether you label it as spin rate or finish or whatever else, he gets great finishing carry through his baseball."
That "finish" helped Scherzer rack up an MLB-best 284 strikeouts last year en route to the National League Cy Young Award. At times, it can also hurt him. Six of the NL-most 31 home runs Scherzer allowed last year came against his 2,600-plus-rpm four-seamers, second behind Justin Verlander, another pitcher who routinely ranks among the game's elite in four-seam spin rate. Scherzer's only blemishes Sunday were home runs given up to the Mets' Michael Conforto and Neil Walker, each hit off 2,600-plus rpm fastballs, but each of them was hit with projected distances of 350 feet or less. Those homers certainly weren't crushed, but the fact that the each batter got under Scherzer's fastballs may have helped them create enough backspin to help the balls barely clear the wall.
Home runs are a small price to pay, however, when one considers what Washington has gotten from Scherzer since signing him before the 2015 season. Scherzer has heard critiques about his unorthodox delivery throughout his career, but it seems to be paying off for him -- at least by one metric.
"They always say you've got to snap your head down to make the ball go up," Scherzer said after Sunday's start. "Everyone wants to criticize my mechanics, but maybe I've got good mechanics that make the ball go up."
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.