Cliff Lee and the four-seam fastball

Cliff Lee can be described as a surgeon. Hitters may feel more like he’s performing a vivisection, but that’s just a matter of perspective. Lee’s impressive collection of scalpels includes a cutter, curve, sinker, change-up and slider.

But it’s his fifth pitch, a four-seam fastball, which is our focal point for the moment. Specifically, where he throws it and when. And to whom. So three focal points. Stop counting.

Here are the basics on Lee’s arsenal


And a look at his fastball usage over time


While the overall trend has been almost linear, he has two plateaus in his splits, but in different time frames. This is not a man who likes to reach for the four-seamer much as time has gone by. This makes further analysis rather tricky—shrinking samples.

Year Fastballs
2008 1025
2009 1088
2010 598
2011 193

Outside of a big drop in one set of situations (behind in the count), Lee was shedding heaters all over the place.


vs LHH 2008 2009 2010 2011
Ahead 32% 27% 25% 14%
Behind 68% 41% 50% 23%
Even 52% 32% 23% 11%
First 63% 49% 53% 18%
Full 64% 60% 67% 5%

The lack of the four-seam fastball on full counts to left-handed hitters in 2011 may be the most striking point of data in this survey of Lee.

vs RHH 2008 2009 2010 2011
Ahead 28% 28% 13% 3%
Behind 20% 22% 8% 3%
Even 26% 26% 10% 3%
First 18% 17% 9% 2%
Full 28% 21% 7% 3%

And notice how the locations (on any count) go from glove side (catcher’s left, away from left-handed hitters and in to right-handed) toward hand side over time.


Why he did this and how it impacted his performance (overall or situationally) may merit further discussion and research.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jim C
10 years ago

Have you ever thrown a 4-seam fastball? A two-seam? A no-seam? Are you really that sure you know the difference? Do you claim to identify them yourself, or do you rely on the claims of the guys who do the online game updates? BTW, yes, there is such a thing as a no-seam fastball.

Harry Pavlidis
10 years ago

Jim, all pitch classifications shown here are our own and not based on Gameday, BIS or any other data source.

Jim C
10 years ago

So, on what basis do you claim to identify each pitch? And my first question still stands.

Harry Pavlidis
10 years ago

Jim – there’s a great primer that discusses pitch classification here and we plan on writing about the process here over the next few months. As far as my stuff, I’m embarrassed that you care so much to have asked me twice now. Was it the Jered Weaver article a while back? That’s the most attention anyone has to my pitching in 30 years.

Jim C
10 years ago

I’m sure it would not stand up in court, but if you really feel that confident in your data, enjoy. I don’t buy it.

Dan B
10 years ago

Why don’t you buy it? It’s not magic. When the ball is thrown in a particular way, it moves in a particular way. And he can look at the way the ball moves because he has fancy data from cameras. It doesn’t matter if he can throw a four-seam fastball; what matters is that he knows what four-seam fastballs look like in trajectory space.

It’s a skill that’s easily learnable with a little effort. You should try! Much easier than throwing the pitches, at least. Otherwise Harry would be making 6 million bucks a year pitching for the Cubs. =)

Jim C
10 years ago

I don’t buy it because pitching is all about feel, and trial and error. Ask 5 different major league pitchers how they grip their curveballs, and you are likely to get five different grips. People assume that any fastball that finishes in the top half of the strike zone, or is high, must be a 4-seamer, and any fastball that is in the lower half of the zone, or low, must be a two-seamer. Some pitchers’ cutters have more movement than other pitchers’ sliders. My point is that just because a pitch acts in a way that you have come to expect to be the way a 4-seam fastball acts, it’s not necessarily the case.

Harry Pavlidis
10 years ago

Sure, but all curveballs have distinct movement, whether it’s a spike, knuckle, kiddie curve etc etc. No one is claiming “all these pitches are the same” but there are pretty clear indicators of spin deflection which make it obvious what the pitch is to the trained observer. Besides, I’ve vetted my work through scouts, pitchers and baseball ops folks. They buy it, that’s good enough for me.
And, to your specific point, location has nothing to do with these classifications. Speed, spin deflection and on rare occasions, when you know a pitcher, you look at factors like batter hand, count and, gasp, location, to make a fine grained distinction on a border call. That’s about 1-3% of all pitches, that number can be higher or lower depending on the pitcher.