An underrated fastball

According to the BIS scouting data, San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell has the highest total run value for a fastball during the past three calendar years out of all qualified relievers in the majors. He’s ahead of the likes of Matt Thornton and Jonathan Papelbon. So naturally, having access to the PITCHf/x data, I wanted to know a little more about it.

Off the bat, the velocity already makes it an exceptional pitch averaging about 94 miles per hour, although hitters may say it seem to be going much faster because Bell has a deceptive pitching motion. The movement of the fastball is nothing exceptional, though. It just has a good amount of “rise” caused by an overhand delivery and possible slight cut (very slight) on some of his fastballs.


A good rising fastball is best used up in the strike zone, which Bell does an exceptional job of hitting. So here is a plot of all his fastballs since 2008 in the form of a “heat map” and split by batter handedness.

Jeremy Greenhouse discussed pitchers with bimodal distribution a couple months ago, and Bell fits that bill: He throws the fastball up and away to both left-handed and right-handed hitters. And it has to be a successful philosophy as its whiff rate is about 5 percent higher than the average fastball and is getting hitters to swing at it more outside the strike zone.

Recently, Baseball America rated Bell as the best reliever pitching in the NL this season. This subjective opinion matches well with an objective rating like FIP; his is the lowest out of all qualified relievers this season. Being with the Padres, Bell doesn’t likely get the recognition he deserves (as with the Padres in general apparently).

If he continues this performance, Bell may garner some serious attention in this year’s NL Cy Young voting. Even more attention will come for Bell while the Padres fight to keep first-place in the NL West and a their spot in the postseason.

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Dave Studeman
13 years ago

Great post, Ricky.  So one of the keys to his great fastball is his consistent location approach.

The colors on the heat map indicate how often he threw to each part of the zone, right?  They’re not run value heat maps, are they?