The fastball has become Tampa Bay’s new best friend

The Rays lead the American League in ERA and strikeouts, which is not surprising when you consider all of the power arms they have collected.
Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek delivers against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field. [CHRIS O'MEARA   |   Associated Press]
Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek delivers against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field. [CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press]
Published April 22
Updated April 22

ST. PETERSBURG – Just so you know, this story is one-sided.

It lacks nuance and perspective. It ignores details and datum.

This story looks at the entire Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff, with all its versatility and uniqueness, and reduces it to this single, not-so-secret weapon:

The fastball.

It’s silly, I know. Everyone throws a fastball. It’s baseball’s most basic pitch, and it’s been celebrated since they started calling Walter Johnson the Big Train more than a century ago.

But, around here, we’ve never seen anything like this Rays staff. Not when it comes to bringing the heat. More than three weeks into the season, Tampa Bay was leading the majors in average fastball velocity at 94.6 mph, according to statistics compiled at fangraphs.com.

Against the Red Sox on Sunday, the Rays had a starting pitcher (Tyler Glasnow) who topped out at 100.3 mph and followed with three different relievers (Ryne Stanek, Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo) who each threw pitches that eclipsed 99 mph.

So is it any wonder that Tampa Bay also leads the American League in ERA and strikeouts?

“We’ve always valued power, but it’s never come at the expense of executing pitches and attacking the strike zone,’’ said Rays senior vice president Chaim Bloom. “Power and velocity will obviously force quicker decisions by the hitters, but you’re not going to get very far without location and execution.’’

This is not a trend unique to Tampa Bay. For the past decade, teams have put a premium on finding or developing pitchers who can throw in the high 90s. When the Rays won the AL pennant in 2008, the Blue Jays led the majors in average fastball velocity at 91.7 mph. That would put them 28th today.

“It used to be commonplace to have guys who were throwing 87, 90, 91. Guys who were sinkerball, slider types,’’ said Rays starter Charlie Morton. “Pitching to contact was okay back then. Now, there is such a premium on swing-and-miss. I think that’s what you’re seeing even more than speed, guys who can get the swing-and-misses.’’

Morton is an interesting example of how increased velocity can help, but is not the only answer. Four years ago, Morton’s fastball averaged 92 mph as a 31 year old with a 4.54 career ERA. His fastball has since increased to 94.3 mph, and his ERA has dropped to 3.40 during the past four seasons.

But Morton said his recent success has been based on throwing fewer fastballs and relying more on his breaking pitches.

And that makes sense, too. For a lot of pitchers, an increase in velocity also translates to sharper sliders or curveballs.

“With increasing arm speed, you’re also increasing arm speed on breaking pitches,’’ said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “For some of these guys, you’re increasing the amount of times that a ball rotates, and more rotation creates more movement. It may not be true in every case, but there is a correlation between increasing arm strength and spin rate.’’

The increase in velocity is one of the most significant changes in the past decade, but it’s not entirely surprising. Athletes are getting bigger and stronger, while also learning to optimize their deliveries.

And with more and more pitchers throwing in the high 90s, managers are more inclined to shorten the game by going to their bullpens earlier. It is, in some ways, the same reasoning behind Tampa Bay’s use of the opener.

The Rays can start a game with Stanek or Castillo throwing 98-99 mph, and then switch to Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks or Yonny Chirinos throwing in the low 90s. Ideally, by the seventh inning, they’re ready to switch back to a hard-throwing reliever.

“Stanek is going to be very different than any of the guys who come in after him,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Even if it’s Chirinos, they both have big fastballs but they’re not the same fastball. Stanek lives at the top of the zone and Yanny is going to be at the bottom.

“And if it’s ‘Yarbs’ coming in and doing his deal for 4 or 5 innings, it’s like, “Alright, you just saw that from the left side at 90 mph, now try hitting this from the right side at 99.’ You’d like to think it’s a challenging thing for a hitter to have to face.’’

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