Major League Baseball teams usually emphasize breaking pitches in the development of their hurlers. A good curveball or slider can really give a pitcher a much-needed competitive advantage.
Others throw excellent changeups or splitters. There is also room for the new “turbo-sinker” stars. Having said all this, there is still not a more important pitch than the fastball.
If a pitcher has a dominant fastball with elite velocity, command, and the so-called “rise” (it’s actually perceived rise), he will have the ultimate weapon to consistently miss bats and retire batters. This is the case of Baltimore Orioles closer Felix Bautista, a true four-seamer artist from Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic.
It’s hard to believe that Bautista was a free agent after being released by the Miami Marlins in 2015 before signing a minor-league deal with the Orioles. But Bautista finally broke out in Year 1 of his MLB career in 2022 when he posted a phenomenal 2.19 ERA with a 2.85 FIP in 65.2 innings pitched. He struck out 88 hitters against just 23 walks and cemented his place among the most dominant relievers in MLB.
This year, however, he has graduated from elite relief pitcher to Cy Young candidate. Yes, that’s right: The numbers say he has a case to be strongly considered for the award. He was the AL Reliever of the Month for July and one of four Orioles All-Stars along with Adley Rutschman, Austin Hays and setup man Yennier Cano.
Between 2022-23, the guy trimmed an entire run off his FIP in a single season. He has a whopping 108 punchouts in 57.1 frames in 2023 for an MLB-best 47.8 strikeout rate among those with at least 50 innings.
The right-hander has a fantastic 1.57 ERA with a 1.85 FIP and has only given up more than one earned run in an outing once in 52 appearances. His ERA was actually below 1.00 as recently as Aug. 8 (0.85), but Kyle Tucker of the Houston Astros hit a grand slam off him and it went up to the mid-1.00s.
Needless to say, Bautista is a big reason why the Orioles (74-47) have moved ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays (73-50), Toronto Blue Jays (67-55), Boston Red Sox (63-57) and New York Yankees (60-61) in the fierce AL East.
Bautista has done all that on the strength of his fastball. You could say it’s the closest thing to an elite heater in MLB, as it has everything the pitch needs to have to consistently miss bats and induce soft contact.
Not only does it comes at hitters at 99.5 mph on average, but the pitch has the highest perceived rise in the league with 12.3 inches of average vertical movement. Last year, it was at 11.9, which means he improved both his velocity (99.2 mph in 2022) and perceived rise.
As you can probably imagine, it’s extremely hard to hit a fastball so fast and that suppresses the effects of gravity so much.
To really understand how insanely good Bautista’s fastball is, we will use advanced metrics such as raw value and whiff+. Raw value (RV) examines performance on a per-pitch basis and not just the outcome of the plate appearance, using elements such as decision-making, and quality and quantity of contact.
To calculate total raw value, a specific value is assigned to each pitch while considering all the parameters explained above. It’s a cumulative stat, as opposed to RV- which helps us determine how good a pitcher has been relative to the league average (100). Anything lower is better in the case of hurlers.
Bautista has the seventh-best total raw value in MLB with minus-18.4. He is third among American League pitchers and second among relievers after Tyler Rogers’ -20.4.
Total raw value says Bautista is performing better than some Cy Young candidates in the American League, such as Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, Nathan Eovaldi, and several others.
When it comes to RV-, Bautista boasts an elite 35. That’s third in MLB among hurlers with at least 700 pitches thrown, behind Rogers and Josh Hader. A 35 RV- is absurdly good, considering that 100 is the league average.
By total raw value, Bautista has the eighth-best four-seamer in the league at -11.1 (first among relievers), and its RV- is a phenomenal 38.
Now, let’s take a look at what whiff+ says about Bautista’s heat. When trying to evaluate a pitcher’s ability to miss bats, whiff+ is extremely helpful because it compares each offering with the league average value for that pitch type in a given season. As it happens with RV-, 100 is the league average value for whiff+, but higher is better.
Among pitchers with at least 462 four-seamers thrown, Bautista has the highest whiff+ in baseball at 217. It’s the definition of a heavy fastball: high-velo, high-spin efficiency, usually located high in the zone; and as a result of all that, high strikeout rate.
But Bautista’s talent extends beyond his excellent four-seamer: he also has a filthy splitter (shown below).
If you are waiting for a fastball and he throws you that splitter, well good luck to you.
RV- absolutely loves Bautista’s splitter: at 19 (!), it’s one of the very best pitches in the league. Its 203 whiff+ (best among MLB pitchers with at least 200 splitters thrown) gives the O’s closer not one, but two elite weapons to miss bats.
This combination has been death for MLB hitters all year long. Fastball up, splitter down, and go to your dugout. That has been Bautista’s mantra this year.
In fact, Bautista’s heater and splitter have both been so good that he rarely throws his slider any more. Last year, the split was about 61.3% four-seamers, 26.4% splitters and 12.3% sliders. In 2023, he upped his fastball usage to 70.0% while throwing 25.1% splitters and just 4.9% sliders. It’s hard to argue with the results.
But it’s evident that the fastball is the pitch that sets the table for everything else. When ahead in the count, he’s using it about 53.6% of the time (and 44.1% splitters). However, the fastball usage increases to 77.5% when behind in the count, 81.0% with an even count, and a shocking 92.3.% with a full count.
Bautista came late to the party (he turned 28 in June), but he’s still theoretically at the peak of his abilities. He’s a special pitcher with a special fastball and nasty splitter, and that is well worth watching.
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