Surviving, or Even Excelling, in MLB with a ‘Dead Zone’ Fastball

When a pitcher’s fastball has sub-optimal vertical break, some teams refer to the pitch as landing in the “dead zone”. Vertical break and velocity are the two most important indicators of a fastball’s effectiveness, but the former is the subject of this piece. 

Ideally, a pitcher’s fastball is towards either extreme of the vertical break scale. Low vertical break fastballs will induce more groundballs, while high vertical break fastballs will induce more pop-ups and whiffs. The ‘dead zone’, which could also be described at the ‘danger zone’, is when a pitcher’s fastball falls right in the middle – not low enough to induce ground balls when thrown at the bottom of the zone and not high enough to induce pop-ups and whiffs at the top of the zone. Specifically, I’m considering fastballs with 12 to 15 inches of vertical break to be ‘dead zone’ fastballs. This assignment follows the rationale that these are the pitches that most often meet the swing planes and thus barrels of hitters.

The zones are divided up as:

Fastball ZoneAvg. Vertical BreakNo. of Pitchers
Ultra-high18″ and above71
High15″ – 18″296
Dead12″ – 15″167
Low6″ – 12″158
Ultra-low6″ and below47

The data from the 2019 and 2020 seasons backs up this notion of hard contact in the dead zone. Dead zone fastballs have both the highest fastball xwOBA and the highest xRV of any zone.

ZoneUsageVelocityWhiff%EVLAxBA2020 xRVFB xwOBATotal xwOBA
Ultra-high52.5%93.122.8%83.629.7.245.0008.343.310
High48.4%93.621.6%84.126.3.294.0023.363.325
Dead45.5%93.719.6%84.221.9.281.0038.378.332
Low42.4%92.515.1%84.811.2.294.0024.371.332
Ultra-low48.3%91.114.6%85.41.8.288.0006.357.317
xRV: Expected Run Value

What’s the obvious solution? Just throw your primary fastball with “ultra-high” or “ultra-low” vertical movement — preferably with high velocity. Easy enough, right?

While some pitchers will be successful in fundamentally changing their fastball profiles that will allow them to shift into one of the more advantageous zones, many others will be stuck with what they have and will have to make the most of it. Otherwise, they will be quickly cast aside after a lack of success in pitch design. This gets to the root of what I am attempting to answer here – If you’re a pitcher with a dead zone fastball, what exactly is required within the rest of your arsenal and your mechanics to be an effective major league pitcher, or even just a major league pitcher at all?

For the purpose of this analysis, I will be using xwOBA as my dependent variable. The data used is from a combination of the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

  1. In what role are you being utilized? As a starter or as a reliever?

As a starting pitcher, there is an increased importance on having an effective third pitch. In this instance, I am measuring effectiveness by comparing the differential in total movement of each starting pitcher’s third pitch to their main (most oft-used) fastball. A pitch’s total movement is calculated using its horizontal movement, vertical movement and the Pythagorean Theorem. 

Dead Zone Starting Pitcher 3rd Pitch Types

Pitch TypePercent Usage
Changeup / Splitter51%
Curveball21%
Cutter10%
Slider10%

Here are some dead zone fastball starting pitchers that excel at differentiating movement with their third pitches.

PlayerTeamPitch3rd Pitch Total Movement Diff.2020 xRVPitch xwOBATotal xwOBA
Luis CastilloRedsSlider17.3 in.-.002.267.277
Sonny GrayRedsSlider17 in..003.233.292
Jordan MontgomeryYankeesCurveball16.8 in..009.290.305
Johnny CuetoGiantsCurveball16.3 in..006.288.327
Trevor RogersMarlinsChangeup14.3 in.-.017.203.278
Charlie MortonRaysCutter14 in.-.006.339.283

  • Do you have above average velocity?

If the answer is yes, by how much? If your velo is slightly above average (94-96 mph), the following factors have a slightly decreased importance on average. These pitchers include Jesus Luzardo (95.6 mph), Tejay Antone (95.6) and Max Scherzer (94.8).

However, if your velo is more significantly above average, there’s a good chance that you can still lean on a dead zone fastball. For overall success as measured by xwOBA, velocity is vital with a dead zone fastball regardless of your intended role. In fact, velocity is the single most significant attribute.

Examples of these arms include Felipe Vazquez (98.5 mph), Jose Alvarado (97.8), Codi Heuer (97.6), Nathan Eovaldi (97.4) and A.J. Puk (97.1)

  • Don’t have above average velo? Total movement differential is significant

While this trait is true for starting pitchers specifically and their third pitches, it also applies to staters and relievers alike in regard to their main two secondary offerings. To fairly give credit to each pitcher and the total movement differential that they generate between their main fastball and their main two secondary pitches, I regressed total xwOBA on usage-scaled total movement differential. The more often the pitcher uses the pitch, the more credit he gets for its relationship to the his pitcher’s main fastball. 

PlayerTeamU-S Total Mov. Diff.Total xwOBA2020 Arsenal xRV
Carlos CarrascoIndians.396.316.003 (84th percentile)
Kirby YatesPadres.396.239N/A
Sonny GrayReds.392.292-.001 (79th percentile)
Luis CastilloReds.364.277.0002 (69th percentile)
Andrew MillerCardinals.356.297-.0009 (76th percentile)
Note: Avg. U-S Total Mov. Diff. = .272
  • Don’t have above average velo or secondaries that help your fastball play up?

In this scenario, pitchers need to have a secondary that they can lean on heavily. With that pitch, they need to bump up the usage as much as possible. It must have above average total movement, and the pitcher must have sufficient command to be able to throw it in various counts. For starting pitchers, this likely has to be the case with two separate pitches. Relievers are usually more likely to make do with only one secondary offering depending on its quality.

PlayerTeamFB VeloMain SecondaryMain Secondary UsageTotal MovementU-S Total MovementMain Secondary xRVMain Secondary xwOBA
Aaron NolaPhillies93Curveball33%18.5 in..470-.004.305
Evan MarshallWhite Sox93.4Changeup39%15.9 in..421-.008.285
Joe MusgrovePirates92.7Slider22.5%12 in..312-.009.304
Hyun-Jin RyuDodgers/Blue Jays90.5Changeup27.6%14.8 in..293-.009.282
Note: Total Movement & U-S Total Movement columns refer to the pitcher’s top-2 secondary pitches
Avg. dead zone U-S Total Movement = .280

  • Don’t have above average velo, secondaries that help your fastball play up with movement, or secondaries that are good enough on their own?

Well, your chances of sticking in the major leagues have taken a major blow. However, a final avenue of survival could be to have a significant velocity difference between your main fastball and your multiple secondaries. Like total movement differential, this is another way to help a dead zone fastball play up. This is likely done with a usable changeup/splitter at least an average breaking ball. A prime example of this type of pitcher is San Diego’s Zach Davies.

Davies operates off of a sinker/changeup combo that consistently holds an 8-10 mph velocity difference while thrown almost 85% of the time. He also mixes in a cutter and curveball to offset the movement profiles. As this pitcher profile is less correlated with overall success than the aforementioned others, Davies’ elite command also undoubtedly plays into his success which leads us into the next facet of exploration.

  • What else can help a dead zone fastball pitcher?
  1. Control and command. Getting ahead and staying ahead in the count.

First-pitch strike% is significant when predicting both dead zone fastball xwOBA and their entire arsenal’s xwOBA. The idea here is that the more often you get ahead in the count on the at-bat’s first pitch (using whatever pitch necessary), the less you theoretically have to throw a sub-par fastball through the rest of the at-bat. In fact, if a dead zone fastball is located well enough to start an at-bat that it induces a called strike or a foul ball, barring subsequently throwing three-straight balls, the fastball may not need to be used again in the at-bat. The dangerous prospect for dead zone fastball pitchers is having to groove their fastballs in predictable counts. 

Examples of these pitchers that benefit from getting ahead in the count are: Max Scherzer (68.9% F-Strike%), Bryan Garcia (68.3%), David Price (67.9%), Tyler Mahle (67.8%), Joe Musgrove (66.1%), and Chris Sale (66%).

  1. Possess an unusual release point for hitters

Analyzing release point falls into the bucket of worms that is deception and determining what exactly this phenomenon means for pitchers. What the data shows for dead zone pitchers is that having either a lower vertical release point, or a more extreme horizontal release point helps them succeed. 

With a lower vertical release point, these pitchers are often naturally creating a flatter vertical approach angle to help offset the lack of vertical break. These pitchers could merely be shorter, have a shorter/tighter arm action, or even intentionally throw from a lower arm slot to help their fastball. 

These pitchers include Mychal Givens, Noe Ramirez, Craig Kimbrel, Aaron Nola, Yimi Garcia, and Yohan Ramirez.

While not as highly correlated as vertical release point, horizontal release point (which obviously has a strong linear relationship with vertical release point) also matters, and it can more easily be attributed as a factor of deception. For a pitcher throwing to a same-sided hitter, starting a pitch from farther behind the hitter understandably makes for an uncomfortable at-bat. 

These pitchers include A.J. Puk, Chris Sale, Lance Lynn, Max Scherzer, Yimi Garcia, Darwinzon Hernandez, Brad Brach, and Tyler Mahle.

A final interesting application of this analysis is to examine the dead zone pitcher’s fastball and how it performs in a vacuum. The success of a pitcher always has to do with more than just their main fastball’s performance, but looking at which profiles, while all lacking optimal vertical break, perform the best is intriguing at least. The issue is, it’s a lot more difficult to salvage a pitch alone that already has a damming quality associated with it versus an entire arsenal that includes it.  

With that being said, the attributes with the strongest linear relationships to dead zone fastball success are a.) maintaining count leverage, b.) living on the corners with not only a main fastball, but with your entire arsenal as measured by edge% (such as Trevor Rogers, Kirby Yates, Buddy Boshers, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Jose Berrios), and c.) having an unusual/extreme release point. 

Ideally, more sufficient development plans are handed down that are tailored to each specific pitcher’s issues that are holding them back with a dead zone fastball. This piece serves to identify factors that coaches and development staffs can look to when trying to identify the greatest potential marginal improvements — or in other words — the greatest amount of improvement from the least critical change depending on the individual. Also, the information can help shape a course of action for young amateur or minor league pitchers who have major league aspirations.

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