‘High heat’ is one of the cooler-sounding terms that baseball has to offer. In decades past, the high fastball’s primary utility for many pitchers was simply to change the eye level at the plate. It was considered to be merely a secondary approach for hurlers when it came to attacking hitters.
Now the rising fastball may as well be the approach, a fundamental of modern pitching. And perhaps no other offense has had more success than the Astros’ when facing it.
In 2015, 40.1 percent of all four-seam fastballs thrown were located in the upper third of the strike zone or above it, per Baseball Savant (BS). That figure has gradually risen since and peaked in 2021 at 49.5 percent, meaning that practically every other four-seamer thrown last year was aimed at the letters.
If the marked increase of recent years is any indicator, it could be as soon as 2022 that the majority of four-seamers thrown are located up.
Coinciding with this development is an Astros offense that has adapted to it seamlessly. In terms of wOBA, from 2015 to 2021, Astros hitters have collectively ranked in the top 10 against high four-seamers in every year except 2020, finishing first in 2017 and 2018 and coming in second in 2016 and 2021.
As pitching up in the zone has become a staple for numerous pitchers, being able to do damage against those pitches has become a necessity for hitters. Based on how well Houston’s lineups have fared over the years, it’s evident that one of the game’s finest player development systems has helped yield tremendous results in a key area. Look no further than 2021 when two unheralded rookie outfielders, Jake Meyers and Chas McCormick, both handled major-league high heat exceptionally well, with each finishing the year well above the .313 league-average wOBA, per BS (McCormick: .372, Meyers: .441 — high mark on club).
It’s understandable why most pitchers (and teams) have altered their approaches on the mound in recent years — it was ostensibly an adjustment made in lieu of the “launch angle revolution,” when hitters emphasized employing a loftier swing path, which resulted in low fastballs routinely getting deposited in the bleachers.
While the game’s overall whiff rate has steadily increased concurrent with these modified approaches on the mound and in the batter’s box — for reasons beyond what’s been outlined — the Astros have sustained high contact rates throughout, even as seemingly more rising four-seam fastballs populate the bigs each year. In fact, no other team made more contact against them in 2021, per BS.
Hitting has never been more difficult — seemingly every pitcher throws 96+ and is armed with a nasty breaking ball. Given the prominent north/south approach, it’s undeniable that performing well against high fastballs is now crucial to success for hitters.
However they’ve done it, Astros coaches and player development seem to have an inside track on one of baseball’s most important litmus tests.