Hot Hot Heat: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Pitchers Who Throw Fire

It’s easy to look back and laugh now, but there was a time when people genuinely worried that Anthony Rizzo would never hit a good fastball. He was struggling to hit anything harder than 90 miles per hour, and if that had remained true, it would have been a very real death knell for him. Good hitters don’t have the bat knocked from their hands by a heater, unless a pitcher is capable of throwing it in the mid-90s and commanding it well. Even then, really good hitters are able to work with that pitch, hit it hard somewhere, unless their opponent has set them up exceptionally well or has an offspeed pitch that can tug at the back of the batter’s mind.

Rizzo is, at this point, a really, really good hitter, so it should come as no surprise that he’s now handling fastballs better than all but three hitters in baseball: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Nelson Cruz. What might be more surprising, though, is that Rizzo is doing that despite facing hotter heat than any of those three hitters. Here are those four guys, listed by the average velocity of the fastballs they see, and then with their rank in that category (of the 155 hitters who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title as of Tuesday):

Player Average Fastball Velocity Seen Rank (of 155)
Anthony Rizzo 92.8 3
Bryce Harper 92.7 9
Mike Trout 92.4 31
Nelson Cruz 92.3 50

The differences here are small, but they do mean something. Rizzo is seeing faster average fastballs than all but two regulars in all of MLB. What’s interesting, though, is that Rizzo doesn’t lead his own team in this regard. In fact, Kris Bryant has seen fastballs averaging 93.1 miles per hour this year. That’s not only the highest figure in baseball, but further above Rizzo’s number than Rizzo’s is above Ryan Howard’s 19th-ranked number.

What explains this? How is it that the Cubs’ top two hitters are among the three batters seeing the fastest fastballs of anyone in baseball? And does it matter? Let’s test a few theories, some possible elements that could contribute to Bryant and/or Rizzo facing so many high-octane fastballs.

Percentage of Plate Appearances Coming Against Relief Pitchers

The Cubs work opposing starting pitchers hard, taking a lot of pitches and pushing their pitch counts way up by the third time through the order. We know that relievers, on average, throw harder than starters. Are Bryant and Rizzo simply seeing less of the softer-tossing starters and more of the flame-throwing short-burst guys than most of their peers?

As it turns out, they don’t: Rizzo has taken 33.1 percent of his PA against relievers, and Bryant is at 32.2 percent. Neither is even in the top half of qualifying hitters in that regard. Moreover, it doesn’t really matter: the correlation factor between percentage of PA coming against relievers and average velocity on all fastballs seen is -0.04. There is, in essence, no relationship.

Percentage of PA Coming Against Right-Handed Pitchers

Another fundamental thing we know about the game is that right-handed pitchers, on average, throw harder than lefties. We also know that, as a team, the Cubs have faced right-handers in a higher percentage of their total PA than all but two other MLB teams. Could it be that Bryant and Rizzo (the latter of whom has demonstrated a reverse platoon split this season, and the former of whom tore up minor-league left-handers to the tune of .364/.511/.813 last year) are seeing a huge percentage of right-handers, and that this is skewing their opponents’ average velocity?

Again, the answer is no. Rizzo has seen right-handers in 72.2 percent of all his PA. Bryant has seen them 69 percent of the time. Neither, again, is among the top half of the league in that category. Bryant is actually in the lowest quintile.

If they did see an unusual number of righties, that would actually help explain the phenomenon somewhat. The correlation between percentage of PA coming against righties and average opponent fastball velocity is 0.29, which is right on the fringe of statistical significance. It’s not really there, but it’s close. So in fact, the low share of righties each hitter is facing is another thing that makes their opponents’ high average velocities especially striking.

Fastballs as a Percentage of Total Pitches Seen

Intuitively, it would make some sense if seeing fewer fastballs meant seeing faster average fastballs. A guy pitchers generally either fear or feel no need to challenge with their heat might be expected to see those pitches mostly from pitchers who rely especially heavily on their heat, or who have an especially good one they trust to get past any batter.

Bryant sees fastballs 53.6 percent of the time. Rizzo is higher, at 56.8 percent. Neither number is remarkable, though they’re both fairly low. Maybe there’s something to this one, then. The correlation factor between fastball frequency and velocity is -0.20, so we certainly can’t go calling this conclusive. It’s something, but it isn’t much. We still haven’t come close to explaining away the heat Bryant and Rizzo have seen this year.

Opponent Set

Ahh, yes. Here it is. The Pirates have the fifth-highest team average for fastball velocity in MLB. The Reds are eighth. The Cardinals are 11th, and the Brewers are 15th. The NL Central is the only division in baseball with four teams among the top half of the league in fastball velocity, and the Cubs aren’t one of those teams.

Along with those four hard-throwing teams, whom the Cubs have played a total of 51 times already, the Cubs have seen seven of the other 11 clubs on the high side of the league’s average for fastball velocity, for a total of 35 more games. They’re simply seeing more hard throwers than any other team in baseball, and the good odds are that Rizzo and Bryant stand out because they’re the two players teams have consistently targeted, bringing in their best and hardest-throwing pitchers to face them whenever possible.

What it All Means

In the end, this is essentially an example of the way the unbalanced schedule can radically distort our statistical and scouting evaluations of teams in the modern era. The Cubs are seeing a markedly different level of competition than most of the rest of baseball, especially in terms of pitcher velocity. That’s an imperfect proxy for overall pitcher quality, of course, but it’s not meaningless. It’s a luck-of-the-draw thing, but with 76 of 162 games played against four of a possible 29 opponents, it doesn’t even out. The Cubs just have to keep their reflexes sharp, their bats loose and quick, because with 25 of their 46 remaining games being intradivisional affairs, they’re not going to stop seeing the league’s best fastballs anytime soon.

Lead photo courtesy of David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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