Fuld is full of deep thoughts in the outfield

Eno Sarris

Sam Fuld is not your typical outfielder, maybe. There's an active brain at work out there. Often it wonders what the numbers say about this beautiful game. 


Fuld's history sounds like the backstory for a baseball analyst. He carried around a book of baseball stats when he was five. He went to Phillips Exeter, one of the best prep schools in the country. He has a degree in economics from Stanford. He read Moneyball and was inspired to complete an internship at STATS Inc. 

Sam Fuld once said, "The beauty of numbers is that our minds don't necessarily capture the whole picture accurately. Our emotions remember certain things for whatever reason, and there are certain things you don't remember. ... That's the beauty of numbers. It's fact. There's no way around it."

So, before a game against his old team -- the also openly nerdy Tampa Bay Rays -- I thought I'd ask him what he was thinking about out there when the games got long. 

The first thing that came up was the rising fastball. "Now when we get scouting reports, we get fastball, cutter, sinker," Fuld pointed out. "I wonder if we get to the point now where 'riseball' will be a unique pitch. It would be helpful, I don't think it gets talked about enough. It's the anti-sinker." 

Sean Doolittle and Jake McGee have both admitted that rise is a huge part of their game. Doolittle even talked on these pages about how he has to watch his mechanics to make sure to get that rise. Phil Hughes said that his rising fastball "has been the one natural constant throughout his baseball life" before mentioning Kevin Jepsen, Jered Weaver and David Robertson as other pitchers that benefit from a similar riding/rising fastball. 

It's not physically possible for a ball to rise, but PITCHf/x calculates positive vertical movement on the fastball relative to the way a spin-less ball would travel due to gravity. And we can sort the pitchers with the highest "rise" on their fastball. Over the last decade or so, those names at the top of the list are Trevor Hoffman (tops with 14 inches of rise), Chris Young (13), Rafael Betancourt (12.2), Jered Weaver (12.2), Chris Tillman (12.2) and Rich Harden (11.9). 

But let's look at this year's list for active players with great rise on their fastballs (minimum 400 thrown), with a couple of relevant stats thrown in for good measure. FA-Z is the measurement of that rise. Swinging strike rate represents how many times a batter has whiffed on a swing against that four-seamer. PU% is the percentage of popups on balls in play. 

Rising to success

Name FA-Z (pfx) FA swSTR% PU%
Chris Tillman 12.1 5.3% 2.8%
Marco Estrada 12.0 6.8% 5.6%
Drew Smyly 12.0 6.4% 5.3%
Sean Doolittle 11.7 16.0% 11.2%
Travis Wood 11.5 5.8% 5.8%
Brad Peacock 11.3 6.5% 4.3%
Danny Duffy 11.0 6.0% 6.9%
Anibal Sanchez 11.0 8.2% 2.6%
Josh Tomlin 10.8 2.0% 3.5%
Tyler Skaggs 10.7 6.0% 3.3%
Jered Weaver 10.6 5.2% 5.2%
Colby Lewis 10.5 4.3% 3.8%
J.A. Happ 10.4 7.4% 2.9%
Vidal Nuno 10.4 5.5% 4.2%
Justin Verlander 10.3 6.8% 4.8%
Wei-Yin Chen 10.3 6.7% 4.6%
James Shields 10.3 5.0% 4.1%
Nick Martinez 10.3 2.1% 5.5%
Hector Santiago 10.3 7.2% 6.5%
Chris Young 10.2 4.1% 8.6%
Cole Hamels 10.2 5.7% 3.1%
Top Quarter Average 10.9 6.1% 5.0%
Sample Average 9.2 6.2% 3.7%

 

It makes sense to see Doolittle on this list. It also makes sense to see Chris Young on this list, as Fuld pointed him out specifically, and Young himself mentioned this decption on his fastball as important both to him and to finding undervalued pitchers in the future. 

What makes rise so tough? "It feels like five to seven mph firmer than it reads -- reaction," Fuld said. "Counter-intuitively, you have to swing earlier and pretend it's 97 instead of 89." Research on the subject seems to agree that high fastballs, especially high and tight, do have a higher effective velocity.

But there's more to it. Look at that popup rate, which is actually a skill that has been shown to be repeatable year to year. Just like Fuld thought from watching Chris Young -- "he generates popup after popup" -- the riseballers have a large advantage in popup rate. Given that a popup is an out over 99 percent of the time, that's a nice weapon to have in your arsenal. 

"You have to work to get on top of the ball," Fuld said of the rising fastball creating popups. These are the things that Doolittle talked about, too. Hitters are trained for the low ball, to drop their bat to the ball, and the riseball confounds that. 

As you can guess, Fuld has more on his mind when he's out there. We're planning on talking about foul balls -- he has an open research project on the subject -- and innovative defensive positioning. And maybe in tonight's game, he'll think of something new while he's watching the game. 

That's an inquisitive mind bouncing around out there in the 23 jersey in the Oakland outfield, after all.

 


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