Through two starts this season, Orioles starter David Hess has been the right-handed embodiment of the benefits and drawbacks of the team's dedication to joining the league-wide trend of throwing high fastballs.
In his first start, it helped him throw 6 1/3 hitless innings. In his second start, he gave up a pair of home runs on elevated fastballs. Hess, like all the Orioles' pitchers, is trying to strike a balance in the first few weeks, and he thinks he'll be on the right side going forward.
"I think it's proven to be effective so far," Hess said. "Now, it's the same thing — still learning how to utilize that, because I think that it is something that's new. I've always been taught, fastball down, fastball down, fastball down. Now, to be able to command that fastball up — and want to — I think that's a new facet that I think we're kind of working on.
"I think that that's something that I know I'm not the only one focusing on that. League-wide, a lot of people, there's a big shift in that. It is something that we're looking to continue to work on and improve on, but not just be limited to that. I don't want to be a guy who strictly sits fastball up in the zone, because the room for error up there is a bit less forgiving."
Left-hander John Means has been focusing on elevating his fastball since last year at Triple-A Norfolk, and has made strides with it this year. Right-hander Andrew Cashner has all but abandoned his two-seam fastball in favor of a four-seamer.
"Anytime you can put fastballs at the top of the zone, it's tough to really get on top of it," Cashner said. "Especially if you keep your off-speed down at the bottom of the zone. I think we've been doing a really good job as far as pitching up in the zone early this season."
After so many teams found success earlier in the decade with sinkers at the knees, and pitchers pitched to contact down in the zone hoping for ground balls, hitters started to work on their swings, emphasizing an upper-cut and lifting the ball. The resulting "launch-angle revolution" required a response from pitchers.
"The four-seam has a little bit of hop at the end," Hyde said. "That's kind of been the trend the last few years, of guys pitching up in the strike zone."
Hess, who started Friday and added another positive outing to his ledger with 5 2/3 innings of three-run ball against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Friday, lived dangerously in general in this outing but used the high fastball effectively when he elected to. His first out of the game was on an 0-2 high fastball that Andrew Benintendi popped up, and his first strikeout was an elevated 94 mph fastball to Eduardo Núñez to end the second inning.
He ultimately left too many fastballs over the plate, and gave up hard contact as a result. But when he got high enough in and above the zone, it didn’t hurt him Friday.
For someone such as Hess, who has been drilled to locate down in the zone for his entire career, it's a big change. He said he elevated a fastball above the strike zone for a swinging strike in a spring training game by accident, and pitching coach Doug Brocail pointed out that's the type of thing he can do far more often.
Through three appearances, not including Friday, his high-fastball rate isn't much higher than it was last season, either as a percentage of his pitches thrown or of his fastballs thrown. But he's trying to trust it can be successful.
"I think there's really just an understanding now, and such a large analytics side, if you want to call it that, of just knowing the appearance that fastballs have to hitters," Hess said. "Some guys can be really effective up in the zone. You're seeing a lot more than that, because higher velocity, you're seeing guys that have good life on their balls can be effective there. But that also does work down in the zone as well. It's just you can't miss between the belly button and the thigh because it's just putting it on a tee for major league hitters.
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"For me, it's really just coming in an understanding that my fastball can play at the top of the zone, and also can play at the bottom of the zone. Utilizing that, and really trying to mix up planes, I think that's something that Broc has done a really good job of making sure, not just with me but I think the whole staff, just making it clear and making sure we understand how our stuff plays best."