The One Optimization Germán Márquez Can Make

We at FanGraphs haven’t checked in on the Rockies in a while. To put it nicely, that’s because they are performing as expected – a 43-55 record has banished them to fourth in the NL West, a place the team will probably call home for the remainder of the season. As a whole, the Rockies have a league-trailing 75 wRC+. It is not a good sign when C.J. Cron is the best hitter on your team by a wide margin.

But the pitching? After adjusting for the wackiness of Coors, the Rockies’ pitching staff has an ERA- of 100. It also has a FIP- of 101. I suppose one could do better than that, but one could also do worse, and being an average arm in Denver is an accomplishment of its own.

A major reason for this is the resurgence of Germán Márquez. After a rocky April and May, it’s safe to say the Rockies’ most reliable pitcher has settled in. What do we know about Márquez? There are his two breaking pitches, a curveball and a slider, each one a plus offering that hitters whiff at over 40% of the time. But what’s not talked about as often is his four-seam fastball. That in itself isn’t surprising, since the fastball has long been Márquez’s worst pitch. What is surprising, though, is how good it’s been in recent months. Consider the plot below:

Márquez is the point in yellow. Since June 1 (and through last Thursday’s action), his four-seamer has averaged the lowest launch angle among the 97 shown. It has averaged the lowest wOBA, too, a result of the first fact. The pitch has always induced groundballs at a healthy rate, but that quality seems to have been kicked into overdrive during this two-month stretch.

There are caveats, of course. If we go by xwOBA, the fastball has averaged a .327 mark – good, but not exceptional. He isn’t using the pitch differently – Márquez prefers it early in counts or when he’s behind, and 2021 is no different. Then there’s the fact that his schedule post-May has been relatively smooth – he’s faced the A’s and the Padres, but also the Rangers, Brewers, Pirates, Cardinals, and the Mariners, all teams with mediocre lineups.

So, maybe he is over-performing. But that doesn’t change how much of an outlier Márquez’s fastball is. In addition, there is evidence suggesting the pitch is different than before, though not in an obvious way.

How does Márquez’s fastball generate such low launch angles? For one, its spin rate of 2,084 rpm is one of the lowest in the league. Less spin means the pitch drops more as it reaches home plate, and batters are more likely to get on top. What’s fascinating, though, is that this rate represents a career-low. The year before, Márquez’s fastball averaged 2,157 rpm. And the year before that, it averaged 2,225 rpm. Over the past few seasons, it’s gone from merely below average to having us question, “Hey, is this even a four-seamer?”

Sticky stuff (or lack thereof) doesn’t seem to be implicated in this downward trend, however. Márquez’s spin rate to velocity ratio has steadily decreased since 2019, but it’s not as if there’s been a sudden drop-off mid-2021. Instead, I wonder if the loss in spin is intentional. Using 2019 as another starting point, here’s how Márquez’s pitch usage has changed since then:

Márquez’s Fastball Usage, 2019-21

Year Four-Seam Usage Sinker Usage
2019 35.4% 17.0%
2020 38.5% 13.9%
2021 45.4% 5.6%

Before, Márquez liked to mix in his sinker with his four-seam fastball – the former took care of inducing weak contact, while the latter set up his breaking pitches and nabbed the occasional whiff. Recently, however, that delineation is no longer as clear. As his four-seam usage has ticked up, the pitch is handling all of those tasks – successfully, too.

What’s the benefit of fusing the four-seamer and sinker into one pitch? In Márquez’s case, perhaps doing so simplifies his repertoire. Considering how high altitude suppresses Magnus force and consequently upward movement, it arguably isn’t necessary for him to have a sinker. But there’s another, more subtle advantage. Last year, Wyatt Kleinberg wrote an article for the BaseballCloud Blog about the intricacies of pitching at Coors Field. It’s a great piece that warrants a complete read-through, but one snippet in particular stands out:

“…the thinner air in Denver makes a ball’s velocity lose about eight percent of its initial velocity at release by the time it reaches the plate. The same pitch thrown at sea level loses about ten percent of its initial velocity, or about one to two miles per hour upon arriving at home.”

Yep, it’s good to throw hard at Coors. In sum, what Márquez (might) have done is increase the drop on his fastball without having to sacrifice too much velocity, which is accentuated at home. The numbers suggest he’s succeeded. Compared to last season, Márquez has added around three inches of drop. His velocity is down from 95.9 mph to 94.9 mph, but after factoring in the loss of spin, it’s still impressive. While I can’t say with confidence whether this change is intentional, it has nevertheless aided him. The four-seamer has led to plenty of called strikes…

… and as mentioned earlier, a copious number of grounders. Seriously, what other fastball can be located this high and produce the following result?

Yet, there’s another adjustment that ought to benefit Márquez. Due to its unique characteristics, his fastball doesn’t behave, nor does it perform like an average one. Here’s an example of what I mean. Since Márquez’s debut season in 2016, there have been 673,486 four-seam fastballs thrown in the zone. I sorted them by location – up, middle, or down – then queried the run value allowed in each group. Next, I repeated the process using Márquez’s fastballs alone and compared his numbers to the league’s. The results:

FB Run Value by Location, 2016-21

Zone Region League RV/100 Márquez RV/100
Up -2.62 -2.12
Middle -1.64 -1.51
Down -2.43 -4.39

A standard-issue big league fastball plays best up in the zone. It’s a little worse down in the zone, where batters can more easily make contact. And as expected, the middle of the zone is a terrible idea. But consider how Márquez’s numbers are flipped-flopped – his sinking heater has returned by far the best results down low. By contrast, going up the ladder isn’t as beneficial because there’s a lack of rising action.

With that in mind, I want you to pay attention to the percent of in-zone fastballs sent to each area. Once again, it’s the league against Márquez:

FB Usage by Location, 2016-21

Zone Region League Rate Márquez’s Rate
Up 33.8% 29.8%
Middle 41.2% 43.1%
Down 25.0% 27.1%

This is it. This, I think, represents the one optimization he can make. So far in his career, he’s essentially spotted his fastball like an average pitcher would. But as we’ve established multiple times, Márquez is no average pitcher. He could presumably benefit from throwing more fastballs down in the zone, where they’re more likely to be taken as strikes. The whiffs might go down, but batters are also likely to foul them off or make weak contact, thrown off by the unexpected amount of vertical drop. Márquez has solid command. I don’t think an inability to locate his fastball is an issue. It’s just something he or the Rockies haven’t paid much attention to, but there’s much Márquez can gain from narrowing in on where he’s been successful.

That doesn’t mean he should pitch exclusively down – he shouldn’t, as high fastballs are what make low breaking balls all the more enticing, and Márquez wields two excellent ones. And sometimes, the situation calls for a get-me-over strike. Ideally, there’s a middle ground, one that maximizes his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses. For a long time, Márquez’s fastball left much to be desired. It still does to some extent, but in the process of losing spin and thus gaining vertical drop, it’s helped him earn strikes and induce soft contact. With a slight rearrangement in usage, it isn’t silly to think that the fastball can become even better. Márquez is tapping into a great amount of potential.

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