ST. PETERSBURG — Jake McGee blew a 99-mph fastball across the top of the strike zone Tuesday night, and Kansas City's Omar Infante didn't have a chance. Swing and a miss, strike three. Ballgame.
One night earlier, Jake Odorizzi threw a fastball across the top of the strike zone, this one 7 mph slower than the one McGee would throw, and the Royals' Mike Moustakas was equally as helpless. Swing and a miss, strike three.
“You don't have to throw that hard,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “but if you throw it in the right spot it becomes a better pitch.”
Rays pitchers have been hitting their spots this season. Led by David Price's major-league-high 159 strikeouts, the staff leads the majors with 815 heading into tonight's home game against the Blue Jays.
Only two teams in baseball history — the 2013 Tigers and 2012 Brewers — recorded more strikeouts by this point of the season.
The Rays do it mostly with fastballs; 51.8 percent of their first 800 strikeouts came on fastballs, according to PITCHf/x.
Those fastballs, though, head toward home plate in a variety of ways: inside and outside, high and low, fast and faster.
The underlying theme to the strikeout rate is location.
“You can strike people out with 80-mile-an-hour stuff if you throw it where you want to throw it or throw it at the right time,” Odorizzi said. “It doesn't matter what the radar gun says. That's just there for the fans. People see that and they relate that to how good a pitcher is, and that can't be farther from the truth.”
According to Fan Graphs, McGee has averaged 96.6 mph with his fastball this season. Fan Graphs has Odorizzi's fastball at an average of 90.5.
Yet, teammate Ben Zobrist said he has heard a number of opposing hitters marvel at how Odorizzi's fastball jumps in on them.
“Some guys just sneak up on you as far as their ability to get ahead and get to two strikes, then they throw something that you're like, 'Man, I saw that good. I don't know why I didn't hit it,' ” Zobrist said.
“(Odorizzi's) got this carry to his fastball. He doesn't throw hard, but his ball is deceptive. That's what guys who faced him tell me. They say his fastball just gets on you. I think miles per hour can be deceptive, because some guys that throw 97, you see the ball for a long time, it doesn't feel like 97. Jake McGee throws 97 and nobody sees it.”
That wasn't the case last season with McGee, when his critics claimed he needed to learn another pitch to keep hitters off his high-90s fastball. McGee said lack of control was to blame.
“If you're staying away, away, away, away, they're going to hit,” McGee said. “You've got to show them at least both sides of the plate and go from there.”
McGee can do that this season, as well as locate up and down. He went back to throwing a traditional curveball and even has a pair of strikeouts this season with the new pitch, but nearly all of his damage comes with his blazing fastball.
“Nobody's saying anything about the amount of fastballs he has thrown this year,” Maddon said.
Pitchers are taught to pound the bottom of the strike zone, so hitters are expecting everything low. Odorizzi has success with his four-seam fastball that carries through the strike zone and crosses the plate near the letters.
“Certain guys with the way that they throw, they don't throw it at the same angle the hitter's used to swinging at, the down angle, so if his (pitch) stays a little more true, they're swinging under the ball a lot,” Rays starter Chris Archer said. “That's what you see with Jake (Odorizzi) and (Joel) Peralta. McGee has it, but he's throwing it at 100.”
Zobrist said it's tough for hitters to react quickly enough to put a good swing on that pitch.
“By that time, it's already by me,” Zobrist said.
Odorizzi sets up that fastball with his slow curve that leaves his hand with the same spin as his fastball, something that initially confuses the hitter.
Reliever Brad Boxberger gets 64.7 percent of his strikeouts with his mid-90s fastball, but hitters have to be aware of his 80-mph change-up, which has produced 19.6 percent of his strikeouts.
“A lot of it is deception on delivery,” Boxberger said. “Guys hold the ball different and do different things with their mechanics. A guy throwing 90 might make it look like he's throwing 95 just because the hitter can't see it as easily as someone who might be throwing 100, because they might see it the whole time and it's easier to hit.
“It just has to be located well. If you're locating 99 mile-per-hour fastballs like Jake (McGee) or you're locating a 66 mile-per-hour curveball like Cesar (Ramos), you're going to get people out.”