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The story behind Joey Rickard's early Orioles success: Lots of fastballs

MLB pitchers have challenged Joey Rickard to hit their fastballs over the first week of the season - and so far he's been hitting them.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Rickard has started off better than anyone could have possibly hoped. The Rule 5 draft pick is giving a solid effort with the glove and hitting .444/.400/.667 at the plate. The crowd chants his name for sacrifice flies. Beat writers already have given him nicknames. All the hallelujahs of legions of angels rain down upon him when he hits the cut off man. Somehow, this magnificent player was available to the Orioles for simply a roster spot.

The book on Rickard in the minors was that while he had a good eye at the plate and good contact skills to boot, the lack of power would kill him at the major leagues. There are plenty of guys with a similar modus operandi throughout the minors. The common trope is that pitchers will "knock the bat out of their hands" when they get to the major leagues.

The superior stuff and command of a major league pitcher mean a good eye and good contact skills will not get the job done. The minor league stat line for Rickard basically backs up those assumptions. In four minor league seasons across all levels his slugging percentage is .397. Last year it was a career high at .447 very much buoyed by a .321 batting average. Nothing too awe inspiring in the power department.

So, it stands to reason that if this is the book on Rickard then pitchers would be attacking him differently than other hitters. First, pitchers would be attacking him in the zone. This immediately negates his ability to lay off bad pitches and work walks. If the scouting reports are to be believed, he will not be able to do much with the pitches anyways. Second, pitchers would be throwing him fastballs.

This is the "knock the bat out of his hand" theory. Give him a major league fastball and his contact abilities go out the window. Either a lack of bat speed or simple strength will make the young hitter look foolish. These are the standard lines about how to attack a young hitter who lacks power. Well, I wondered to myself, is any of it true?

Below is a table with lots of numbers. The Fastball% number is the percentage of fastball type pitches thrown to the hitters or by the pitchers. That includes four seam fastballs, two seam fastballs, cutters, and sinkers. The Zone% is the number of pitches in the strike zone either seen by the hitters or thrown by the pitchers. It is data collected by Baseball Info Solutions and provided by the lovely folks over at Fangraphs.com for free.

The Zone% Pitch f/x number is the percentage of pitches in the strike zone either seen by the hitters or thrown by the hitters as well. But, this number comes straight from the raw Pitch f/x data rather than the BIS data which is modified by human coders. I provided both numbers because that's just the kind of guy I am.

Player Fastball% Zone% Zone% Pitch f/x
Joey Rickard 68.2% 54.6% 56.1%
Orioles Hitters 58.8% 45.7% 47.5%
League Pitchers 61.3% 49.0% 47.0%
Twins Pitchers 60.5% 44.9% 44.0%
Rays Pitchers 62.0% 44.9% 48.3%

*The numbers from Sunday's game are not included in this table, if I get a chance to update them I will.

I wanted to give a relatively clear picture so I provided how Rickard did in all of these categories, how teams were pitching the Orioles hitters overall overall, the profile of league pitchers overall, and then how the two pitching staffs have pitched to date in 2016. I thought about breaking it all the way down to the pitchers Rickard has faced, but I write for you all out of the kindness of my heart and I ain't that kind.

So, as you can see from the numbers, Rickard is definitely getting pitched differently than most hitters. He is seeing nearly 70 percent fastballs while the Orioles hitters overall (which includes Rickard obviously) only see fastballs around 60 percent of the time. He is also seeing pitches in the zone at about nine percent more often than the Orioles overall and either six percent more or nine percent more than the league depending on which Zone% you prefer.

These numbers seem to correlate pretty well with the conventional wisdom on pitching to a young hitter with a profile similar to Rickard. He is seeing lots of fastballs and lots of pitches in the zone compared to his Orioles counterparts. On top of that, the teams he has faced have altered their typical selves as well and attacked him with fastballs in the zone. So far, it has not worked out so great for the pitchers.

So far, the best sign for Rickard might be that he took this high and inside 93.5 mph fastball and deposited it into the Orioles bullpen. That shows he can punish a fastball. Not to mention good bat control with only one strike out thus far.

The league has been attacking Rickard by trying to, as the old trope advises, "knock the bat out of his hands." Only, it does not seem to be working. Soon, the league will figure out another way to attack Rickard and then the hard part comes. Can he adjust to the adjustments and still be a productive hitter? Only time will tell.