Velocity is strangling baseball

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Velocity is strangling baseball:

Baseball’s timeless appeal is predicated upon an equilibrium between pitching and hitting, and in the past, when that equilibrium has been thrown off, the game has always managed, either organically or through small tweaks, to return to an acceptable balance.

But there is growing evidence that essential equilibrium has been distorted by the increasing number of pitchers able to throw the ball harder and faster.


The 2018 season was the first in history in which strikeouts outpaced hits, a trend that has accelerated so far in 2019. The ball is in play less than ever, with a record 35.4 percent of plate appearances in 2019 resulting in a strikeout, walk or home run. Teams are using an average of 3.3 relievers per game in 2019, just below last year’s all-time record of 3.4. The leaguewide batting average of .245 in 2019 is the lowest since 1972 and a drop of 26 points from 1999, at the height of the steroids era. The leaguewide strikeout rate of 8.78 per nine innings, also a record, is higher than the career rate of Roger Clemens.


Most, if not all, of this change can be traced back to the rising velocity of the fastball — the fundamental unit of pitching — from a leaguewide average of 89 mph in 2002, when FanGraphs first recorded data, to 92.9 mph so far this season. At the upper end of the spectrum, the shift is even more striking: In 2008, there were 196 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher, according to Statcast data. In 2018, there were 1,320, a nearly sevenfold increase. In 2008, only 11 pitchers averaged 95 mph or higher; in 2018, 74 did. Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees and Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals have both been clocked at 105 mph.


Here, via Statcast, are the slash-lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of MLB hitters in 2018 against four different pitch-speeds:

• Vs. 92 mph: .283/.364/.475
• Vs. 95 mph: .259/.342/.421
• Vs. 98 mph: .223/.310/.329
• Vs. 101 mph: .198/.257/.214


One seeming contradiction is that fastball usage, as a percentage of overall pitches, has been steadily decreasing, from 64.4 percent of all pitches in 2002 to just 52.8 percent so far this year. But that doesn’t mean pure velocity is any less effective — it merely indicates teams have learned to dole out fastballs in more effective patterns. The simple threat of a 99-mph fastball makes the 92-mph slider or the 90-mph change-up that much more effective.


In a 2018 study headed by former Red Sox trainer Mike Reinold, pitchers who went through a six-week velocity training program featuring weighted balls increased their velocity by an average of more than two mph but were “substantially” more likely to suffer arm injuries than those in the control group.


In 1893, when the mound was moved back 10 feet to its current distance, the change resulted in a 35-point jump in batting average and a 34 percent drop in strikeouts. By comparison, lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches in 1969 resulted in more modest changes: an 11-point rise in batting average and a 2 percent drop in strikeouts.


  1. Ezra says:

    Athletes across the board are bigger and stronger than their counterparts from just a few years ago.

    Weight training is ubiquitous now. With nutritional supplements all the rage. I am not even talking “juicing”.

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