Ricky Bobby just wants to go fast.
MLB pitchers in the past decade, personified by late inning bullpen men like Aroldis Chapman and shown in the Netflix movie Fastball, have obliged and brought heaters with greater velocity and greater frequency than ever before.
Is this working though, or are Major League hitters adjusting?
Read a great article on FiveThirtyEight looking at both the increase of fastball velocity and how many hitters are adjusting to this increase – or not.
Last year the number of fastballs thrown 95 MPH or higher jumped 32.6% from 2016 and a dramatic 124% from 2011!
There has been a lot of speculation about the juiced baseball leading to home runs – could the same change be leading to faster fastballs?
Hitters did produce home runs on 75% more fastballs 95MPH+ last year compared to 2014 (2.8 to 1.6 ABs) and saw their OPS increases as they got more used to the increased speed.
We often talk about the days of rubber arms of Cy Young or even the finesse pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine who wouldn’t make it today because scouts wouldn’t be impressed with their 92 MPH fastballs. Perhaps the pendulum will start swinging back as the 96 MPH fastball becomes less efficient?
Here is a chart showing the hitters catching up:
The author of the article, Michael Salfino, says this: “Think of these hitters like the cheetah evolving enough speed to catch a gazelle..”
The hitters also aren’t just dialing in on the faster pitches, they are adjusting and feasting on the slower pitches as well. It’s almost like the pitchers are giving a speed donut to hitters to get them used to the faster pitch – which makes a 92 MPH fastball look like a softball on a tee!
What this 95 MPH+ measuring stick does is really help to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. For example, look no further than Chris Carter and Corey Dickerson compared to Joey Votto and JD Martinez.
Chris Carter tied for the NL Lead in home runs in 2016 – and is now in AAA. Why? His OPS dropped 609 points worse against the fastest fastballs. In a league where most starting pitchers only go through the order twice and most relievers are the 95MPH+ flamethrowers, this bodes poorly for a guy who also struggles to make contact of any kind.
Corey Dickerson struggled to get a contract this off-season after hitting 27 home runs. He saw his OPS drop by 475 points against the faster fastballs.
On the other side of the spectrum is JD Martinez, the slugger who signed a large deal with the Red Sox (eventually) and is charged with adding power to their AL East Winning lineup. He hit a HR at a whopping 10.9% rate on fastballs above 95 MPH with a 1.314 OPS. Joey Votto, known for his amazing plate discipline also knows what to do when he gets the pitches he does like. He managed a higher On-Base Percentage on faster pitches and a nearly identical slugging percentage of .563. Undeterred indeed.
As the article suggests, baseball is a constant ying and yang of teams adjusting to current trends and looking for the edge. As has been discussed from Moneyball to The Extra 2% to Big Data Baseball, teams look to exploit the inefficiencies to gain the advantage, but eventually that advantage is caught up to by the other teams.
Mike Trout didn’t strike out this spring – and is someone who could lead a charge away from the launch angle phenomenon and back to contact first. Chance Sisco of the Orioles drew ire from the unwritten rule police about bunting against the shift the other day – but maybe teams won’t shift in 7-0 games anymore. Or less. Or not at all again.
The Phillies on Opening Day went by the sabermetric book by pulling their ace two turns through the lineup even though he was pitching well with a large lead and under 75 pitches. They ended up losing that game.
In the end – I think as our own minds better understand what the data analytics mean, and we can marry them with what we see happening on the field as opposed to completely divorcing them and only using them for analysis – the better our teams will do and the better the sport will do. Those who actually read Moneyball know that Billy Beane never suggested two vacuums or that it was one versus the other as far as scouts and analytics. Simply that statistics can teach us things about what we see that might be hidden because of hidden biases built up around a game that has been played for over one hundred years.
Is faster always better? Maybe to some, but not to all. A pitcher with a spin rate and control might be better than that 103 MPH fastball that is flat and harder to control.