Image credit: Andrew Vaughn (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)
Power is a driving force behind personnel decisions in Major League Baseball today.
Put simply, pitchers throw harder than ever before, and batters hit the ball harder than ever before.
These twin realities have reshaped the way players are scouted, data is applied and even how the game is played. With baseball being a top-down sport, changes to the style of play in MLB trickle down to lower levels, in this case the minor leagues, amateur baseball and beyond.
MLB executives and scouts point to three factors that have steered the game to where it is today: advances in analytics, short benches and high velocity. We will explore all three in detail.
Analytics Come Of Age
We live in a post-Moneyball world. Few players active today remember the time depicted in Michael Lewis’ bestseller, a time before analytics were embraced by all big league front offices.
Twenty years ago, a fashionable way to frame the rise of sabermetrics in baseball was as an ideological war that pitted scouts versus stats. But that was never wholly accurate. The most successful front offices relied on both traditional scouting methods and new data streams to project player value and, ultimately, to win games.
The notion of there ever being a front office divide seems quaint today, now that MLB Statcast has mainstreamed advanced data for the masses following its launch in 2015.
The ways in which analytics impact the game today are both obvious and subtle. What began decades ago as an appreciation for on-base percentage and other undervalued attributes has evolved into:
(1) Sophisticated defensive positioning that allows less rangy players, including star shortstops Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, to stay up the middle;
(2) Historically high stolen base success rates in a time of historically low stolen base attempts; and
(3) Precise pitch-tracking information that has enabled pitchers to fine-tune their repertoires and sequences to record historic strikeout rates.
Among the more subtle influences of the rise in analytics is the confidence it conveys to clubs to make decisions that might have been dismissed as unconventional even a decade ago. We see this increasingly in the draft, where players who do not “profile” or conform to traditional positional prototypes are being drafted higher than ever. Three examples stand out.
- The White Sox drafted Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal fourth overall in 2018. Madrigal’s listed height is 5-foot-8, tying him with fellow college middle infielders Joey Cora and Mike Fontenot as the shortest players ever drafted in the first round. Madrigal was seen as a top talent in his draft class, but Fontenot went 19th overall in 2001 and Cora 23rd overall in 1985.
- The White Sox drafted California first baseman Andrew Vaughn third overall in 2019. Vaughn is listed as 6 feet tall—once considered inadequate for first base—making him the shortest first baseman ever drafted with a top-six pick. Six-foot prep first basemen Jessie Reid (1980) and Prince Fielder (2002) were drafted seventh overall. Vaughn is the shortest college first baseman ever to be drafted inside the top 14 picks.
- The Marlins drafted Minnesota righthander Max Meyer third overall in 2020. Meyer is listed as 6 feet tall—once viewed as insufficient for a righthanded starter—making him the shortest righthander ever to be drafted that high. Fellow six-foot righties Alex Fernandez (1990), Jeff Austin (1998) and Brad Lincoln (2006) all went fourth overall in their drafts.
The examples above indicate that when it comes to amateur scouting, the focus has shifted away from what a player can’t do—or even what he looks like—to what he can do. The precision of data has helped change the way players are valued.
Versatility Is About More Than Defense
The number of relievers rostered and deployed in the big leagues keeps growing, even with an effort to curb their usage via the three-batter rule.
Overstuffed big league bullpens have led to understaffed benches. As a result, defensive versatility has become a prized attribute because it helps teams carry eight or more hard-throwing relievers.
Major league teams no longer think in terms of backing up each position individually or rostering pinch-hitters on the bench. They think in terms of players who offer multi-positional versatility, preferably ones who can hit the historic velocity in today’s game.
The Dodgers’ Chris Taylor is perhaps the best example of a super-utility player today. He regularly plays shortstop, second base, center field and left field. He dabbles at third base and right field.
Taylor’s versatility allows him to cover six defensive positions for the Dodgers, but his value can be expressed just as readily in terms of lineup position.
By being able to move Taylor around to various positions, the Dodgers can work other hitters into their lineup who balance or lengthen the lineup against that day’s opposing pitcher.
Oh, and Taylor is a fine hitter himself who often bats fifth or sixth for one of the National League’s highest scoring teams.
In this sense, defensive versatility is offensive versatility.
Fighting Fire With Fire
The average major league fastball gets faster each season. Through nearly a quarter of the 2021 season, the average fastball velocity was 93.8 mph, according to pitch info data at FanGraphs.com.
That average velocity was 93.5 mph last season. Velocity tends to be lowest in April and increase in heat with the summer weather.
The value proposition for pitchers and velocity is about more than blowing fastballs past opposing batters. Increased fastball velocity helps pitchers’ breaking and offspeed stuff play up because hitters have to be geared to attack the fastball.
Pitchers’ increasing ability to cultivate velocity has increased the impetus for teams to find hitters who can hit heightened velocity. Typically this means selecting hitters for strength, speed and athleticism, and worrying about defensive position—or positions—as he nears the big leagues.
Athleticism and adjustability are essential for hitters who need to manipulate their hands to get the barrel to the ball in different parts of the zone, particularly fastballs up and breaking pitches down.
This makes sense in light of the extreme velocity and wicked vertical movement on fastballs and breaking pitches today. A light-hitting shortstop who gets the bat knocked out of his hand hurts his team more acutely today, because pitchers apply 100% effort to attacking each hitter and also because situational hitting, such as bunting and moving runners over, has fallen out of favor.
As White Sox farm director Chris Getz notes: “There’s so much emphasis on getting the bat right.”
And with good reason in today’s game.