Image credit: Jhoan Duran has a fastball that sits at 101.8 mph this year. (Photo by David Berding/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Despite introducing shift restrictions this season, Major League Baseball can do little to get more hits into the game.
This year, MLB batters were hitting .249, the fourth consecutive year below .250. Hitters struck out in 22.7% of all plate appearances.
For some, this is evidence that this generation of hitters has sacrificed the purity of hitting for the allure of swinging for the fences.
I can’t go there. As much as I enjoyed the baseball of the 1980s and ’90s, when there were a whole lot more balls in play, I can’t get frustrated at modern hitters. As I look at modern pitchers, I’m shocked they can hit as well as they do.
MLB today is filled with sorcerers. It’s a continuous stream of pitchers who rear back and throw in the high 90s and top 100 mph. It’s pitchers throwing 90 mph sliders. And probably as importantly, it’s a game where hitters very rarely get to feast on a bad pitcher multiple times.
I grew up in an age where Charlie Leibrandt, John Tudor and other crafty lefthanders could build successful careers by hitting spots and staying away from the heart of the plate. I don’t know if that’s actually a viable option anymore.
When pitchers dot the edges of the strike zone with an 88-92 mph fastball in 2023, hitters hit .267/.346/.464. Those same hitters hit .261/.261/.348 against four-seam fastballs of 98 mph or faster in the heart of the strike zone.
Yes, those are similar batting averages, but hitters are doing much more damage against a fastball with modest velocity on the black versus a harder fastball thrown straight down the middle.
We’ve seen a generation of hitters who have adapted as best they can to ever-increasing velocity. But at the end of the day, the faster a pitch is thrown, the less time a hitter has to react. That’s always to the pitcher’s advantage.
This year Twins closer Jhoan Duran’s fastball averaged 101.8 mph. That’s something that has no comparison from just a generation ago. In 2008, the first year that MLB began tracking the velocity of every pitch, the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball was Joel Zumaya. His fastball averaged 98.3 mph.
Of the hundreds of fastballs Duran has thrown, only one was slower than Zumaya’s average fastball.
We hear about how hard Nolan Ryan threw, or how the radar guns have improved. Both of those things are true. But we now have data for 16 MLB seasons measured on the same scale. We’re comparing Zumaya and 2008 pitchers to Duran and 2023 pitchers by the same measurements.
The 16 seasons from 2008 to 2023 demonstrates that MLB has seen a never-ending upward climb in fastball velocity, a climb that has never had a season where the velocity dipped compared to the year before. Slider velocity has dipped just three times.
|Measured in mph. Source: Baseball Savant|
And it’s not a case of a few crazy outliers raising the bar. Pretty much every pitcher throws harder, and pitchers who didn’t figure out how to throw harder likely lost their jobs.
Among pitchers who threw 100 or more MLB pitches in 2008, those who sat 92 mph threw harder than 58% of fellow MLB pitchers.
In 2023, pitchers who sat 92 mph threw harder than 17.8% of MLB pitchers.
It’s at this bottom end of the scale that you really notice the differences. The crafty soft-tosser has been erased from the game. In 2008, Livan Hernandez sat 84.3 mph with his fastball. The hardest fastball he threw all season was 88.
Hernandez wasn’t fooling anyone that year. When he threw his four-seam fastball, opponents hit .400/.423/.594. He struck out 3.4 batters per nine innings. Nowadays, those previous two sentences would describe a pitcher who was designated for assignment a couple of starts into the season.
Hernandez made 31 starts that year. He posted a 6.05 ERA while throwing 180 innings. Hitters facing Hernandez a third time through the order hit .379/.406/.616 against him.
Knowing that, it would take a court order for Hernandez to face a batter for a third time in a start this season. In 2008, he faced at least one batter a third time in 30 of his 31 starts, while averaging 26 batters faced per game.
If you wonder why batting averages are lower these days, realize that this is one of the reasons. As much as it may be annoying to watch a bullpen game, it’s a much tougher test for a lineup to face an ever-changing group of high-90s bullpen arms than it is to face a No. 5 starter three times in the same game. It may make for a less-compelling product, but it’s just a reality.
I know that for a subset of baseball fans, this is all very discouraging news. I’ve interacted with some of you who feel like baseball has lost its way because we will never be treated to a modern day version of Leibrandt facing Tudor in a game where corners are dotted and 90 mph is treated as a de facto speed limit.
The game has changed. There’s no sign that the rise in velocity is slowing down.
I’m just amazed that hitters are adapting as well as they have.