Pitchers Are Throwing Harder Than Ever This Postseason

Image credit: Zack Wheeler (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

As fans watch the postseason, and they see 98 mph fastballs followed by 100 mph fastballs, there’s an understandable doubt that creeps into the back of the brain.

Are these fastballs really that much harder than how pitchers threw 10, 20 or 30 years ago? Or is it that the way fastballs are being measured has changed, which makes these fastballs register faster?

The way they are measured has changed, but yes, pitchers are throwing harder. Way harder. What identified as an average fastball 10 years ago now makes a pitcher a true soft-tosser. And what used to be thought of as a well above-average fastball now is just barely above-average.

It is true that the technology that measures fastballs has changed over the years. But no, that is not an explanation for why you are seeing harder fastballs in the postseason. MLB’s Statcast system measures the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, so it measures the speed of the pitch before drag has gotten a chance to do its work.

Radar guns of the old days used to measure the pitch much closer to the plate, so a pitch that measured at 90 mph on a 1980s radar gun would register significantly higher on a Statcast measurement. A pitch measured at the plate could register as 7-8 mph harder if measured out of the hand. We wrote a full piece about this two years ago if you want a more in-depth explanation.

MLB began tracking pitches with Pitch FX (a doppler-radar based system) in 2008. It switched to Statcast (camera based) tracking in 2015. But when it did, it also went back and recalculated all of its Pitch FX data to match Statcast by measuring velocity for all of those pitches out of the pitcher’s hand.

Any postseason pitch thrown in 2008, 2009 and 2010 can be compared to a pitch thrown in 2022, using the exact same form of measurement. A 92.0 mph fastball in 2008 and a 92.0 mph fastball in 2022 should be identical in velocity.

And with that apples to apples comparison using Statcast data, the average postseason fastball velocity in 2008 (the first year of Pitch FX) was 92.1 mph. The average postseason fastball velocity in 2022 is 95.3 mph. That gain of more than 3 mph has been steadily happening over the past 14 years.

At the top end, we’ve also seen a massive change. In 2008, just 3.2% of fastballs were thrown at 97 mph or harder. This year, it’s 12.7%. There were two 100 mph pitches in the 2008 postseason. This year, there have been 152. On the other end of the spectrum, 19% (903 pitches) of postseason fastballs in 2008 were thrown at less than 90 mph. This year, it’s only 0.5% (49 pitches). There are 14 different pitchers who have topped 100 mph this postseason. That’s as many as did it in 2008-2011 combined. No pitcher threw 101-plus mph in 2008. This year, eight different pitchers have. 

There were 19 pitchers in the 2008 postseason whose fastballs sat at less than 90 mph. There were three (Jamie Moyer, Chad Bradford and Tim Wakefield) who sat below 82 mph. There was a time when there were pitchers who could survive on guile, control and excellent secondary pitches without even fringe-average velocity.

Nowadays, the path for that pitcher seems to be a lot tougher and they are going extinct. This year there is only one postseason pitcher (Adam Cimber) whose fastball is sitting below 90 mph. There are more pitchers sitting at 100-plus mph with their fastball this postseason (Andres Munoz and Ryan Helsley) than there are pitchers sitting below 90.

So while radar guns may have changed over the years, we can confidently say that pitchers are throwing much harder than they did just a generation ago. We have 15 seasons of data using the same type of measurement. And over that time, pitchers have added a whole lot of heat to their fastballs.

It’s not just fastballs. The toughest aspect of the game for hitters in 2022 may be the development of the power slider. The average slider velocity has jumped from 83.5 mph in 2008 to 86.1 mph in 2022. In 2008, postseason hitters faced 15 sliders that were 90 mph or harder. This year, they’ve seen 381. There were no 93-plus mph sliders in 2008 and only 17 from 2009-2021 combined. This year, there have been 55. Hitters are batting .143/.250/.143 against those 93-plus mph sliders.

Zack Wheeler himself has thrown more 93-plus mph sliders this postseason (18) than the entirety of baseball threw from 2009-2021.

And if that wasn’t enough, at the same time, pitchers are actually throwing their fastballs a lot less often. In 2008, postseason pitchers threw their fastball 57.2% of the time. It actually peaked at 60.5% in the 2014 postseason. In 2021, it dipped below 50% for the first time. This year, pitchers are throwing fastballs 49.2% of the time. The difference? Slider usage has climbed from 12.2% in 2008 to 20.7% in 2022.

Pitchers are throwing harder than they ever have while relying more heavily on spin than they ever have. It’s fair to say that there has never been a tougher time to be a hitter. 

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