Why you should care
Pitchers are changing it up more, keeping major league hitters off-kilter.
In the second inning of a recent home game against the rival New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper wouldn’t have been blamed for looking for a fastball. He was, after all, facing Noah Syndergaard, the hardest-throwing starting pitcher in Major League Baseball. With a heater that reaches triple digits, Syndergaard regularly uses his fastball as a strikeout pitch. But, in an at-bat that eventually ended with a strikeout via a beautifully disguised changeup, Harper saw just one fastball.
Fastball Pitch, art by Peter and Maria Hoey for OZY
In one sense, the fastball rules Major League Baseball. Average velocity (93 miles per hour) is faster than ever before, up 4 mph since the turn of the century. But those fastballs are being thrown less often than ever before. Facing more uncertainty than ever before, hitting — even for premier sluggers like Harper — has never been a tougher task. So, expect a fastball at your own peril. According to FanGraphs:
Only 55 percent of all pitches thrown in the major leagues last year were a form of a fastball — the lowest ever.
The fastball rate was down from 64 percent as recently as 2003. That year, sliders and cutters made up 14.6 percent of all pitches thrown. Last year, that secondary rate was up to 22.6 percent. Put simply, pitching repertoires have never been more diverse, making it impossible to know what’s coming in the batter’s box. No wonder strikeouts are at an all-time high.
Of the 15 hardest-throwing qualified starting pitchers this season, only Syndergaard (60.5 percent), the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow (64.1 percent), the Yankees’ James Paxton (63.6 percent) and Miami’s José Ureña (64.3 percent) throw their fastball at least 60 percent of the time (all stats as of Tuesday). Meanwhile, aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros — MLB’s most progressive pitching staff — rank among the top average velocity, but throw fastballs barely more than half the time.
“It’s no longer just specialists or aging veterans throwing more off-speed pitches,” says MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa. “Every pitcher in the league can deliver two, three, four ‘plus’ pitches in any spot in any count in an at-bat. How [is a hitter] supposed to handle that?”
Change Up Pitch
Take Cleveland Indians ace Trevor Bauer, one of the game’s leading data-driven thinkers, who has focused on adding a plus-pitch (aka a pitch that would receive an “A” grade) each off-season. This winter’s experiment, the changeup, gave Bauer a fifth pitch in his arsenal.
Bauer throws one of the hardest fastballs in the league (94.7 mph average) just 47 percent of the time — in the bottom third of the league. While in the past he leaned heavily on his curveball, this year his four secondary pitches are fairly evenly distributed, making it that much harder to know what’s coming. “Just knowing [Bauer’s curveball] exists is enough to give a hitter pause,” says former MLB catcher turned ESPN analyst David Ross. “And then it’s even more devastating when you finally see it.”
Curve Ball Pitch
Moving away from fastballs helps pitchers evolve before they’re tossed from the league. Such was the case for new Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino, who prior to last season revived his career by mastering control of his slider … and throwing it more than ever before. After logging a 5.06 earned run average with 39 walks in 53⅓ innings in 2017, Ottavino knew that hitters “could just sit on my fastball,” he says. “That had to change if I was going to have success.” Change it he did. With a 2.43 ERA, 112 strikeouts and just 36 walks in 77⅔ innings last season, Ottavino was one of the best relievers in baseball. He dropped his fastball usage from 50.2 percent to 42.8 while amping up his devastating slider. This year, he’s throwing more cutters and having even more success.
This diversity is upending traditional situational pitching too. There once was a day when a batter would lick his lips when he found himself in a “hitter’s count” of, say, two-balls-no-strikes, or three-and-one. But with more pitchers boasting better control, there’s no such thing as a fastball count anymore. The proportion of fastballs has been steadily declining even when hitters are ahead in the count.
“There’s too much information available now to just groove a fastball [for a hitter],” says Ottavino. “We know what the percentages say and where to place which pitches against different guys.”
So, what can we expect the rest of this season? Don’t ask a hitter.
Read more: Lower the pitcher’s mound? Not so fast.