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A Fast Fastball Isn’t Enough Anymore

Baseball creates an endless evolutionary cycle where hitters and pitchers battle to find an edge and maintain it. The periods where one side or the other seizes control have often been measured more in decades than years. Earlier this decade, pitchers gained the upper hand and they did so — at least in part — by throwing baseballs really, really fast. The pendulum has now swung back toward the hitters in the past couple seasons, and only time will tell whether that was the result of the ball itself or some other factor. Regardless of how this unfolds, one thing is clear: Those really, really fast pitches are no longer making hitters look silly.

While more pitches than ever have been coming in at 95-plus mph,1 today’s hitters have seemingly adapted, gaining the supernatural ability to hit these pitches. Last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group, hitters faced 110,529 fastballs traveling 95 mph or faster. That’s an increase of 124 percent from 2011, when hitters saw the fewest such fastballs in the period (starting in 2009) for which this data is tracked, and a spike of 32.6 percent from 2016. But the returns are diminishing as blazing-fast heaters become the norm. In 2017, 28,749 plate appearances were decided2 on a 95-plus mph fastball, and batters’ on-base plus slugging percentage against them was .734. That’s 80 points higher than in 2014, when OPS against these pitches hit a low of .654, and the high mark for the period in which the velocity data is tracked. Hitters produced home runs on 2.8 percent of plate appearances decided by 95-plus mph pitches in 2017, also the highest since 2009, and an increase of 75 percent from a low of 1.6 percent in 2014. Weighted on-base average, which more precisely assesses the value of every plate appearance, also spiked against 95-plus gas last season, and players were less likely to make the kind of soft contact that can lead to easy putouts.

Hitters are catching up to the fireballers

How MLB hitters have fared against fastballs of 95-plus mph,* by on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), 2009-2017

league OPS against …
Year No. of 95+ mph fastballs all pitches 95+ mph fastballs Diff.
2017 110,529 0.750 0.734 -0.016
2016 83,325 0.739 0.726 -0.013
2015 81,572 0.721 0.698 -0.023
2014 63,584 0.700 0.654 -0.046
2013 59,627 0.714 0.678 -0.036
2012 52,012 0.724 0.685 -0.039
2011 49,265 0.720 0.665 -0.055
2010 51,967 0.728 0.692 -0.036
2009 51,044 0.751 0.701 -0.050

* Any pitches whose speed rounds to at least 95 mph, so includes pitches of 94.5 mph and above.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

This is a one-sided development. Think of these hitters like the cheetah evolving enough speed to catch a gazelle: This advantage doesn’t mean they can’t also catch slower prey, and MLB hitters are feasting on slower fastballs, too. In 2017, batters across the league were almost as good at hitting fastballs that came in at 95 mph or above — .734 OPS — as they had been in 2014 at hitting midrange fastballs — .754 OPS on fastballs between 92 and 94 mph. And on fastballs under 92, big league hitters sported a .906 OPS last year. In other words, hitters have gotten better at handling all species of fastball.

Of course, some are better at it than others. Over the previous two seasons, the king of smacking fast fastballs, according to wOBA, was J.D. Martinez, now of the Red Sox. In 128 plate appearances decided by fastballs at 95-plus mph, Martinez hit .360 with a wOBA of .542 (far above the league average of .327) and a 1.314 OPS that includes an .830 slugging average, courtesy of a Ruthian 10.9 percent homer rate.3 (For reference, among active players who had at least 100 plate appearances decided by fastballs of 95-plus mph, Brandon Moss was second in the league in home run rate on these pitches over the last two seasons, and he was more than two points behind Martinez at 8.7 percent.) The Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo isn’t far behind Martinez in wOBA (.457) among active players, and he posted a 1.059 OPS in plate appearances decided by high-octane pitches. And while pitchers understandably try to muscle up to retire Joey Votto, one of game’s greatest hitters, the Reds’ future Hall of Famer is undeterred — he managed a higher on-base percentage (.479) and a nearly identical slugging average (.563) in 217 plate appearances against pitches at 95 mph and above as he had against all pitches in those two seasons (.444 OBP, .564 slugging).

Pitchers do find that pure velocity can still put some hitters away, of course. Fans wondered why the Rays gave up on Corey Dickerson this spring, but in 2016 and ’17, the current Pirate had one of the biggest drops in production4 (his OPS fell by 475 points) against high-octane heat compared to fastballs thrown at 94 and below. Trevor Story of the Rockies struggled after a record-setting debut in 2016, and it seems like teams have figured out that the hard stuff can get him out, as his OPS drops by 441 points against 95-plus mph fastballs compared to slower heaters. And there’s Chris Carter, who had 113 plate appearances decided by 95-plus mph fastballs in the previous two seasons, and who posted an OPS that was 609 points worse against the fastest fastballs (1.053 against fastballs up to 94 mph compared to .444 against fastballs at 95-plus mph). That helps explain why the player who hit 41 home runs for the Brewers in 2016 is currently a proud member of Salt Lake Bees.

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Footnotes

  1. This also includes pitches that are between 94.5 and 95 mph, to match the rounded numbers you see on TV broadcasts.

  2. This includes any plate appearance that ended on a pitch at this speed, whether that pitch was a ball four, a strike three, or something hit into play.

  3. Actually, “Ruthian” doesn’t do Martinez’s rate justice. In his career, Babe Ruth “only” homered in about 7 percent of his plate appearances.

  4. Among players with a minimum of 100 plate appearances decided by fastballs of 95-plus mph.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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