A flame-throwing relief pitcher enters a game - mid-inning, runners on base, tie score - sending the telecast to another commercial break, dialing back the tension in the stadium and pushing the game into its fourth hour. As he faces his first batter, two more relievers are warming up in the bullpen.
He takes huge breaths and lengthy pauses between pitches, as he gears up for each neck-straining, 100-mph heater or sharp-breaking slider. The hitter, fully aware he has little chance of making contact, likewise gears up to swing for the fences, just in case he does. The defense, anticipating the full-throttle hack, shifts acutely to the hitter's pull side.
Within this scenario are the ingredients many believe are strangling the game of baseball: long games with little action, the growing reliance on relief pitchers at the expense of starters, the all-or-nothing distillation of the essential pitcher/hitter matchup. Those are some of the problems Major League Baseball is contemplating, with newly installed and proposed rule changes. But they are merely the symptoms.
What is strangling the sport - the actual disease - is velocity, pitchers' unprecedented capacity to throw fast. The question facing the stewards of the game is what, if anything, to do about it.
This much is undeniable: As baseball celebrates its 150th season this year, the version of the sport being played in 2019 is unlike any other in its history.
"It's a new age of baseball," Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander said, "and fundamentally, it's velocity that's driving it."
Baseball’s timeless appeal is predicated upon an equilibrium between pitching and hitting, and in the past, when that equilibrium has been thrown off, the game has always managed, either organically or through small tweaks, to return to an acceptable balance.
But there is growing evidence that essential equilibrium has been distorted by the increasing number of pitchers able to throw the ball harder and faster. Rising pitch velocity has altered the sport, many believe, and not necessarily in a good way.
"It's changed some dynamics," Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. "The pitching side jumped ahead of the hitting side from my perspective, and now we're playing catch-up on the offensive side."
The 2018 season was the first in history in which strikeouts outpaced hits, a trend that has accelerated so far in 2019. The ball is in play less than ever, with a record 35.4 percent of plate appearances in 2019 resulting in a strikeout, walk or home run. Teams are using an average of 3.3 relievers per game in 2019, just below last year’s all-time record of 3.4. The league-wide batting average of .245 in 2019 is the lowest since 1972, and a drop of 26 points from 1999, at the height of the steroids era. The league-wide strikeout rate of 8.78 per nine innings, also a record, is higher than the career rate of Roger Clemens.
“I wouldn’t say it’s killed the game,” said veteran Baltimore Orioles pitcher Alex Cobb, speaking of the rise in pitch velocity and its many effects. “More like ‘injured’ it.”
Most, if not all, of this change can be traced back to the rising velocity of the fastball - the fundamental unit of pitching - from a leaguewide average of 89 mph in 2002, when FanGraphs first recorded data, to 92.9 mph so far this season. At the upper end of the spectrum, the shift is even more striking: In 2008, there were 196 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher, according to Statcast data. In 2018, there were 1,320, a nearly sevenfold increase. In 2008, only 11 pitchers averaged 95 mph or higher; in 2018, 74 did. Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees and Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals have both been clocked at 105 mph.
"You look around the game, and every guy coming out of the bullpen seems to be throwing 98 to 100 [mph]," said veteran reliever Peter Moylan, who retired this year after a 13-season career and is now an analyst on Atlanta Braves telecasts. "It's insane. There's more emphasis on the 'pen than on starters. It's a different game than when I started."
Even as MLB has sought to mitigate some of the effects of the current atmosphere - with rule changes designed to increase action - it is becoming apparent these changes amount to treating the symptoms and not the root cause. And that's understandable: It's one thing to identify velocity as the root cause of baseball's inaction problem, but another thing to police it. You can't legislate that pitchers can no longer throw above 95 mph.
Baseball has always had pitchers who throw hard. But what has changed is the recognition that velocity as an attribute is perhaps the single biggest difference-maker in the sport. It has resulted in the focused cultivation of it - both by individual pitchers, through high-tech, offseason training programs, and front offices, through player acquisition.
In 2018, the five highest-ranking pitching staffs in strikeout rate were the Astros, Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers - four division champions and a 100-win wild card. Those teams' combined rate of 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings was higher than the career rates of Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax.
"You're right that [front offices] are obsessed with velocity, and the reason is that it works," Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said. "It is definitely the hardest thing to hit. It changes approaches, for sure. You can't hit velocity without getting geared up to attack it."
That is borne out in the data. Here, via Statcast, are the slash-lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of MLB hitters in 2018 against four different pitch-speeds:
- Vs. 92 mph: .283/.364/.475
- Vs. 95 mph: .259/.342/.421
- Vs. 98 mph: .223/.310/.329
- Vs. 101 mph: .198/.257/.214
"Absolutely, it's been a massive change," San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said. "It's crazy. And it definitely goes back to velocity. Pitchers are throwing harder. I don't blame them. You get major league contracts by throwing hard."
One seeming contradiction is that fastball usage, as a percentage of overall pitches, has been steadily decreasing, from 64.4 percent of all pitches in 2002 to just 52.8 percent so far this year. But that doesn't mean pure velocity is any less effective - it merely indicates teams have learned to dole out fastballs in more effective patterns. The simple threat of a 99-mph fastball makes the 92-mph slider or the 90-mph change-up that much more effective.
"The challenging part isn't necessarily the fastball; it's more the secondary stuff," Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto said. "Strikeouts come from fastballs, there's no doubt about it. But from my experience, the gap [in velocity] between the two can be more of a challenge than the fastball itself."
While there are some who might love the extreme power-vs.-power dynamic in modern baseball there is awareness across the game that the overall lack of action and the style of play on the field is turning off fans and damaging the bottom line. League-wide attendance in 2018 declined for the sixth straight season, to 28,659 per game, down 13 percent from its 2007 peak, alarming MLB officials.
"We need to adjust," said one big league general manager, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. "People who love the game, it's still great. We still love it. I don't need it to change. But we're not getting the young fans. The stats are alarming."
"There are multiple ways to look at it," said Chris Young, who pitched in the majors from 2004 to 2017 and is now MLB's vice president for on-field operations, initiatives and strategy. "Certainly, the game has changed compared to historical norms, with more strikeouts than ever. But that said, we're also seeing extreme talent in terms of pitching.
"What's important is finding a balance. You want velocity in today's game, but we don't want everyone to have extreme velocity. There's an art to pitching, and we don't want to get away from that, but there's also something great about power and velocity. We want a wide range. We want Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer as much as we want Aroldis Chapman."
More velocity, more problems
The fascination with pitch velocity is not a recent development, of course. Even before it could be properly measured, the hardest throwers in the game - Amos “The Hoosier Thunderbolt” Rusie, Walter “Big Train” Johnson, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller - were celebrated for their sizzling fastballs.
"Even a casual fan knew [those] pitchers could really bring it, even though nobody was quite sure how fast [they] did throw," said Tim Wendel, author of "High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All-Time." "What's changed in recent years is our fascination with velocity has become an addiction."
But if the rise in velocity was not sudden, neither was it accidental. As a skill, it has been isolated and cultivated, with increasing sophistication - through specialized, weighted-ball throwing programs - at the expense of other attributes.
But what has this reliance on velocity wrought? It has altered the game in numerous ways, most of them not in a way that would be considered beneficial. Pick a problem, or a perceived problem, in baseball, and it can probably be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the rise of pitch velocity as the sport's ultimate weapon.
- Arm injuries? That's an obvious one. In a 2018 study headed by former Red Sox trainer Mike Reinold, pitchers who went through a six-week velocity training program featuring weighted balls increased their velocity by an average of more than two mph, but were "substantially" more likely to suffer arm injuries than those in the control group. The finding confirmed that of previous studies linking increasing velocity to increasing rates of injury.
"Within a subject, the faster he threw, the more torque [was placed] on the elbow. It was a very strong finding," said Glenn Fleisig, research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute and a co-author of the 2018 study. "If a pitcher gains three miles per hour from an offseason program, he's going to be more at risk for injury."
- Time of game? The average nine-inning game has taken 3 hours 2 minutes so far in 2019, just a few ticks below the 2017 record of 3:05, and about 15 minutes longer than it was 30 years earlier. Part of that is undoubtedly due to more dead time, but there are also about 25 more pitches per game in 2019 than there were in 1989, partly the result of higher velocity leading to longer, drawn-out at-bats that result in more strikeouts and more walks.
- Pace of play? A 2017 study by FiveThirtyEight.com found that MLB pitchers were holding the ball for two full seconds longer than they did a decade earlier, and that for every extra second they waited - in effect, gearing up for each full-throttle pitch - they gained 0.02 mph. Some teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays, appeared to have recognized the link and made it part of their coaching. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s proposed 20-second pitch clock, tested during spring training, is largely an effort to reverse this trend.
- The frequency of pitching changes and the rising importance of relievers? Teams used an average of 4.36 pitchers per game in 2018, the highest in history and one pitcher more than was used as recently as 1994. One big reason: Teams have concluded that a procession of relievers throwing 96-100 mph for an inning at a time is more effective than a starting pitcher in his fifth or sixth inning of work, throwing 91-94 mph because he needs to conserve energy over a longer haul.
MLB has sought to lessen this effect with a rule, set to begin in 2020, requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, and another to limit teams to 13 pitchers.
Even the labor rift over the state of free agency for veteran players can be traced, at least in part, to the rise of velocity. In 2008, players 25 and younger and players 32 and older received roughly the same percentage of overall plate appearances (50,177 and 52,667, respectively). But by 2018, the younger set (51,175) accounted for roughly 50 percent more plate appearances than the older set (34,436) - and a major reason is that front offices believe older hitters, whose reaction time and bat speed slow down over time, have trouble catching up to all the heat coming from the mound.
"The pure velocity made some people reevaluate some things," Pittsburgh's Hurdle said. "You never heard about launch angle until velocity went into this new territory."
Indeed, the launch angle revolution - in which hitters seek to lift the ball at all costs - was partly a reaction to the rising prevalence of defensive shifts, but also partly as a concession to velocity. If hitters were going to make less contact than ever against faster fastballs and an assortment of nastier secondary pitches, they needed to make that contact count. That has created an entire generation of all-or-nothing hitters willing to trade strikeouts for a home run.
"The only way you're doing damage against some of these [pitchers] is to keep aiming for the fences, keep going for the home run," Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. "The pitching is so good, you just don't see six consecutive singles anymore. Guys throw too hard and have too much nasty off-speed stuff, so that model - let's string six hits together and only score three runs - might not be the most efficient, best way to play this game."
Evolution in the game
So if baseball has a velocity problem that can’t be slowed down, what else can be done to address its effects?
The mound was placed at its current distance of 60 feet 6 inches from home plate in 1893, and for most of the next century, it gave the sport an acceptable equilibrium between batter and pitcher. But those dimensions were fashioned for a far different set of athletes. In 1893, baseball's top 10 pitchers in strikeouts averaged 5-foot-11, 178 pounds. The biggest among them was Cy Young, listed at 6-2, 200. The smallest, Willie McGill, was 5-6, 170.
In 2018, the average size of the top 10 pitchers in MLB in strikeouts was 6-3 ½, 204 pounds. Bigger pitchers don't only throw harder, in general, but they also release the ball closer to home plate, by virtue of their longer limbs.
"Rising velocity is just an evolution in the game," Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. "Players are getting bigger, stronger and faster, just like in football or basketball. Look at those guys in the NFL. You've got running backs bench-pressing 225 pounds 30 times and running a 4.3[-second] 40[-yard dash]. The athleticism is off the charts."
Even basketball and football, however, have made significant rule changes in instances where the athletes’ size, speed and skill overwhelmed the field of play. When the NBA became too center-dominated, the league added a three-point line. When NFL kickers became too accurate on field goals, the league narrowed the uprights.
One big difference: In football and basketball, you can counter other teams' extreme size and speed with extremely large and fast athletes of your own. In baseball, where the pitcher initiates the action, the 60 feet 6 inches between the mound and home plate is a built-in firewall, limiting a hitter's options and reducing reaction time the faster the pitcher is throwing. For a hitter, the difference between 92 mph and 100 mph is about 4½ feet or 36 more milliseconds.
To this point, most of baseball's remedies for fixing its pace of play problem have been the equivalent of treating the symptoms: limiting mound visits, testing a pitch-clock, mandating (beginning in 2020) a three-batter minimum for new pitchers.
But with a proposed rule to be tested in the independent Atlantic League - with which MLB signed a working agreement this spring - the sport has shown for the first time a willingness to address the underlying illness. Beginning in the second half of the 2020 Atlantic League season, the mound will be moved back by two feet, to 62 feet 6 inches.
The thinking is that the added distance will give hitters more time to react to faster fastballs. MLB officials acknowledge, however, they don't know exactly what will happen.
"It's about finding the middle ground and keeping the game in balance," MLB's Young said. "It helps to have some studies in place in case we see these trends continue. What if we continue to see velocity increase at a rate like we've never seen before? Then, yes, we should have some scientific data to rely on."
In 1893, when the mound was moved back 10 feet to its current distance, the change resulted in a 35-point jump in batting average and a 34-percent drop in strikeouts. By comparison, lowering the mound by 10 inches in 1969 resulted in more modest changes: an 11-point rise in batting average and a 2-percent drop in strikeouts.
Some observers believe the hitter's extra two feet of reaction time against fastballs would be offset by the additional distance for breaking balls to curve, drop or dart at the end of their trajectories - actually making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving baseball the opposite result of what it is looking for.
And then there is the matter of getting buy-in from the Major League Baseball Players Association, whose members seem to be almost uniformly against any such change.
Others believe baseball's cyclical nature and the evolving marketplace will solve the game's problems organically. Perhaps the skilled contact hitter, now a near-extinct species, will make a comeback if teams believe there is value in someone who can shoot singles to the opposite field against 100-mph heat.
"I think there will be a trend to go back," Miami Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said. "You have to teach hitting better. Because to me, going for the home run and creating launch angle is great, but a lot of long swings are just asking for strikeouts. So instead of saying, 'Okay, we have to hit home runs because we're going to strike out' - no, you can limit strikeouts if you have better swings. Better swings are shorter swings. Shorter swings make more contact. There's a balance somewhere."
But at least so far in 2019, there are no signs of the game swinging back in that direction. Average pitch speeds have ticked upward again - and should continue to rise as the warmer months approach - and strikeouts are again up significantly. MLB's apparent willingness to push the game back toward an equilibrium, through rule changes, indicates the league doesn't trust it can happen organically.
And there is yet another question to ponder: What if baseball still hasn't come close to reaching peak velocity?
"I do think there is a natural limitation at some point, where the human physiology - the tissue, bone and muscles - is going to break down," said sports medicine physician Jason Zaremski, co-medical director of the University of Florida's Adolescent and High School Sports Medicine Program. "But is 105 [mph] the max? Is it 110? I could only guess."
And even if the upper limit gets no higher, the clustering of hard-throwers in the 95-100 range will only continue, as both pitchers and talent evaluators recognize the value of extra velocity, making softer throwers become even more obsolete. If the game's average velocity keeps increasing at its present rate, it will be approaching 97 mph by 2035.
“Whether it’s going to require some kind of adjustment or fix, I don’t know,” Baltimore Orioles General Manager Mike Elias said. “If the sport is intent on shifting the equilibrium back to the side of the hitter, there’s precedent for that. It happened in the ’60s when they lowered the mound. I don’t know that that will happen, or that it needs to. But I do think velocity is here to stay, and it’s real.”