speed is choking baseball — and its grip keeps alteration

A flame-throwing relief pitcher enters a game — mid-frame, runners on base, tie score — caexploitation the telecast to some other commercial break, dialing back the tension in the bowl 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 drawn-out pauses between pitches, as he gears up for each neck-straining, 100-mph heater or sharp-breakage 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 galore believe are choking 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 recently installed and projected rule changes. But they are simply the symptoms.

What is choking the sport — the actual illness — is speed, pitchers’ new capacity to throw fast. The question facing the stewards of the game is what, if thing, to do about it.

This much is undeniable: As baseball celebtax 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 aforementioned, “and fundamentally, it’s speed that’s driving it.”

Baseball’s dateless appeal is predicated upon an equilibrium between pitching and hit, and in the past, when that equilibrium has been thrown off, the game has alshipway 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 quicker . Rising pitch speed has altered the sport, galore believe, and not necessarily in a good way.

“It’s changed some dynamics,” Pittsburgh Pitax Manager Clint Hurdle aforementioned. “The pitching side jumped ahead of the hit 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 outs outpaced hits, a trend that has accelerated so far in 2019. The ball is in play less than ever, with a record 35.4 percentage of plate appearances in 2019 ensuant in a out, walk or home run. Teams are exploitation an average of 3.3 relievers per game in 2019, just below last year’s uncomparable record of 3.4. The leaguewide batting average of .245 in 2019 is the last since 1972, and a drop of 26 points from 1999, at the height of the steroids era. The leaguewide out rate of 8.78 per nine turn, besides a record, is higher than the career rate of Roger Clemens.

“I wouldn’t say it’s killed the game,” aforementioned veteran Baltimore Orioles pitcher Alex Cobb, speaking of the rise in pitch speed and its galore personal personal effects. “More like ‘injured’ it.”

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Most, if not all, of this change can be traced back to the rising speed of the heater — the fundamental unit of pitching — from a leaguewide average of 89 mph in 2002, when FanGraphs first recorded information, 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 information. 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 some 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),” aforementioned 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 personal personal 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 speed as the root cause of baseball’s inactivity problem, but some other thing to police it. You can’t pass that pitchers can no longer throw above 95 mph.

Baseball has alshipway had pitchers who throw hard. But what has changed is the recognition that speed as an attribute is possibly the single biggest difference-maker in the sport. It has resulted in the focused cultivation of it — some by individual pitchers, through high-tech, offseason training programs, and front offices, through player acquisition.

In 2018, the five highest-ranking pitching staffs in out 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 outs per nine turn was higher than the career tax of Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax.

“You’re right that (front offices) are obsessed with speed, and the reason is that it works,” Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins aforementioned. “It is unquestionably the hardest thing to hit. It changes approaches, for sure. You can’t hit speed without getting double-geared up to attack it.”

That is borne out in the information. Here, via Statcast, are the slash-lines (batting average/on-base percentageage/slugging percentageage) of MLB hitters in 2018 once once 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 aforementioned. “It’s crazy. And it unquestionably goes back to speed. Pitchers are throwing harder. I don’t blame them. You get major league contracts by throwing hard.”

One apparent contradiction is that heater usage, as a percentageage of overall pitches, has been steady decreasing, from 64.4 percentage of all pitches in 2002 to just 52.8 percentage so far this year. But that doesn’t mean pure speed is any less effective — it simply indicates teams have learned to dole out heaters in more effective patterns. The simple threat of a 99-mph heater makes the 92-mph slider or the 90-mph change-up that much more effective.

“The challenging part isn’t necessarily the heater; it’s more the secondary stuff,” Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto aforementioned. “Strikeouts come from heaters, there’s no doubt about it. But from my experience, the gap (in speed) between the two can be more of a challenge than the heater itself.”

While there are some who might love the extreme power-vs.-power dynamic in modern baseball there is awareness crosswise 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. Leaguewide attendance in 2018 declined for the sixth straight season, to 28,659 per game, down 13 percentage from its 2007 peak, appalling MLB officials.

“We need to adjust,” aforementioned 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 appalling.”

“There are multiple shipway to look at it,” aforementioned Chris Young, who inclined in the major league from 2004 to 2017 and is now MLB’s vice president for on-field commerce trading operations, initiatives and strategy. “Certainly, the game has changed compared to historical norms, with more outs than ever. But that aforementioned, we’re besides seeing extreme talent in terms of pitching.

“What’s important is finding a balance. You want speed in today’s game, but we don’t want everyone to have extreme speed. There’s an art to pitching, and we don’t want to get away from that, but there’s besides thing great about power and speed. We want a wide range. We want Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer as much as we want Aroldis Chapman.”

***
The fascination with pitch speed is not a recent development, of course. Even before it could be properly measured, the hardest throwers in the game — Amos “The Indianan Thunderbolt” Rusie, Walter “Big Train” Johnson, Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller — were celebrated for their sizzling heaters.

“Even a casual fan knew (those) pitchers could really bring it, even though cipher was quite sure how fast (they) did throw,” aforementioned Tim Wendel, author of “High Heat: The Secret History of the heater and the Improbable Search for the quickest Pitcher of All-Time.” “What’s changed in recent years is our fascination with speed has become an addiction.”

But if the rise in speed was not abrupt, 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 speed shaped? It has altered the game in galore shipway, 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 directly, to the rise of pitch speed as the sport’s ultimate weapon.

Arm injuries?

That’s an apparent one. In a 2018 study headed by former Red Sox trainer mike Reinold, pitchers who went through a six-week speed training program featuring weighted balls accumulated their speed 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 speed to increasing tax of injury.

“Within a subject, the quicker he threw, the more torsion (was placed) on the elbow. It was a very strong finding,” aforementioned Glenn Fleisig, research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute and a 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-frame game has taken 3 hours 2 proceedings so far in 2019, just a few ticks below the 2017 record of 3:05, and about 15 proceedings longer than it was 30 years earlier. Part of that is undoubtedly due to more dead time, but there are besides about 25 more pitches per game in 2019 than there were in 1989, partly the result of higher speed leading to longer, drawn-out at-bats that result in more outs 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, gear 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 job job. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s projected 20-second pitch clock, tested during spring training, is mostly 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 complete that a procession of relievers throwing 96-100 mph for an frame at a time is more effective than a starting pitcher in his fifth or sixth frame of work, throwing 91-94 mph because he inevitably 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 some other 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 speed. In 2008, players 25 and jr. and players 32 and older received roughly the same percentageage of overall plate appearances (50,177 and 52,667, respectively). But by 2018, the jr. set (51,175) accounted for roughly 50 percentage 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 speed made some people reevaluate some things,” Pittsburgh’s Hurdle aforementioned. “You never detected about launch angle until speed went into this new territory.”

Indeed, the launch angle revolution — in which hitters seek to lift the ball at all compensation — was partly a reaction to the rising prevalence of defensive shifts, but besides partly as a concession to speed. If hitters were going to make less contact than ever once once against quicker heaters 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 outs for a home run.

“The only way you’re doing damage once once against some of these (pitchers) is to keep aiming for the fences, keep going for the home run,” Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer aforementioned. “The pitching is so good, you just don’t see six consecutive singles any longer . 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.”

***
So if baseball has a speed problem that can’t be slowed down, what other can be done to address its personal personal 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 designed for a far different set of athletes. In 1893, baseball’s top 10 pitchers in outs 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 outs was 6-3 ½, 204 pounds. bigger pitchers don’t only throw harder, in general, but they besides release the ball closer to home plate, by virtue of their longer limbs.

“Rising speed is just an evolution in the game,” Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw aforementioned. “Players are getting bigger, stronger and quicker , 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 constitutional firewall, limiting a hitter’s options and reducing reaction time the quicker 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 (begframe in 2020) a three-batter minimum for new pitchers.

But with a projected 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 disposition to address the underlying illness. Begframe in the second half of the 2020 Atlantic League season, the mound will be affected back by two feet, to 62 feet 6 inches.

The thinking is that the added distance will give hitters more time to react to quicker heaters. 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 aforementioned. “It helps to have some studies in place in case we see these trends continue. What if we continue to see speed increase at a rate like we’ve never seen before? Then, yes, we should have some scientific information to trust on.”

In 1893, when the mound was affected back 10 feet to its current distance, the change resulted in a 35-point jump in batting average and a 34-percentage drop in outs. 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-percentage drop in outs.

Some observers believe the hitter’s extra two feet of reaction time once once against heaters would be offset by the extra distance for breakage 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 about uniformly once once against any so much change.

Others believe baseball’s cyclic nature and the evolving marketplace will solve the game’s problems organically. possibly the accomplished contact hitter, now a near-extinct species, will make a comeback if teams believe there is value in person who can shoot singles to the opposite field once once against 100-mph heat.

“I think there will be a trend to go back,” Miami Marlins Manager Don Mattingly aforementioned. “You have to teach hit 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 outs. So instead of expression, ‘Okay, we have to hit home runs because we’re going to strike out’ — no, you can limit outs 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 once once again — and should continue to rise as the heater months approach — and outs are once once again up significantly. MLB’s apparent disposition 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 some other question to ponder: What if baseball still hasn’t come close to reaching peak speed?

“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,” aforementioned sports medicine doctor 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 bunch of hard-throwers in the 95-100 range will only continue, as some pitchers and talent evaluators recognize the value of extra speed, making softer throwers become even more obsolete. If the game’s average speed 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 aforementioned. “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 down the mound. I don’t know that that will happen, or that it inevitably to. But I do think speed is here to stay, and it’s real.”