Sixty Feet from Home

An Arms Race

Yesterday at NBC sports, Joe Posnanski wrote about Rick Porcello’s zero-walk, zero-strikeout shutout. Porcello’s complete game for the Detroit Tigers was the first time since 1989 that a pitcher has managed to shutout a team without recording a strikeout or a walk. Yet, as Posnanski notes, baseball used to see these games every few years. Between 1971 and 1989, there were nine such games.

Posnanski connects the absence of complete games without strikeouts to several trends in baseball. First, hitters are bigger and stronger than they used to be. This is both for illegal (PEDs) and legal (weight-lifting, better nutrition etc.) reasons. Posnanski notes that one way to measure this phenomenon is by the way that BABIP (batting average on balls put in play) has changed over time.

BABIP has stayed around .300 for over a decade. Another way of saying that is that of all the balls that batters hit onto the playing field, 30 percent become hits. That’s remained a steady percent for a while. But what BABIP fails to measure are hits outside of the field of play. Home runs. And hitters started hitting more balls outside the reach of defenses. When you add home runs to BABIP, hitters now average .325 on balls hit into play.

How did pitchers (and front offices) react to bigger and stronger hitters knocking balls outside the field of play? Baseball is an arms race, after all. Pitchers started limiting the number of outs recorded in the field of play by striking out more batters.

The league’s percentage of batters who strike out (K%) has steadily increased over the past 24 years. In 1990, the league averaged 14.9 percent. By 2000, that number had increased to 16.5 percent. Today, pitchers strike out 20.3 percent of batters they face. That’s a pretty sizable decrease in balls put in play over the past twenty five years.

Starting pitchers track pretty well with the overall league numbers. In 1990, starters were striking out 14.3 percent, and by 2014 that number is up to 19.4 percent. Relief pitchers averaged 16.1 K% in 1990, but that number has increased to 22.1 K% today.

How have pitchers (and organizations) increased the number of strikeouts? By throwing harder. Especially recently, organizations have focused on developing pitchers with higher fastball velocity. Pitchers are throwing harder today than they ever have before. In 2002, starters averaged 89.5 mph on their fastball. Today, that number is up to 91.3. Relief pitchers averaged 90.6 mph in 2002, and are up to 92.3 mph today. That’s a large increase over a short time.

How do the Reds pitchers stack up to the league? First the starters:

Starters copy

Not surprisingly, Johnny Cueto is leading the Reds starters in strikeout percentage. Cueto, Bailey and Cingrani all have above average strikeout rates, while Simon has a well-below average rate. In terms of velocity, two starters have a below average heaters (Leake and Latos). Latos has only four starts, which may explain his much lower than career fastball velocity. We should keep an eye on this number because a low fastball velocity can be the first sign of arm problems for a pitcher. Mike Leake has actually increased his fastball velocity by 2mph the past couple seasons.

Then the relievers:

Relievers copy

Those numbers for Chapman aren’t typos. But they are almost beyond belief. At the other end of the list we find Sean Marshall and Sam LeCure, both with below-average fastballs and above-average strikeout rates. They act as good reminders that pitching is more than throwing hard. Pitch sequencing, movement, and exploiting hitters’ weakness still counts for something.

Other changes in baseball have helped hitters. The strike zone has shrunk, fence were moved in, bats are made harder, and strength and conditioning strategies have advanced. All this means that hitters are able to punish the strike zone with greater efficiency. In response, pitchers have to find new ways to get hitters out, which generally means limiting hitters’ reaction time. Velocity isn’t everything, but the statistics show that other things equal, it helps to strike out hitters. Bring on the power arms.

But are there limits? Has one casualty of the arms race been the health of the arms themselves? It is hard to look at the growing list of pitchers who are having Tommy John surgery and not ask if this strategy has created unintended problems for young arms.

I will throw this out there: Perhaps there is money to be made in identifying the soft-tossers who still rack up high strikeout percentages. The market for pitchers is unmistakably favoring the flamethrowers. Fastball velocity is easy to scout because it’s a clean metric, we can measure exactly how hard a pitcher can throw. Yet pitching is also about accuracy, movement, identifying hitters weaknesses, and pitch sequencing. As Sam and Sean remind us, radar guns can’t tell us the whole story about a pitcher.

2 thoughts on “An Arms Race

  1. The Dodgers, and others, used to not allow pitchers to throw sliders because they felt that pitch was bad for the elbow. I think this is also a factor here.

  2. Strikeouts have increased steadily since Babe Ruth ended the dead ball era. I was looking the other day at the stats of the great 1940 Reds rotation. An average strikeout rate for pitchers then was 3 per 9 innings.

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