MLB pitchers setting velocity records, altering balance of power
On June 21, 2013 in Los Angeles against the Angels, Pirates rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole threw eight pitches reaching at least 100 mph. His 101 mph fastball to Alberto Callaspo, according to ESPN, was the fastest pitch since 2008 by a major-league starter not named Justin Verlander.
On Sept. 17, 2013, fellow rookie pitcher Yordano Ventura hit 101.9 mph for Kansas City against Cleveland. He topped Verlander for the fastest pitch by a starting pitcher over the past five seasons.
Less than three months apart, two rookies threw two of the fastest pitches by major-league starters in the 21st century. They were not examples of small-sample randomness. The throws were not measured by errant radar guns, as PITCHf/x tracking technology is calibrated uniformly for each ballpark. Those two pitches were two loud data points in a curious sport-wide trend of increasing throwing velocity.
In 2008, the average major-league fastball registered 90.9 mph.
Last season, the average fastball reached 92.0 mph.
In 2003, Houston reliever Billy Wagner was the only pitcher to throw at least 25 pitches at 100 mph or faster, according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2013, eight pitchers hit triple digits. According to PITCHf/x researchers, Cole threw 22 pitches at 100 mph or faster, the most by major-league starting pitcher last season. Reds closer Aroldis Chapman led baseball with 318 pitches reaching 100 mph or faster.
The speed increase is tilting the competitive balance in favor of pitchers, and in favor of teams with more velocity. But the first question is this: What’s behind the increase?
Perhaps the answer can be traced to the Pacific coast.
Pitching mechanics expert Doug Thorburn trained under former major league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House at National Pitching Association, which House co-founded in San Diego. Thorburn said the velocity surge is in large part tied to a focus on shoulder strengthening.
“We have a saying down in San Diego that we’ve never had a bad-arm surfer,” said Thorburn, who writes for Baseball Prospectus. “That’s because those guys are out there paddling all the time, working those back-side shoulder muscles. They developed a balance of strength, front side and back side.
“For a long time, pitchers really focused on the front side, their beach muscles. Front-side shoulder muscles help to increase acceleration of the baseball. But the back-side shoulder muscles put on the brakes. Your brain knows not to accelerate beyond a limit it cannot possibly slow down. Some of these guys who had underdeveloped back-side shoulder muscles were not able to max out velocity even though they were yoked out in on the front side. A lot of (the velocity increase) is working the back-side shoulder muscles.”
Pirates pitcher Bryan Morris began using NPA’s velocity-building program this past offseason after he heard Steve Delabar’s story.
Delabar was out of baseball in 2010 when he began using the NPA throwing program. House had never seen a bad-armed surfer and also noticed tennis players rarely suffered from shoulder injuries, which he theorized was because they held on to the racquet. The drills involve throwing weighted balls to strengthen front-side shoulders and holding onto weighted balls throughout the motion to strengthen back-side shoulder muscles. Delabar enjoyed a significant velocity increase and signed with Seattle. He reached the majors in 2011. Last season with Toronto, his fastball averaged 94.7 mph.
This spring Morris had scouts buzzing when his fastball hit 97 mph. He has gone from a guy fighting for a roster spot to an arm scouts think could eventually reside in the back end of a bullpen.
“If you can strengthen your deceleration capabilities, that will allow your body to accelerate to its maximum velocity,” Morris said. “This is my eighth year. The shoulder maintenance programs have changed a whole lot since my first year. They have gotten a lot more in depth, and they have gotten a lot harder.”
The Tampa Bay Rays are renowned for their shoulder program, which also includes weighted-ball work. While with the Rays, James Shields’ average fastball velocity defied the age curve and increased from 90.4 in 2008 as a 26-year-old to 92.2 mph four years later. Tampa Bay arms have also remained remarkably healthy.
Some speculate the increase is explained elsewhere, perhaps tied to more innings thrown by high-powered bullpen arms. But the number of innings pitched by bullpen pitchers has declined from 15,291 1⁄3 innings in 2008 to 14,977 innings in 2013.
Cole has an even simpler explanation: pitchers are simply bigger and stronger.
“I throw as hard as I’ve thrown since I was 17,” Cole said. “It’s mostly genetics, I think.”
MLB Network analyst and former major league pitcher Ron Darling thinks the speed is tied to something Cole is a part of: a new generation of arms.
“We are in the first generation of kids that every time they throw the ball, they can look up and see how hard they are throwing it,” Darling said. “But also the training techniques. I played four sports growing up. I pitched just during baseball season. A lot of kids are playing year round, their training techniques are a lot different. There is a generation of kids that want that speed.”
Balance of power
The consequences of the velocity increase are far reaching.
Run production is in decline not just because of performance-enhancing drug testing and the proliferation of defensive shifts, but it is also likely tied to an increase in velocity.
Velocity is a timing advantage. The greater the velocity, the less time a batter has to react. The major league batting average was .268 in 2007 and has fallen each subsequent year to .253 in 2013. Major league teams averaged 4.8 runs per game in 2007, a rate falling to 4.2 in 2013.
Strikeouts are up dramatically, too. In 2013, pitchers averaged 7.57 strikeouts per nine innings, up from 6.83 in 2008.
Pirates assistant general manager Greg Smith led the club’s draft efforts when the club selected Cole and Jameson Taillon. Smith feels the velocity increase has helped level the pitcher-batter playing field.
“Velocity is a big component,” Smith said of decreased run scoring. “(Velocity) is good for the game as the game has become more natural.”
Moreover, teams that throw harder appear to have a significant advantage.
From 2009-13, the top 10 hardest throwing teams accounted for disproportionate share of postseason berths and regular-season wins. They accounted for half of the sport’s playoff appearances in that period — 22 of 44 berths — and averaged 85.7 wins per season.
Under general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates made targeting and acquiring velocity a key part of their strategy, adding pitchers such as A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, and placing a premium on velocity in the draft.
“(Velocity) gives you a larger margin for error,” Huntington said. “Ninety-four (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate has much more margin for error than 88 (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate.”
In Huntington’s first season as general manager, the Pirates ranked 18th in fastball velocity at 90.8 mph. The Pirates’ fastball velocity has improved every year under Huntington, averaging 92.5 mph last season, 10th in baseball.
Last season, the Pirates ended a two-decade postseason drought. Last season, velocity gave a no-margin-for-error, small-market baseball team an edge.