Quietly, and as it concerns hitters, in an all too literal sense of quiet, baseball has crossed a major threshold in how the game is played. For the first time in recorded history, fastballs no longer account for the majority of pitches.
The bread and butter of pitching is stale. The “fastball count” is no more. Country hardball is dead.
Its death did not occur suddenly. Fastball use has been declining every year since 2015, coinciding with the start of “The Statcast Era,” a shorthand for how technology and advanced metrics have changed pitching for the better–and perhaps baseball for the worse.
Fastball use held steady from 2010 through 2015 at between 56.8% and 57.8%. Then the fastball began to fall out of favor, slowly at first, but with stunning drops in the past two seasons. Fastball percentage starting from 2015: 56.8, 56.3, 55.3, 54.5, 51.9 and–drum roll, please–49.7 at the start of this week. (Here and throughout, “fastball” references do not include cutters.)
“I think 95 is the new 90,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Guys can really hit velocity. And so, to kind of get guys off of that, pitching off your secondaries … I really believe there’s a lot to that.”
It’s an upside-down world. Secondaries are primaries. And the simplest explanation why this strategy is happening is obvious: it works.
This brings up a question that should worry MLB officials: What if the start to this season–in which batting average, contact rate, strikeouts and balls in play are worse than they have ever been–is not just a case of “pitchers being ahead of the hitters” due to the short summer camp, but is the new normal and a sign that the hitting environment is worsening?
On July 30 the Braves and Rays played a baseball game that exhibited how massively the sport has changed. The six combined pitchers threw only 29% fastballs–69 fastballs to the 64 hitters. There were only eight hits. Twenty-five batters did not put the ball in play. Atlanta won, 2-1.
Has pitching become too good? If so, the cause is obvious. And it’s not velocity. The major league batting average is .230-.250 against fastballs and .211 against non-fastballs. All these breaking and off-speed pitches lead to less contact, fewer hits and deeper counts. Justin Verlander said it best two years ago as home runs increased: “The goal of pitching has become more about getting no contact than weak contact.”
Verlander, by the way, joined the Under-50 Club last year. One of the most renowned fastball pitchers in the game threw 46.9% fastballs, down from 61% the previous year. As he personally can attest, the rise of the slider has more to do with the decline of the fastball than any other pitch.
Roll this around your head: the average slider is harder to hit (.193) than an elite fastball (.213 on fastballs clocked at 97 mph or faster).
It’s not just the slider. The gap in slugging last year between how hitters hit all fastballs (.481) compared to all non-fastballs (.387) was the largest of the decade (+.094). This year the gap is similarly large (+.080).
Remember that dustup between the Dodgers and Astros, when Joe Kelly and Carlos Correa jawed at one another after Kelly whiffed Correa on six straight breaking pitches? When Correa wanted to insult Kelly, he went old school as he yelled at him, “Throw your fastball, [expletive].”
Why? Why should pitchers honor an outdated macho code of throwing so many fastballs? Data tell them to throw fewer. Pitching coaches, who are increasingly younger and less hidebound by oral tradition, know this. Moreover, technology (i.e., Trackman, Rapsodo, etc.) is making breaking pitches nastier because we understand so much more about spin, spin axis, true spin, tunneling, how pitches come off the fingers, etc. Teams literally are building labs to build better pitches.
One way to measure how pitching has changed so much so quickly is to look at full-count pitches. Full-count pitches are the sodium pentothal of pitches. If you want to know what a pitch a pitcher trusts the most, the full count helps reveal it. Look at the change that baseball’s truth serum has revealed:
Here’s what that means. A hitter just five years ago could expect to see a fastball on a 3-and-2 count nearly two out of every three times. Today it’s essentially a coin flip as to what’s coming. By doing so, pitchers have reduced full-count slugging to its lowest level in the 33 years of such recorded history–even if it means more walks. A walk is a defense of the home run.
A truth serum case study: Five years ago, Jacob deGrom threw fastballs on full counts 62% of the time. This year he is doing so just 30% of the time.
As more pitchers have more success throwing fewer fastballs, you should expect the fastball rate to continue to decline. Among pitchers who reduced their overall fastball use in just the past three years by double digits are deGrom (down to 39.4%), Dylan Bundy (39.4), Carlos Carrasco (34.7), Dallas Keuchel (34.7) and Yu Darvish (30.2), all members of the Under-40 Club.
The Indians are setting strikeouts records by throwing just 39.7% fastballs, tied with Boston for the fewest in baseball. Four of the past six Cy Young Award winners won the award by throwing less than 50% fastballs: Verlander, deGrom, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer.
With apologies to Walter (Big Train) Johnson and Nolan (The Express) Ryan, the train has left the station. What was unthinkable just five years ago is not just the norm but also the way forward–as long as hitters do not adjust.
As Correa proved in the heat of the moment, hitters are conditioned to believe the fastball is the bedrock to the batter-pitcher confrontation. They hit off fastballs as their default approach. Getting beat by a fastball is an insult to their pride, if not their manhood. Meanwhile, pitchers are beating them more and more with breaking and off-speed pitches.
“[Hitters] just don’t want to get off [hitting] the fastball,” Roberts said. “The really good ones can hunt soft stuff and will live with the fact that they might miss a heater. But by and large guys do not get off the gas.
“I think as a pitcher you can still be 50-50 and still be aggressive with your secondaries. Attacking with your slider. Attacking with your curveball. It doesn’t mean you can attack only with your fastball, in my opinion.
“I do understand why it’s a 50-50 game now. Until hitters adjust, as a pitcher, why would you give in?”