MLB’s Pitching Evolution Has Made Hitting Nearly Impossible 

Technology, information and training aids are helping pitchers far more than hitters. 
Technology helped turn Scott from just another bullpen guy to a potential front-of-the-rotation starter in a short period of time.
Technology helped turn Scott from just another bullpen guy to a potential front-of-the-rotation starter in a short period of time. / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
In this story:

Christian Scott helps explain why hitting is harder than ever. In 2021, Scott was a sinker/slider bullpen arm at the University of Florida who struck out less than one batter per inning. He was drafted by the New York Mets in the fifth round, only after 141 others were selected.

Four years later, Scott, 24, is a big league starting pitcher with an elite four-pitch mix. He is the first Mets pitcher to debut with back-to-back quality starts since Steven Matz in 2015. He struck out 14 batters in those two starts. Matt Harvey (18) is the only pitcher in club history with more strikeouts after two games.

“It’s a great player development story,” says David Stearns, president of baseball operations for the Mets. “[Director of pitching development] Eric Jagers, all the coaches, the work at the [spring training] pitching lab … it’s a collaborative effort. But it’s also about Christian’s work ethic and aptitude. He learned very quickly.”

Technology helped turn Scott from just another bullpen guy to a potential front-of-the-rotation starter in a short period of time. The Mets ditched his sinker after their tracking devices registered much better spin and shape metrics on his four-seam fastball. They converted him to a starter. They added a sweeper to his four-seamer, slider and splitter.

Voila! With a short breaking ball (the slider) and longer one (sweeper) and the north-south combination of four-seamer with ride and splitter with sink, the former “bullpen guy” is a starter who works both sides of the plate and up and down against both lefties and righties. Batters are hitting .053 against his breaking pitches.

It’s not just technology. Scott has composure and competitiveness that would be off the charts if Rapsodo had metrics for those. But the framework of Scott’s story is a familiar one: Information and training aids are helping pitchers far more than hitters. 

Despite the crackdown on sticky stuff, despite the banning of shifts last year, despite the epidemic of elbow injuries, pitchers are dominating this season. The MLB batting average through May 12 was .239—that’s down from .247 on the same date last year. Slugging through May 12 has dropped from .407 to .386.

There are fewer hits in the average game this year than any season since the mound was lowered in 1969 (and the fifth fewest ever). Runs are down 6%, home runs are down 16% and batting average on balls in play is the lowest in 32 years.

It’s correct to assume hitting will perk up as the weather warms, though don’t expect massive change. Last season, for instance, the batting average was .247 on May 12 and .249 thereafter. The simplest explanation as to what is going on is that hitting development just can’t keep up with the rate of pitching development. It’s part of an age-old story of how baseball inverts the foundation of every other sport: The defense dictates and the offense reacts.

“I continue to say,” says Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt, “I feel like every year is the hardest time it’s ever been to hit. The pitching, the pitching data and the pitching technology is so far advanced.

“They have the control, right? They can do whatever they want with the ball and the movement profiles that some of these guys are getting and the way they can shape it. Now we can teach how [pitches] play off each other. We have people in the game that they’re like, ‘Hey, I think with this arm slot … if we have him hold the ball like this … I think it’ll run 15 to 18 inches.’

“The technology and the smart people that we have working in the game, it’s making hitting nearly impossible.”

Within five years, breaking ball use has increased from 28.5% to 31.0%. Batters are hitting .221 against spin with a .359 slug, well below overall norms.

As I have written previously, swing decisions make or break the young hitter in the game today, not velocity. They simply do not see in the minors the shape and command of spin that awaits them in the majors. The gap between the minors and majors may be as large as it’s ever been.

“You’re seeing it with some of your young players who have really good minor league numbers,” says Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch.

Jackson Holliday (.059), Victor Scott II (.085), Colt Keith (.177), Jackson Churio (.214), Austin Martin (.216) and Wyatt Langford (.224) are among the many first-year players who have struggled, despite their success in the minors. Fourteen first-year players have at least 50 plate appearances. Their combined batting average is .226.

“The evolution of pitch design has really skyrocketed compared to the evolution of the swing right now,” Hinch says. “Everybody gets on plane and the guy holding the ball can still spin the ball a certain way to combat any of the swing adjustments. And they’re way faster at orienting the ball differently.

“You’re catching seams or throwing four-seamers instead of two-seamers … how we’re spinning breaking balls nowadays … It’s just … it sometimes doesn’t feel like a fair fight because of how fast the adjustments can come on the mound. That doesn’t happen at the plate. And with the way velocity is increasing, the reaction becomes even harder on the hitters.

"It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality. So, the gap is magnified between levels. I said this the other day, you look down and everybody that comes up from the minors is like a thousand OPS. That’s an immense number. That’s like Juan Soto or Aaron Judge or [Shohei] Ohtani. Everybody can’t be that guy in the major leagues.

“Pitching has become so much more dominant. But the standard of hitting hasn’t changed. The way we view hitters hasn’t changed. If a guy is hitting .240 you would say, ‘Oh, he’s not hitting very well.’ And nowadays you would like to say, ‘Oh, he’s holding his own.’”

 Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman (2) reacts after being struck out.
Bregman is one of several stars hitting under .215 this season. / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just the first-year players who are feeling the pain of the evolved pitchers. Thirty-nine qualified hitters are hitting under .215, including such stars as Randy Arozarena (.158), Paul Goldschmidt (.197), Matt Olson (.200), George Springer (.200), Corbin Carroll (.201), Alex Bregman (.201), Bo Bichette (.203), Dansby Swanson (.209), Xander Bogaerts (.211), Francisco Lindor (.214) and Dansby Swanson (.209).

“You want to keep the [struggling] hitters in perspective,” Hinch says. “One, it’s not easy. And two, it’s a league-wide issue on offense and everybody’s looking for it. Timing and pitch selection are going to be paramount.

“I think the gap, going back to your original question, is you are no longer able to cover an entire arsenal. You have to pick a certain aspect of their arsenal and that’s what you’re going to go attack. I think over the last few years that has become more and more prominent—that you can’t control it all. In that regard, if the pitcher does the opposite, you’re not going to hit. It’s wild to see how it’s played out.”

With so few hits in the game now, home runs become even more the coin of the realm. When each team gets only 8.03 hits, the effort increases to make one or two of them home runs.

I love the nuances of the game as much as anyone, but here is the brutal truth of the game today: When a team hits a second home run it wins 70% of the time.

“As an industry we have taken guys and made more flyball power hitters,” Stearns says, pointing to Mets DH J.D. Martinez as Martinez stepped into the batting cage at Citi Field. Martinez was released by the Houston Astros at age 26, changed his swing and became a six-time All-Star.

But what if you had a better balance of hitters so that more of those home runs came with runners on base—more players who reached base because of contact skills, like Steven Kwan of the Guardians. To combat the evolution of pitching, can baseball develop more Kwans and not try to turn everybody into a launch angle, three-true-outcome monster? Or is elite hand-eye coordination to defeat all the pitch shapes today more nature than nurture?

“I don’t know the answer,” Stearns says. “Nobody does. But as an industry we do need to look at hitting development and see what we can do better.”


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Tom Verducci

TOM VERDUCCI

Tom Verducci is a senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. He’s covered Major League Baseball since 1981. Tom also has been an analyst for Fox and the MLB Network; a New York Times No. 1 bestselling author; and co-host of The Book of Joe podcast with Joe Maddon. A five-time Emmy Award winner across three categories (studio analyst, reporter, short form writing) and nominated in a fourth (game analyst), he’s garnered many honorifics over the years, including three-time National Sportswriter of the Year; two-time National Magazine Award finalist; and Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient. Tom is a member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame, Baseball Writers Association of America (including past New York chapter chairman) and a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1993. He also is the only writer to be a game analyst for World Series telecasts.