The age of the pitcher
There's a lot more to this era of great hurlers than PED testing
Every once in a while, we get the feeling the great sport of baseball is trying to tell us something. This would be one of those times.
Three no-hitters light up the baseball sky in a span of 13 days. Five no-hitters -- two of them perfect games -- rock our world before we've even made it through the second week of June.
So ... anybody get the feeling that it's a beautiful time to be a pitcher?
Then again, on second thought, did we really need a no-hitter epidemic to make that point? The evidence has been all around us. And not just in the last two weeks. How about in the last five years? Think about it. Think about how the universe has shifted:
Once, there was a time when a 73-homer man roamed this earth.
And seven different teams scored 900 runs -- in the same season.
And two pitchers led their leagues with ERAs NORTH of 3.00 -- for the first time in modern history.
Boy, how long ago does all that seem, huh? The game of baseball is so different now, it feels like those days -- the Age of Offensive Insanity -- happened, what, 75 years ago?
But we're not talking about life in the 1930s, friends. We're talking about real-life occurrences in this sport just since the year 2000.
So how has this sport changed since then? Heh-heh-heh-heh. You really want to know? You really want to know why we now look at this era as The Age of the Pitcher? All right, let's spell it out for you:
• Want to guess how many fewer runs will be scored this season than were scored in the 2000 season, if teams continue sputtering along at their current pace? How about nearly 4,000. Right. We said FOUR THOUSAND runs.
• Want to guess how many fewer home runs will be hit this season, at this pace, than were hit in 2000? How about almost 900. Yessir, NINE HUNDRED.
• In that 2000 season, there were 571 times when a team scored at least 10 runs in a game. At the moment, we're on pace for a mere 248* -- a plummet of more than 56 percent.
So have we established yet that the art of hitting ain't what it used to be? We're pretty sure we have -- and we don't even need to wait for a verdict from the Roger Clemens jury.
But that just tells us what has happened. What we set out to do over the last few weeks is to figure out how and why it happened. How exactly did this turn into the Age of the Pitcher? And can we be sure this is really the Age of the Pitcher, and not merely the Age of No Offense? It's time to examine all of that.
The test patterns
OK, let's get this issue out of the way right off the top. These last five years have taught us that it isn't only good pitching that shuts down good hitting.
It's also the power of the test tube.
It was in 2005 that punishments for a positive performance-enhancing drug test finally kicked in, with 10-game suspensions for a first offense. In 2006, those suspensions increased to 50 games. That was also the year baseball started testing for amphetamines. A year after that, in 2007, Bud Selig told George Mitchell to start digging away, to compile the Mitchell report. Well, guess what happened?
Hitting hasn't been the same since. What a coincidence.
Run totals have dropped in every full season since 2006. Home runs have dropped in every full season but one (2009). And we've seen a massive plummet in homers of 450 feet or more, from 144 in 2006 to just 89 last year. Is anyone surprised by any of this?
End of Steroid Era = End of Age of Offensive Insanity. Well, whaddaya know?
WHERE'D THE RUNS GO?
Runs per year in 2000 and over the last seven seasons.
|YEAR||RUNS||DROP FROM 2000|
|*On pace for|
It was tough finding anyone inside the industry who wanted to say, right out loud and on the record, that subtracting steroids from the fabric of the sport is the overriding reason everything has changed in the last five or six years. But off the record, almost nobody tries to pretend otherwise.
At one point this season, we were talking to a major league manager for this story. We ran several powerful theories by him on why pitching now rules the sport. He agreed with all of them. But finally, he couldn't help himself.
"What about steroids?" he interrupted. "You're not gonna ask me about them?"
Heck, did we even have to? But it isn't just steroid testing that has transformed baseball. Without amphetamines, position players these days are wondering, by the Fourth of July, whether they're going to have the strength to make it through the season.
"You can definitely see it in the second half," says one NL executive. "These guys are cooked. They're OK through June. But then the weather starts to get hot, they've played 80-90 games, and then the grind, the travel, the schedule starts to get to them."
But as players often point out to us, it wasn't only the hitters who were juicing or popping greenies. Just check out how many pitchers have been suspended for PED use since 2005. Clearly, there's more going on here than just chemistry. So read on.
Fun with the gun
We hear this from hitters all the time: Pitchers throw harder now. Much harder. And not just some of them. Practically all of them -- other than maybe R.A. Dickey.
So we set out to determine: Is that true?
We started by consulting with our friends from Inside Edge, who have charted virtually every pitch in the big leagues since 2005. They verified that average fastball velocity has been rising steadily since then, from 90.2 miles per hour in '05 to 91.2 mph in each of the past two seasons. And that's a more eye-opening number than it might appear on the surface -- considering more than 600 men took the mound in major league games last season.
We also looked at FanGraphs' rankings of all pitchers' average fastball velocities to see if the number of guys who chuck it up there at 95 mph or above has been on the rise. Take a look at this trend among pitchers who worked at least 30 innings in a season:
PITCHERS WITH AVG. FASTBALL VELOCITY OF 95+
Think about that for a moment. Can that really be true -- that the number of smokeballers blowing 95 mph and up has tripled in five years? Even other pitchers have a hard time comprehending that phenomenon.
"I've never seen as many hard throwers on every single team as I do now," says Derek Lowe. "It seems like every team has three or four guys coming out of that bullpen throwing 95 miles an hour."
WHERE'D THE HOMERS GO?
Home runs per year in 2000 and over the last seven seasons.
|YEAR||HR||DROP SINCE 2000|
|*On pace for|
But this word of caution: We can't be totally sure if those numbers are accurate. They might tell us more about how we measure velocity now than about the pitchers we're measuring. So we went about this another way: We asked scouting directors what they see when they show up at high school and college games.
"When I first started doing this 25 years ago, if you saw a kid touch 90 (mph) at 17 years old, you were like, 'Oh my God,'" says the Indians' vice president of scouting operations, John Mirabelli. "That guy became an automatic prospect. Now, just about every guy (on a scouting director's radar) throws 90, and most of them throw 92. And you never saw amateur guys throwing in the upper 90s. Now you see it all the time. It's unbelievable."
Other scouting directors spun the same tales, over and over. And that tells us something: This is NOT a mirage.
So where is that velocity coming from? The theories go like this:
1. More long-tossing to build up arm strength.
2. More and more kids seeking out personal pitching coaches, most of whom once played professional baseball, who are passing along advancements in throwing programs and better mechanics.
3. An explosion in the use of personal trainers, even by teenagers.
4. Less abuse of young arms by coaches, thanks to new rules, pitch counts and workload limits.
And then there's this: Kids are now obsessed with velocity, because it's all we ever seem to talk about: How hard Justin Verlander throws. How hard Aroldis Chapman heaves it. How fast EVERY pitch in a big league game travels. It's right there, in the corner of every flat screen in America -- and anywhere else kids look, for that matter.
League ERA and strikeouts per nine over the last few years.
"It's fun to throw hard," says Eddie Bane, a Tigers scout who spent seven years as the Angels' scouting director. "Every minor league ballpark you go to has a radar gun. If you throw hard, it's a statement. It's the one thing no one can take away from you -- how hard the gun says you throw. Kids read about that stuff, and they grow up wanting to throw hard."
Well, whatever it is that's going on, it's going on everywhere from Yankee Stadium to high school fields in North Dakota. And the bottom line is this: It's a big, big reason it's now harder to hit than ever.
Cutters, splitters and gyroballs
But there's another fascinating trend at work among men who pitch for a living: They throw their fastballs harder than ever ... but they also throw their fastballs less than ever.
Or less than at any other time since Inside Edge began recording this data, anyway.
In 2005, major league pitchers threw fastballs 63.8 percent of the time. But by this year, only 61.4 percent of all pitches thrown were fastballs. And don't be fooled by a drop of "just" 2.4 percent. That's a big difference. It comes out to more than 6,000 fewer fastballs that hitters now see over the course of a season. Yep, SIX THOUSAND.
So no wonder hitters think that pitchers are throwing more different pitches than ever. Those pitchers now have 6,000 more opportunities a year to mix in every off-speed pitch in their repertoire.
"It used to be," says Phillies catcher Brian Schneider, "that you'd say, `What's this guy (throw)?' And it would be like, 'fastball-curveball, fastball-slider, fastball-change.' Now you see cutters all over the place. You see the two-seam comebacker. It might be inside to a lefty and back-door to a righty. So you've got pitchers throwing cutters to both sides of the plate, throwing splits to both sides. It just seems like everyone you face has all these pitches. It never used to be like that."
There isn't enough data that goes back more than a couple of years to prove that, in fact, pitchers do throw more different pitches than they used to. But we do know this: They utilize the tools they have in their tool box in more innovative ways than at any other time in many people's memories.
"I just think pitchers are equipped more," says the pitching coach for Schneider's own staff in Philadelphia, Rich Dubee. "They do different stuff with the pitches they have ... I think it's because the strike zone shrunk. You didn't have the high strike. You didn't have the width (off the corners) of the plate. And I think because of that ... guys became more creative."
So pitchers now throw their changeups to right-handed and left-handed hitters, instead of just one side or the other. They throw a potpourri of breaking balls to every quadrant of the strike zone. They've gotten "more educated," says Marlins catcher John Buck, "about how they hold the baseball and what that grip can make the baseball do."
And the upshot is, the hitter has less and less idea of what's coming. In any count. No matter who's on the mound. Every pitcher on a staff now features an almost unprecedented variety of ways to go at them -- "from the front of your staff," says Buck, "to the back of your staff."
There appears to be a definite rise in sidearming bullpen specialists -- both left-handed and, in the last couple of years, right-handed. That's a species Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan calls "the cross-fire guys -- the guys who step here (exaggerated step toward foul line) and then throw over here (steps back and fires sidearm across his body)." Never fun to hit against.
Use of the sweeping, swing-and-miss curveball is also way up -- from 8.0 percent in 2005 to 9.8 percent this year. And Inside Edge has verified a definite upswing in the pitch that hitters complain about most -- the cutter. Just since 2009, when Inside Edge started tracking cut fastballs, they've increased from 2.8 percent of all pitches thrown to 3.8 percent. That means more than 10,000 cutters are now being delivered every year.
"It seems like everybody throws a cutter now," says the Dodgers' Adam Kennedy. "And the pitchers who can (throw) that same pitch, off the same plane (as their fastball), they're the ones that can really excel with that. It's very hard to read when it comes out of the hand. And the more pitches that come out of the hand at the same plane that do different things, obviously, that's where it gets really difficult."
Incredibly, we haven't even touched on the most revolutionary change in the sport over the last few years. It isn't testing. It isn't the cutter. It isn't even that technological gift from the heavens that lets us watch live baseball games on our phones. Nope, it's something way more powerful than all of that.
It's the Information Age. And it's wreaking havoc with the lives, the batting averages and the psyches of hitters everywhere.
We've already written a detailed look at the explosion of information in modern baseball and how it's changed the game. So if you want to bask in the full panorama of that phenomenon, click here. But we can sum it up this way:
The hitters are doomed.
Why? Because before they even step into the batter's box, the pitcher they're facing, the catcher calling pitches and the opposing coaches have sifted through the onslaught of information and know EVERYTHING about them:
Exactly where their holes are ... exactly which pitches they swing and miss at ... exactly where they tend to hit the ball ... and exactly how to make their lives miserable.
MOWING 'EM DOWN
The number of qualifying starters with an ERA below 3.00.
And now, the scouts, stat wizards and coaches don't even have to hold a meeting anymore to relay all that info. It's all been plugged, nearly instantly, into the pitchers' and catchers' iPads. So they've seen, with their own eyes, exactly what's happened the last 100 times somebody threw a two-strike cutter to, say, Alfonso Soriano. Scary.
In other words, the selection of pitches that pitchers employ to attack hitters these days is no longer guesswork. It's science. And it's lethal.
"Just like Peyton Manning goes to the line of scrimmage, reads the defense and calls the right play, you have that same interaction between the pitcher and the hitter," says Padres GM Josh Byrnes, one of the first people in baseball to use video scouting, back when he worked for the Indians in the mid-1990s.
"It's the one part of the game where you have total control," he adds. "You control where you want to throw every pitch of the game. If you have a good plan, and you have a pitcher who can execute the plan, it works."
But wait. You have to be thinking: Don't the hitters have the same kind of info on all the pitchers they face? And the answer is: Of course, they do. But ...
"If you're a pitcher, you see an immediate result," says Magadan. "You know a guy's got a hole. So you hit that spot, you expose the hole, and you get an out. But if you're a hitter and you know the hole, you can get all the information you want. But it takes hours and hours of working on it, and hitting off the tee, and doing soft-toss, and gradually working your way to where either you lay off the pitch or you find out how to hit it.
"And if it's a pitch in the strike zone, you'd better find out how to hit it, or you're going to have a short career. So to me, the pitcher has a big advantage there."
But even if that pitcher gets behind and lays one in there, he STILL has the upper hand -- because the defense will probably be deployed in some newfangled, data-driven shift that stations a man with a glove right where the hitter is most likely to hit the ball.
And if all that doesn't cause every hitter alive to call their therapists, how about this: Some of these shifts have more to do with mind games than baseball strategy.
"We have percentages that we work by regarding shifting," says Rays shift-maestro/manager Joe Maddon. "But then, sometimes, we'll just do it because I want to make the hitter think of something else. You almost want to try to force the way they think by what you do. And whenever you (mess) with someone else's athletic mind, a lot of the time that can play on your side. So all this stuff is calculated."
Oh, it's calculated, all right. It's all calculated into baseball's grand, modern-day conspiracy -- against the hitters.
Is it the pitching or the hitting?
So now that we've explored the many, many levels behind the rise of the pitcher, we still haven't answered the biggest question of all:
Is this the Age of the Pitcher -- or simply the Age of No Offense?
Well, we've thought about this for weeks. We've examined the numbers. We've talked about it with a million people. And, with all due respect to the pitching population of this great land, we think this is more about the decline of the poor, overmatched, PED-free hitter than it is about the most dominant pitching era since the '60s.
Have you checked our stat page lately? The A's are hitting .222 as a team -- which would be the sixth-worst team average in the live-ball era. The Pirates have a team on-base percentage of .279 -- meaning they have a shot to beat the '65 Mets (.277) for the lowest by any club in the live-ball era. And five different lineups have team batting averages of .239 or lower -- one more than in the previous 22 seasons COMBINED.
We have percentages that we work by regarding shifting. But then, sometimes, we'll just do it because I want to make the hitter think of something else.” -- Rays manager Joe Maddon
"Look at the lineups you see now," says former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, currently a special assistant to Mets GM Sandy Alderson. "Look at the National League lineups. Is there any lineup anymore that makes you say, 'Oh my God?'"
"It's hard to find offense," says Byrnes. "We just went through a draft, and let me tell you: It's hard to find guys you know can hit."
So what's happened to the hitters? We've laid out what's happened to hitters in the big leagues. But why is it even so hard to find young hitters -- the brilliance of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout notwithstanding? Excellent question.
"It's just like society," says Marti Wolever, the Phillies' assistant GM for amateur scouting. "This is a game of failure, and that plays on the frustration level of kids. It takes a lot of time and work to perfect a swing. And I don't know if a lot of kids want to take the time to do that in the society we live in."
But these days, from all the evidence we've assembled, it appears that even many of the guys who CAN hit -- or, at least, used to be able to hit -- are now playing right into the pitchers' hands.
Both Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and his general manager, Ned Colletti, have virtually the same theory: The game has changed -- but the hitters haven't.
Even as the home run rate spirals ever downward, Mattingly sees hitters who hit as if they hadn't noticed. They coil. They guess. And they let it fly -- as if routine fly balls were still traveling 440 feet. And all they get out of it is a lot of outs -- and strikeouts.
"Guys have gotten away from the good solid hitting mechanics of the past," Mattingly says. "The guys who really do it right -- you see less of that. ... It used to be that if you struck out 100 times, it was a big deal. Now if it's 'just' 100, you're kind of a low strikeout guy. That tells me mechanics are getting worse."
"How many times," asks Colletti, "do you see a key situation in a game, and a reliever comes in, and the first pitch is a changeup, and the hitter is way out in front of it, because all he's thinking is, 'I'm going to get a fastball. How hard can I hit it?' Guys pitch different in this era. Pitchers think different in this era. But it's almost like the hitter's still thinking like it's the old era. He's swinging from a different era than the pitcher's mindset."
Excellent theories -- and the data proves both of them are dead on. Maybe most offensive numbers are dropping, but not strikeouts. At the current rate, we'll see nearly 5,000 more of them this year than in 2005. Right, FIVE THOUSAND.
And the numbers clearly show that while the percentage of fastballs thrown is declining -- as are fastballs thrown in what used to be "fastball counts" -- hitters are swinging and missing at the fastballs they do see at a higher rate than ever. (For a full statistical breakdown of the Age of Pitching, courtesy of Insider Edge, click here.)
So the hitters aren't just losing the war of numbers these days. They're getting massively outmaneuvered in the never-ending baseball chess match. And they know it. They feel it. Many of them aren't even sure what to do about it.
"I just think the game of pitching has evolved more than the game of hitting," says Brian Schneider. "I mean, how much more can the game of hitting evolve? Pitchers can add different pitches. But as a hitter, you can't add different swings."
"I would like to think that, just like in life, it's a circle, and we'll figure out something," says Adam Kennedy. "Maybe they'll run out of quality arms for a while. I don't know. It makes for a lot of sleepless nights, rolling around restless. But it's just part of the fun. It makes that bloop hit just that much more special."
You'd think, listening to that kind of talk, that the hitters are resigned to their fate. But up in the front office, the folks trying to put together teams still ask: Why?
"You know, guys can still hit," says Colletti. "It's not like 1968, when Carl Yastrzemski was winning the batting title, hitting .301. We've still got guys hitting in the .350s. So it can be done. It's all about how you approach your at-bat. If you're not a home run hitter, don't try to be."
"For this to change," Mattingly concurs, "the hitters are just going to have to get better. The pitcher always has the advantage. He knows where he's going to throw it. And the defense is going to be better than before, because of all the shifts they play. So you're going to have to be better to hit .330 or .340 than you were 10 years ago."
That means the hitters are going to have to be as prepared as the pitchers and catchers they face. It means learning how to foil the shifts by going the other way. It means understanding there's no such thing as a "fastball count" anymore. It means checking their own data, to learn their holes, and putting in the work it takes to close them.
And it means understanding that the Steroid Era is over -- and those 4,000 runs and 900 home runs that have disappeared since 2000 aren't coming back.
That's the world we live in now. It ebbs. It flows. It evolves. It always has. It always will. For a decade, it flowed in the direction of the monster mashers at home plate. It's now ebbed way back in the other direction, to the men who throw the pitches.
But does that mean we're stuck forever in the Age of the Pitcher? We're not so sure. And we're not alone.
"I don't know if it's the Age of the Pitcher. I just think it's the Age of Baseball," says Marti Wolever. "It's the age of where the game used to be. I think we've come full circle. We stepped outside that circle for a long time, in a lot of ways. But it wasn't reality.
"So now," he says, "we're back to reality. And that's a good thing."