The obsession with fastball (FB) velocity by the media, fans, amateur baseball and yes even people in both scouting and player development in professional baseball is way off base. In a world where even political leaders and the media can’t get their facts straight, we see where people who enjoy baseball are not being given the real facts about pitching and getting outs.
Baseball hype at each Stadium will show you the radar gun reading on the scoreboard and get the crowd excited when it hits 99 or 100 mph. Let’s face it, the average fan, who sit 200 to 500 feet from the plate, can’t tell the difference between a 100 mph and an 89 mph straight pitch and do they really need to know that? What is important is whether it was a ball or strike. I’m not saying it is not exciting to know that a pitcher can throw that hard. In fact, it is quite amazing. The gun times we see on the scoreboard and at home on our TV’s are very accurate. We are all amazed with the skills of these gifted athletes, but that is not pitching. Those missiles get hit hard and more frequently than you would think.
The facts are that movement of the ball, deception in a delivery and changing speeds is what gets outs. Curves, sliders, cutters and change-ups are by far the most difficult pitches to hit. Granted, trying to hit a FB at speeds between 98 and 102 mph is not easy but the average speed of a big league FB is only between 90 and 92 mph. If those pitches come anywhere near the plate they are going to be hit by the average professional ballplayer. Joe Adcock once quipped that: “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.” That holds true to most big league players. They hit fastballs at all speeds, more than breaking balls. That’s a fact.
I can remember well as a pitcher, that sometimes I could see a hitter’s eyeballs grow as wide open as a grapefruit and swear I could see a smile on their faces when they recognized one of my fastballs was coming their way. All I thought of then was, duck. I also knew way before radar guns were at every game, from Little League to Citi Field, that it was going to be something other than a FB that was going to get me out of the inning. Most fastball outs come from being set up by breaking balls and vice-a-versa. That’s how you get outs. It’s not all about speed.
Today’s pitchers are conditioned to think that velocity is the most important part of pitching. Especially at the lower levels, both amateur and professional. The next time you are at a ballpark and the radar gun reading on the scoreboard registers a very high number, notice if the pitcher is turned around and is looking at what he just threw. 100 mph for a pitcher is what a 450 foot home run is to a hitter. By the way, most home runs in the major leagues land in the first 4 or 5 rows, but that is another story for another day.
Today’s thinking of throwing as hard as you can for as long as you can has changed the game dramatically. It has provided a need for pitch counts and given way for the need to have quality bullpens. It has moved away from quality starters who can pace themselves so they can go 9 innings. To do that a pitcher would have to save those 96 to 98 heaters for when he needed them. As long as 99-100 gets you $15 million or more a year, we will never see starters going deep into games. Will we ever see a 25 game winner or a future Hall of Fame pitcher with 300 wins? Not if they only go 6 innings and are credited with a “Quality Start.”
Curveballs are the number one pitch that hitters have the most trouble with. They are also the slowest pitch they will see in a pitcher’s arsenal. So velocity does have a lot to do with getting outs, just not the way we are being lead to believe.