For Modern Strikeouts, Pitchers Veer Outside the Strike Zone

For Modern Strikeouts, Pitchers Veer Outside the Strike Zone

Earlier in his career, whenever he fell behind in the count against some of baseball’s best hitters, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander would do some on-the-mound calculus. He would often opt to fire a down-and-away fastball, willing to concede a single rather than something worse — “Here you go, take your hit to the opposite field.”

But recently, even those pitches have started flying out of the ballpark.

“You have to miss bats now,” Verlander said. “The game’s changed.”

Pitchers’ targets have changed, too. The universal edict among pitching coaches, from Little League on up, is to implore their charges to throw strikes. But more and more in the modern big leagues, that doesn’t mean throwing the ball in the strike zone.

The result is a pitching paradox in the majors: Even as M.L.B. is on pace to set a strikeout record for the 14th straight season, the rate of pitches actually thrown in the rule book zone has decreased almost as consistently.

In 2002, 54.2 percent of all pitches were thrown for strikes. That figure in 2019 is a record-low 42.2 percent. The odds of a pitch going in or out of the strike zone hasn’t been a binary 50-50 proposition since 2008. (Swings are not included, just pitch location. All data is collected by Sports Info Solutions and posted on the analytics website FanGraphs.)

“That number actually blows my mind,” said Giants second baseman Joe Panik. “Looking at 42 percent and it’s like, ‘All right, then why don’t we just take every walk?’ But, the pitchers, it’s a credit to them of how they’re very skilled as to how they create the movement.”

Mike Dunn, a veteran reliever for the Rockies, said some scouting reports specifically call for a “strike-to-ball pitch” that looks like it will land inside the zone and then ends outside it. “Our goal as pitchers might be to get that number lower,” he said of the 42.2-percent figure.

What’s behind this evolution? It’s largely because baseball’s incentive structure has shifted, with teams increasingly prioritizing hitters with home-run power and pitchers with elite velocity.

“With more max-effort deliveries, some guys are focused more on the speed and action of the pitch as opposed to the location of it,” said Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, before adding: “You’ve got guys throwing real hard, so some hitters seem like they make up their mind, ‘I’m going to swing, or I’m not going to swing,’ and it doesn’t really matter where the pitch is.”

That also means more wild pitches and hit batsmen — both are on track for record highs — although there has not been a corresponding growth in the number of walks. Instead, at-bats are lasting much longer, with deeper counts: Batters are seeing a record-high 3.91 pitches per plate appearance this season.

Pitchers are no longer peppering the margins of the zone as much as throwing deliberately outside it — usually north and south rather than east and west. Throws targeted for the inside and outside corners have been replaced by fastballs that rocket up above the zone or breaking balls that dive below it.

M.L.B. is taking at least one small step to coax pitchers back to the strike zone. In the independent Atlantic League, which has partnered with M.L.B. to test new rules, a new rule allows batters to try to advance to first base after any bounced or dropped pitch, not just on a third strike.

But in the majors, many pitchers have adjusted drastically. In Verlander’s first five big league seasons with the Detroit Tigers, from 2005 to 2009, nearly two-thirds of his pitches were fastballs. In 2019, his fastball rate is 51.7 percent, even as he continues to post an elite strikeout rate. Batters are swinging and missing at a third of his pitches, the highest rate of his career. He’s also allowing more home runs than ever.

“That’s why I’m throwing more off-speed,” Verlander said, because those pitches induce more swings and misses.

Overall swing percentage has remained relatively flat in the last two decades, with hitters taking cuts between 45 and 47 percent of the time, but there has been a jump in swings at pitches outside the zone: from 18.1 percent in 2005 to 31.2 percent in 2019.

“Pitchers’ stuff is really good, so they’re O.K. with throwing that pitch that starts as a strike and turns into a ball because it looks good to hit, and then when you go to swing, it’s not,” Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “And you’re already committed, so you’re in trouble. And there’s hitters that you don’t really need to throw strikes because they’re going to chase — including me.”

Modern scouting reports are highlighting hitters’ tendencies to swing outside the zone. Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said his simple goal of making “quality swing decisions” is harder knowing the volume of advanced data pitchers can use to prepare.

“One of the products of analytics has been showing the chase areas are getting more and more extreme for all the hitters, and there’s an exploitation of that that’s being done very effectively by pitchers across the board,” said Astros Manager A.J. Hinch.

With two strikes, the trend is exaggerated. Sports Info Solutions reports that barely over a third (36.2 percent) of two-strikes pitches this season have been thrown in the strike zone.

“The stuff has gotten so good in the league,” said Kyle Boddy, the founder and director of pitching at Driveline Baseball. “It’s just really difficult to hit behind in the count. I think a lot of hitters are swinging early, so a lot of pitchers are realizing we just don’t need to throw so many strikes.”

Compounding matters for hitters is an emphasis on pitch tunneling, the effort to give different pitches the same trajectory — as if traveling down the same tunnel — for much of their flight toward the plate before veering off in different directions. High-speed cameras, pitch-tracking cameras and radar have helped pitchers concentrate on this skill, and certain corners of the internet are populated with GIFs showing two different types of pitches overlaid on top of each other to emphasize their shared start to the plate.

“They are able to present balls as strikes longer than I remember when I was coming into the league,” Rockies first baseman Daniel Murphy said of major league pitchers.

This deceit makes hitters’ decision-making that much harder. Boddy hypothesized that the analytics-fueled emphasis on walks and on-base percentage had faded, leading to more chasing: Strikeouts are accepted as a byproduct of home runs, so hitters don’t change their approach with two strikes.

One more effect is the pace of play; all of these long at-bats have helped drive the average length of games further north of three hours.

“It’s not the pitch clock,” Giants catcher Stephen Vogt said of the purported need to hasten the interval between deliveries. “It’s the fact that we’re throwing so many pitches now.”

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