For How Long Can Hitters Keep Pace?

In spring of 2016, during batting practice before a game, I was speaking with a front-office executive. Our conversation had turned to the increasing velocity in the sport. The official wondered aloud when the trend would subside or, if it were to continue increasing, at what point hitters would really struggle to react. Or, he added, were hitters somehow adapting?

There has to be some limit. After all, if a pitcher could reach Mach 1 with his fastball, it would be impossible for a batter to react. But what is that limit?

It’s possible that an event from last week might help provide a clue. Facing Boston’s Chris Sale in the seventh inning of a 6-0 game, Mark Trumbo fouled off a 99 mph pitch at his eyes, a pitch with an even greater effective velocity because of his height.

Trumbo’s exploit didn’t go unnoticed. Alex Speier of the Boston Globe sensed that something unusual had just occurred.

It turns out, Alex’s intuition was correct: no one had made contact with a pitch that high this year.

In an age of record pitcher velocity, hitters have kept pace well enough to establish a record home-run total, lifting the ball, and the sport, from the depressed run environment of just several years prior. Power is at an all-time high, both for pitchers and hitters.

Trumbo’s swing made me wonder how hitters are managing to keep up and for how long they might be able to keep pace.

As you’re probably aware, fastball velocity has increased every year during the PITCHf/x era, both for starters and relievers, currently sitting at 93.6 mph for the 2017 campaign. This was the season Joe Kelly threw 104 mph (though it was later adjusted to a lower mark).

So when will the velocity increase stop or slow? And if it doesn’t slow, at what threshold will batters struggle to keep pace? While there has to be some physical limit, there’s not much reason to believe we’ve reached Peak Velocity.

We’re just now witnessing athletes raised with 21st century practices reach the major leagues. While we can debate the merits of year-round play, and travel ball and showcase circuits at the amateur level, teams pay for velocity in the draft. The incentive is there, whatever risks for injury accompany it. Athletes are bigger and stronger; strength training and conditioning staffs are expanding.

The practices of places like Driveline Baseball, which uses innovative and cutting-edge methods to enhance performance, are gaining more and more attention, particularly as clients like Trevor Bauer enjoy more and more success.

The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner recently spent some time at Driveline headquarters in Seattle, Washington, to better understand some of the philosophies and principles leading to the velocity spike.

From Kepner’s piece:

“One hundred miles per hour is the new benchmark,” said Tom House, a former major league pitcher and coach who founded the National Pitching Association, which runs camps and clinics nationwide. “I think in the next five to eight years, most pitchers, to sign a pro contract, are going to have to show 97, 98, and touch 101, 102. That’s where the research is going.”

That is why, under morning clouds in late June, dozens of young pitchers — mostly on break from college programs — strode purposefully around the parking lots of Driveline’s modest home at an industrial park near Sea-Tac Airport, holding kettlebell weights over their heads or wiggling long sticks (called shoulder tubes, for warm-up and recovery) in front of their chests. They were some of the many aspiring pros who work with House, Wolforth, Boddy and other coaches who can help them throw hard enough to be noticed.

If 100 becomes a new benchmark, how long can batters keep up?

To get a better understanding from experts immersed in this, I reached out last week to Boddy, who offered some interesting insights. Boddy doesn’t think we’ll see 100 mph become the norm, but he believes hitters are adapting to increasing velocity.

“I think velocity will asymptotically increase, and hitters will progressively learn to hit it (already happening),” Boddy said via Twitter correspondence. “Minor leaguers see that kind of velocity every day now, and the subset of players that reach the big leagues had to have success against it to get there.

“By definition, those in the big leagues (for a decent amount of time) have adapted to the new paradigms in some fashion.”

And from an overall run-scoring level, hitters have kept up. Thanks to a power spike, some have even thrived in this high-velocity environment.

But strikeouts are also at record levels and velocity plays a role in that trend. Velocity creates anxiety, reduces reaction time, and creates greater speed separation between pitches. While four-seam fastballs tend not to generate swings and misses, even the whiff rates on that pitch are increasing slightly. In 2015, batters swung and missed at 7.50% of four-seam fastballs, a figure that jumped to 7.56% last season and 7.97% this season, according to Baseball Savant’s Statcast data.

Those numbers seem to increase exponentially at higher velocities, though. Consider: the swinging-strike rate on 100-plus mph fastballs is 16.1% this year. If 100 becomes the new normal (whoever thought 93.6 mph would be the new normal?), then major-league hitters are perhaps going to have a significant problem — unless they can adapt.

Boddy notes that human reaction time to stimuli is about 0.25 seconds. Not accounting for a pitcher’s extension or drag on a pitch, a hitter has about 0.4 seconds to decide whether or not to swing at a 100 mph fastball. And that time is slowly eroding. There are only so many milliseconds between tracking a pitch, making a decision to swing, and then triggering and executing the swing. More time cannot be added.

Hitters have this going for them: the human brain is a remarkable thing.

Joan V. Vickers and Raissa M. Adolphe of the University of Calgary found in their famous study that experts track the ball differently than non-experts. While there are innate elements, skill is also tied to practice and evolution.

“Experts differ from near experts in having an earlier tracking onset on the ball, a longer tracking duration. The experts were also unique in having a quiet eye …. During this time they stood quietly and tracked the ball, the near-experts did not have a quiet eye and began stepping as the ball is served.”

And consider another fascinating study by Anthony Brady, a research and development intern last summer at Driveline Baseball. Brady was concerned with wearable electroencephalogram (EEG) technology to detect in part how an expert’s brain functions compared to that of a novice when faced with a “go or no-go decision” like swinging at a 100 mph pitch.

Brady cited some previous research, noting:

“Experienced baseball players were found to actually have decreased activity during the Go/No-Go pitch recognition task in certain brain areas—specifically the frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is primarily in charge of deliberate decision-making. In the half a second that it takes for a pitch to travel to home plate, there is not enough time for a hitter to go through a deliberate decision-making process on whether or not to swing. Intuitively, this makes sense.”

This brief video illustrates his point:

Essentially, experts can refine these neural processes and quicken the time of executing a no or no-go decision like a swing.

Brady introduces a concept called “perception-action coupling,” contending that “perception and action processes are functionally intertwined. Perceptions of the environment are not that you necessarily understand the sensory information; rather, you perceive in the awareness of ‘affordances.’ Affordances are the perceivable opportunities for action in the world.”

Brady goes on to explain how this applies to hitting:

“It is believed that the brain assesses and understands the information about the pitch coming in (spin, velocity, and trajectory), makes a deliberate decision whether to proceed with the swing, and then decides upon a location to place the bat all while the pitch is on its way to the plate. While the human brain has the capability to work incredibly fast, it can’t quite work that fast. The perception-action coupling theory when applied to hitting argues that information is not necessarily “understood”; rather, it is detected (the hitter sees the baseball pitch coming in), and then affordances are perceived (your opportunities for mechanical action, swing/no-swing). The information is not really ever understood, and there is no deliberate decision to swing. Much like a computer program algorithm, the visual stimuli are perceived and a physical action output is generated based on that environmental perception.”

Heady stuff and yet perhaps comforting to batters seeing record-level velocity. Batters can adapt and are adapting to a velocity… up to a point. Trumbo catching up with an elevated 99 mph fastball was eye opening and is one data point of evidence of the evolution of hitters in a different velocity environment.

Still, there is a hard limit, somewhere, a point at which the brain and the body can neither react nor adapt effectively to velocity. The question is, at what point does offensive performance really deteriorate? Can batters adjust to a league-wide fastball averaging, say, 96 mph? 100 mph? We don’t know… yet. What we do know is that players have adjusted to 3 mph in a decade’s time. What we do know is there’s only so much time and space between the mound and the plate.

While we’ve written often about the home-run records this season, we might not be too far away from a time when velocity off the mound swings the balance back in favor of the pitchers and we face another run-scoring recession, if not depression, and the discussion turns to lowering the mound and raising the ball’s seams.

To this author, it’s amazing that hitters are as productive as they are with velocities being what they are. I’m also a novice batter overmatched by 80 mph in a batting cage. But I wonder if we aren’t too far from a tipping point to send the game to another type of run-scoring environment. The game is more and more one of extremes and we don’t know yet how extreme velocity will warp it.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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OddBall Herrera
6 years ago

I think the dangers of increased velocity are overstated, because teams are eventually going to recognize that they are at the same time paying a price in player health. Syndergaards are great and all, but you’re not going to get too many 200IP seasons out of them, and their replacements are going to be presumably less great.

That, and the fact that increased velocity across the league will mean that the occasional 85 MPH junkballer in the rotation or bullpen to mix things up is good strategy, means that there’s a practical ceiling on how high the average velocity is going to go.

Also – wouldn’t it be easy to run the numbers on 100MPH pitches and player performance against them? For example, this is not exactly a murderer’s row of batters (one of them is even Jake Arrieta):

And the current numbers would be lower than you would expect in a league where velocity has gone up even more, because batters would be more acclimated and probably have been selected for their ability to catch up to higher velo.

6 years ago

I haven’t heard anyone comment on the effect of pitch velocity in these regimes and umpire accuracy in calling balls and strikes either.

6 years ago

Yeah, I think this is almost certainly true, especially when you consider exactly who this article is talking about: HS and college aged kids. The sooner they start to throw with that kind of velocity, the more wear and tear they’ll accumulate on their shoulders and UCL’s.

Until kinetic energy analysis of pitching mechanics improves and cheapens enough for those kinds to have access to getting their pitching mechanics correct at a young age, we’re going to continue to see pitching injuries, and the move to more and more specialization at young ages causing kids to never have an offseason also contributes.