Joe Kelly and Baseball in Another Dimension

Between Scooter Gennett’s four-homer game and a Max Scherzer start during which the right-hander racked up 11 strikeouts through his first four innings (thanks, in part, to a new toy), the country might have missed another remarkable feat on a major-league playing surface last night — namely, Boston reliever Joe Kelly hitting 104 mph in a plate appearance against Aaron Judge.

Judge, to his credit, fouled the pitch off.

But the important information is conveyed by this portion of the screen:

Yes, there have been issues with Statcast’s velocity readings this year. The final pitch speed, tracked by the Doppler radar component of Statcast, was later revised to 102.2 mph. Still, it now stands as the fastest thrown by a major-league pitcher this season, and it was the fastest of Kelly’s career, according to PITCHf/x and Statcast data.

It’s also the second time Kelly has hit 102.2 mph this season: he also reached that mark against Anthony Rizzo on April 28, according to Statcast.

With Aroldis Chapman injured, only Trevor Rosenthal (65) has thrown more 100-plus mph pitches than Kelly (60) this season.

Of some interest here is that, of the 15 pitchers to hit 100 mph 40 times or more in the Statcast era, not all have been clear physical outliers. Kelvin Herrera, Carlos Martinez, and Kelly himself are all listed at either (a) 6-foot-1 or shorter and/or (b) 200 pounds or lighter. What that suggests is, the ability to hit 100-plus doesn’t have to be limited to a rare frame or body.

As we know, velocity has been on the rise throughout the PITCHf/x era, but there have been no signs of the rise slowing or plateauing. Consider the following PITCHf/x data:

The growth continues to be relatively steady. In fact, the average starting pitcher’s fastball is up this year, from 92.1 mph last season to 92.5 mph in 2017, which is the largest one-year leap since starters’ fastballs jumped from an average of 90.5 mph in 2008 to 91.0 mph in 2009. Relievers’ fastballs are up to an average of 93.8 mph, a 0.4 mph jump, tied for the greatest leap on PITCHf/x record.

And we have not yet reached the warmer summer months, when velocity typically reaches its pinnacle.

Strikeout rate continues to inch up for MLB hitters, sitting at a record rate of 21.6% of plate appearances at the moment. That’s up 3.1 percentage points since 2010 and 4.5 points since 2007. While some of that might be tied to hitters trading contact focus for power focus — the 2017 HR/FB rate sits at a record 13.4% at the moment — more is likely tied to the continued reduction of hitter’s reaction time, which makes batters more vulnerable to spin and changeups.

There’s no signs of velocity slowing down — and, as noted above, it’s not just the 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-sized pitchers capable of regularly reaching triple-digits.

Kelly is the hardest throwing pitcher in the American League at the moment. That’s kind of wild.

And just as the air-ball revolution has the potential to fundamentally change the game, there would seem to be a significant issue down the road — and perhaps not too far down the road — if velocity continues to inch up for the foreseeable future. While velocity can increase, the ability for a hitter to see a pitch and react seems rather fixed. If reaction time keeps being reduced, the game will continued to be warped toward one of three true outcomes, and more and more toward one outcome, in particular: the strikeout.

Velocity is threatening the game as we know it and it has showed no signs of slowing down.

Perhaps seams could be raised on the ball to reduce velocity, something like restrictor plates on a NASCAR vehicle. Perhaps that will be a step to be considered, something more like the college ball.

Perhaps hitters will be able to continue to trade contact for power to keep the run-scoring environment within the game’s normal range, even as strikeouts continue to rise. Perhaps hitters can continue adapting to a higher-velocity environment. Perhaps as strikeouts continue to rise so will power.

Perhaps there could be a leveling off in velocity if injuries continue to rise.

But the incentive for pitches is to continue throwing harder, which poses a problem when the distance to home plate remains stable. The time, for batters, from pitch recognition to the start of a swing continues to be reduced. We are just seeing the first waves of pitchers raised and developed in the 21st century — with the benefit of modern science, training, and ideas — reaching the majors. These are pitchers who’ve grown up understanding how important radar readings can be and how best to achieve impressive ones.

When Kelly is throwing 104 (or 102.2), the distance from home to the pitching rubber — the actual dimensions of the playing field — are put to the test. We have seen the game raise and lower the mound on a number of occasions. Dimensions to the playing surface have to be changed. Perhaps lowering the mound again will become necessary. But are we moving to a place where a more fundamental dimension of the game will be changed? Will we have to consider altering the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate? Would that be wise? Or would it be an overreaction?

How sacred is 60 feet, 6 inches? How long can it remain viable?

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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5 years ago

What’s bizarre about Joe Kelly’s velocity is that he’s somehow a low-strikeout groundball pitcher. Someone please explain this to me.

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Not much movement on the fastball so it comes in pretty flat, from what I’ve read.

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

The pitch has very little movement and Kelly’s delivery offers very little deception, especially vs LHB

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

See: Mauricio Cabrera.

Possible explanations: between his fastball not having great movement (and being a two seamer, which is more conducive to GBs than Ks), poor secondary offerings, and a limited extension because of size, and meh to poor command these guys just don’t have the ability to get swings and misses.

What’s the old quote? Something about major leaguers being able to time up a jet plane, but once they put it a wrinkle in it things become a lot harder.

5 years ago

Kelly’s fastball is not as straight as it was. Watching Kimbrel may have something to do with that. Kimbel’s fastball is two or three ticks slower but definitely hotter, until now. Kelly’s fastballs to Judge rose and sailed. And in the Judge AB he added his first two cutters ever, at 94. The times they be a changin’.

P.S. Kimbrel has no size and no extension, and he scares hitters. Stuff is stuff.

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Straight fastballs get hit, Edwin Jackson had tremendous velo yet has always sucked as SP or RP

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

well upon moving to the bullpen his strikeouts went way up and since the beginning off May he’s struck out more than a batter per inning so April could be an aberration.

5 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

For some reason I’ve never thought of Joe Kelly as having a blazing fastball, even though he’s always in in the 95-99 mph range even as a starter.