The Yankees Have Shown Us the Future

The Yankees gave us a glimpse of the future on Monday night, demonstrating how a game of ever-increasing extremes is only likely to continue trending in that direction.

No, this isn’t about bullpenning, a strategy that the club almost accidentally employed in the Wild Card game against Minnesota and that they ought to use again in Game 5 tonight. Rather, this is about fastball velocity.

The Yankees’ average fastball in Game 4 against Cleveland traveled at 98 mph. Ninety-eight! New York pitchers failed to throw a single fastball under 96 mph.

That’s kind of terrifying.

The following table shows the aggregate body of work of fastballs thrown in Monday night’s game, courtesy of Statcast data via Baseball Savant:

Throwing Smoke: Pitch Data from Game 4
Team Total FF FF% ba iso babip slg woba xwoba hits abs spin_rate velocity
NYY 91 61.9% .143 .214 .125 .357 .269 .248 2 14 2259 98.0
CLE 66 35.3% .400 .200 .571 .600 .475 .417 4 10 2353 94.5
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

As a club, Cleveland recorded the lowest fastball rate in all of baseball this season, at 40.1%. The major-league average was 49.7%. And that makes sense: the Indians are the best breaking-ball staff on record.

On Monday, while Trevor Bauer leaned on his curveball (and perhaps while the Yankees hunted it in their second look against him in the series), the Yankees just shoved elite velocity — often up in the zone — the entire night and dominated.

The following chart illustrates the Yankees’ fastball location in Game 4:

Luis Severino, in particular, often threw the pitch high and to the arm side. He struck out over a third of the batters he faced, against a club that recorded the second-lowest strikeout rate in the majors.

The following color-coded chart employs varying shades of it to denote high velocity and shades of blue to denote lower velocity. Notice that there are very few blue data points, even among the breaking and offspeed offerings. The following pitch charts include all pitches. Severino threw a 92 mph changeup. Kahnle was throwing upper-80s offspeed pitches.

While there have perhaps been better greater single-game displays of pure velocity, the Yankees’ performance on Monday is still significant. Yes, Severino and his live arm accounted for 7.0 innings of the relevant sample. Note, however, that we didn’t see Aroldis Chapman or a number of the other high-velocity arms in the Yankees’ bullpen.

And in the midst of this display of power pitching, Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy offered this thought:

As we know, velocity has been trending up ever year in the PITCHf/x era, both from starting pitchers and relievers.

Tom House recently told Tyler Kepner of The New York Times that 100 mph will soon be the new normal.

“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.”

And that’s where the Yankees are going. They showed Monday that they’re already capable of residing there.

If Monday’s exhibition becomes the new normal, how long can hitters keep pace? It’s a question I attempted to answer here recently. And on this front, there’s encouraging news for the preservation of some equilibrium between pitchers and hitters. According to the available research, including some produced by Driveline, batters are adapting. Hitting a high-velocity fastball, it seems, is more learned reaction than conscious decision.

But there has to be a hard limit at which point hitters’ performance begins to deteriorate, right? The distance between the mound and home plate is fixed at 60 feet, 6 inches (not including pitcher’s extension). There are speeds the human eye just can’t track from that distance.

A comment by Boddy for that piece a couple weeks back has some relevance here.

“I think velocity will asymptotically increase,” Boddy said via Twitter correspondence, “and hitters will progressively learn to hit it (already happening). 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.”

The evidence supports Boddy’s theory. Hitters have adapted to the environment of 2017, for example, a season in which the average MLB fastball reached 93 mph for the first time.

But what if in the not-too-distant future the average fastball is 97 or 98 mph? Less than a decade ago, it 2008, it was less than 91 mph.

We simply don’t know much about the 21st century athlete and how the advances in training at places like Driveline Baseball will fully impact the sport and pitching performance. This next generation of athlete, this wave of ballplayer who’s had the full benefit of various tracking systems, is likely to set records for performance across the board in terms of raw physical tools like velocity. The bar is always pushed higher. After all, we see records broken in the Olympics every four years. But the information and science boom in baseball threatens to make change less incremental and more dramatic.

What if velocity begins to outpace hitter’s ability to adapt, though?

I think we got a small-sample taste of that Monday night.

Against fastballs 98 mph and faster this season, major-league hitters hit .213 (434 for 2,041) with a .287 wOBA. In 2015, batters hit .223 with a .281 wOBA against 98-plus mph velocity.

What the Yankees demonstrated Monday night is that the game might not be anywhere near Peak Velocity, that the increases in arm speed won’t slow, but rather accelerate — particularly if bullpens account for more and more innings. The average MLB reliever’s fastball velocity was 94.4 mph this year, also a record.

The Yankees might have showed us the future. And it could be a bleak, dystopian one for major-league hitters.

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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6 years ago


6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

But, seriously, it could be both. Maybe guys will throw fastballs only 20% of the time, but they will all be 100 MPH. Severino only throws his fastball about 50% of the time already.

Restore Andy Hawkins Glorymember
6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

As higher velocities become more and more common I suspect that’s exactly what you’ll see. There was a piece a while back talking about the Yankees consciously having their pitchers throw less fastballs because hitters are getting better and better at hitting them. What is unhittable now will be the norm later that hitters will hit unless pitchers begin to use more breaking stuff. Once that happens I suspect you may also see some of the pitches at the upper fringes start to develop deadly cutters and 2 seamers that move at 99. Imagine Mariano Rivera throwing that thing at 100 instead of 91-93.