Saturday, May 2, 2020

Maybe There's Another Way

I was catching up on some reading on The Athletic this morning, and came across a good article by Ian McMahan on the connection between fastball velocity and Tommy John surgery (subscription required). It's a good read, and it also got me thinking how much baseball has changed in my lifetime.

When I was young there was no such thing as radar gun readings of every pitch thrown up on the scoreboard. There were certainly some hard throwers in the game, but it wasn't anything like it is today. Tom Seaver, my first baseball hero, threw hard. Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and J.R. Richard were hard-throwing contemporaries. Later on I have many happy memories of a young Doc Gooden blowing high-90s heat past hitters. Still, the way I remember things growing up was that there were an awful lot of finesse pitchers back in those days.

Even in the 1980s it was still a big deal for a pitcher to throw over 90. Nowadays the average speed of a major league fastball is 91 mph. Guys like the late-career Bartolo Colon who are able to get out major league hitters consistently with sub-90 mph fastballs are very much the exception, not the rule. It's all about velocity these days.

While higher velocities lead to more Tommy John surgeries, it also leads to many more strikeouts. I remember a time when a player would be embarrassed by striking out more than 100 times in a season. Last year, while breaking the rookie home run record, Pete Alonso also struck out 183 times, and he still had a great year. And 183 strikeouts didn't even make him the K-King of the NL East, Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves held that honor with 188. Two of the best young hitters in the game combined for 371 whiffs.

Contrast that with former Met 2B Felix Millan, who in 6,325 plate appearances over 12 major league seasons struck out only 242 times. In 1974 with the Mets he struck out 14 times in 584 plate appearances. That's less than once a week. It was a different game for sure back then.

Despite the fact that there were fewer strikeouts, the game was dominated by pitching during Milan's playing career. In that 1974 season mentioned above the ERA for the entire National League was 3.62. Last year it was more than 3/4 of a run higher at 4.38. Those low scoring games of that era featured a lot more bunting and hit and run as teams tended to play for a run at a time rather than big innings.

Because runs were harder to come by and batters put more balls in play, teams tended to favor defense over offense, particularly up the middle. I remember the 70s as the time of slick fielding shortstops who could barely hit their weight. Here are the NL East shortstops in that 1974 season, in order of offensive ineptitude from worst to not as bad:
  • Mike Tyson, Cardinals: .223/.264/.287 55 OPS+
  • Tim Foli, Expos: .254/.300/.290, 63 OPS+
  • Frank Tavares, Pirates: .246/.300/.270, 64 OPS+
  • Larry Bowa, Phillies: .275/.298/338, 75 OPS+
  • Bud Harrelson, Mets: .227/.366/.266, 80 OPS+
  • Don Kessinger, Cubs: .259/.332/.321, 82 OPS+
Four of those guys had slugging %s of less than .300, but offense was only an afterthought for shortstops at the time. Mark Belanger, one of the best defensive shortstops of that time, played 18 years in the majors and accumulated over 6,600 plate appearances despite a lifetime batting line of .228/.300/.280, good for an OPS+ of 68.  Most second basemen of the time were light hitters, too.  Milan was considered a pretty good hitter for a 2B, and his lifetime OPS+ was 87. He only hit 22 HR in his 12 year career. Defense was almost always prioritized over offense.

For years nobody questioned that this was the way to build a team, but as the '70s gave way to the '80s, some teams got away from having 2 automatic outs batting in front of the pitcher. The game became more higher scoring and teams became more willing to sacrifice some defense for offense. Then steroids came into the game in the 1990s, and baseball evolved further into something that is more like what we have today.

When you're prioritizing offense over defense, strikeout pitchers become a higher priority. Balls that aren't put in play are not at the mercy of shaky bat-first fielders. In pitching, velocity is now king.

It's completely understandable, but sometimes I wonder if there isn't too high a priority on velocity. Beyond the increased chance of blowing out pitchers elbows, I wonder if there isn't an opportunity to take advantage of the way that baseball always seems to fall in line with the prevailing wisdom at the time. Just as most teams played the game quite similarly in the '70s, they all tend to fall in line today when selecting and grooming pitchers.

I look at it this way.  Most of the hitters in the major leagues were elite players even as kids. They play ball year round for all of those traveling teams and face high velocity pitchers from the time they hit their teens. They may strike out a lot, but they're comfortable hitting against high velocity fastballs.  Maybe that's why Bartolo Colon was able to compete at such an elite level despite mundane fastball velocity.

So maybe instead of having a system full of flamethrowers, start trying to develop more guys that can pitch with movement, precise placement and changing speeds. Give hitters something that they're not as comfortable with because they don't see it a lot.

If you have a kid in your system with a 91 mph fastball, but he has some brains and some guile, teach him how to pitch instead of trying to force another 3 or 4 mph out of his arm. If you can develop that kid and get him into the majors, you can stick him in your rotation between your flamethrowers and give teams a different look, get them out of their comfort zone.

I'm going to give the last word on the subject for the day to Tom Seaver, a guy who knows something about pitching. In an interview with Bill Madden in the Daily News back a few years, Seaver had this to say:
"What's with these guys and this obsession today with velocity? ... How about just pitch! Learn how to pitch! Because eventually that velocity will be harder and harder to maintain on a consistent basis."
Stay well, everyone, we'll be back tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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