In his sixth pro season, having moved through the Los Angeles Angels' system from the rookie-league Orem Owlz to the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees, relief pitcher Jeremy Rhoades understands how the business of baseball works.
“You either keep up with the game and what they ask of you,” Rhoades said, “or you'll be out of it.”
In his job description, that means delivering the ball with more velocity in an effort to overpower the hitters. As veteran slugger Brandon Belt of San Francisco told The Washington Post, “Pitchers are throwing harder. I don't blame them. You get major league contracts by throwing hard.”
In a story with the headline “Velocity is strangling baseball — and its grip keeps tightening,” The Post recently studied the phenomenon. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, above 95 mph. Batters are striking out more than ever, while learning to adjust their swings.
“The games’s changed a lot,” said Bees third baseman Kaleb Cowart, who spent considerable time with the Angels during the previous four seasons. “It’s not just bullpen guys anymore, really. A lot of the starters are [throwing] mid-90s. The fans love the guys that throw hard, and it’s effective. It’s not easy to hit.”
Bees manager Lou Marson, who’s 33 years old and not far removed from his major league playing career, remembers catching a Cleveland Indians staff that featured several sinkerball pitchers. A prevailing philosophy of the previous decade was to throw pitches that dropped in the strike zone, evoking ground balls. Batters adapted, changing their swing planes to create more fly balls.
“Now, the sinker's kind of out of the game,” Marson said. “They want more four-seam fastballs, pitches at the top of the zone. When I was playing, it was completely the opposite.”
So the batters are adapting again. With pitches coming harder and higher, Cowart said, “You kind of have to match the plane of it, so it’s a lot more level swing — like we were taught, back in the day.”
“You either keep up with the game and what they ask of you, or you’ll be out of it.”
— Salt Lake Bees reliever Jeremy Rhoades
The push for velocity resulted in 74 major league pitchers averaging 95 mph in 2018, The Post reported. Especially for a reliever such as Rhoades, that's the baseline. He's right in that range now, having “figured out how my body works a little bit more efficiently,” he said.
In Rhoades' case, it helps that he's 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. Adding velocity also stems from studying video of his pitching motion and becoming more flexible. When he speaks of trying to “stay with the curve,” Rhoades is not talking about an offspeed pitch. He means throwing harder in an effort to keep up.
“That's the way the game is trending,” he said. “Everybody's looking for that, especially the bullpen guys, [throwing] close to triple digits. Everyone's starting to creep up closer to that number.”
Bees pitching coach Pat Rice went undrafted as a University of Arkansas senior in 1986, presumably because an arm injury early in the season limited his velocity. So this subject is not a recent phenomenon to Rice, who pitched his way from the independent Salt Lake Trappers to the Seattle Mariners. The evolution is explainable.
“First off, athletes take care of themselves better now than ever before,” Rice said. “When I played, lifting [weights] was taboo; we did not lift during the season. Guys are just stronger now, they've been trained better.”
Rice believes that radar guns are more accurate than in the past, partly explaining the increase in velocity. More sophisticated information and training techniques also play into the higher numbers.
“The way the game is, if you're in the bullpen and you don't throw 95, it's not enough,” Rice said.
One side effect of the hard-throwing emphasis is what The Post described as “long games with little action,” with more strikeouts and fewer balls put in play. Rice partly attributes that development to a change in hitters' approaches, with less of a stigma attached to striking out. With two strikes, batters are more likely to take a big swing and try to hit a home run, rather than just worrying about making contact.
Marson forecasts another philosophical change at some point. “This game’s about cycles,” he said. “I don’t now why or when it will go back, but I believe it will.”