On Thursday, I shared and discussed some of the early 2019 hitting trends. Today, let’s flip over to the pitching side. In an effort not to double up on the metrics already discussed last week, I’ll focus mostly on pitch mix and velocities.
After a dip last season, league ERA is back up again, now just above the 2017 mark, which represented the highest since 2007. The reason is clear — players have all come to the realization that not only do chicks dig the long ball, but all humans do. So they are hitting balls in the air and harder than ever. Balls are now flying out of the park at a record pace. In fact, the HR/FB rate is even higher than it was through last Wednesday, gaining another 0.2%, up to 14.6%. Weeeeeeeeee!
Strikeouts and walks are also up, which means the league is quickly becoming a collection of three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, and homers). Driving the strikeout and walk rate increases are a jump in SwStk% and decline in Strike%. We know from last week’s hitter trends that batters are swinging and missing more than ever. We now also find that pitchers are throwing a lower rate of strikes, which is not something I was aware of or would have guessed. That has directly led to the jump in walk rate, which now sits at the highest mark since 2000. I would speculate that pitchers are trying to get hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone more frequently to avoid giving up a dinger. That’s then leading to more strikeouts, as hitters swing at pitches that are more difficult to make contact with, but also more walks.
Well that’s a surprise. Wasn’t the narrative that pitchers were throwing the fastball less, and more breaking balls were fueling the strikeout rate surge? That’s not actually what’s happening, as four-seam fastball usage is at its highest mark going back to 2007, the first year we have data for. Cutter usage has bounced up and down in a narrow range, while splitter usage has remained consistently low.
One piece of the narrative that is backed by the data is that the sinker is dying. From 2007 to 2015, its usage stood above 20% every single season. Since, it has declined each season and has plummeted this year. After last season’s spike in changeup usage, the gains have been sustained, marking the second highest rate going back to 2017. While the curve has remained relatively stagnant, pitchers are falling in love with the slider. After remaining stable in its usage through 2014, its usage has risen every season since. Will this lead to more arm injuries? Only time will tell.
Have we reached peak fastball velocity? Since 2008, average fastball velocity increased every single season, but has dropped by 0.1 MPH so far this year. However, remember that velocity gradually rises throughout the season, so it’s quite likely we end up a step above last year to set yet another new record. Though fastball velocity keeps rising, the cutter stood at the same velocity for three straight seasons, before declining to begin this year. Pitchers are rarely throwing splitters, but when they do, they are coming in at the highest velocity going back to 2007.
The sinker is quickly becoming out of vogue, even though it has been thrown harder since 2016 than ever before. Since, its velocity has remained pretty stable. The changeup is supposed to be slow and a change of speed from the fastball, yet it has risen every single season going back to 2007 and is going to set a new record. Of course, it makes sense, because it’s all about the velocity gap between the two pitches, so a faster fastball should lead to a faster changeup.
Surprisingly, the slider’s velocity hasn’t change much in recent years, despite the higher reliance on the pitch. The big jump occurred in 2014, when the velocity spiked from 84.1 MPH to 84.5 MPH. The velocity then jumped marginally for two more seasons before stabilizing. Last, the curve’s velocity has risen nearly every season going back to 2007, with the only exception coming in 2016, when it dropped by 0.1 MPH. Like for many other pitches, its velocity figures to set a new record by the end of the season.
All these strikeouts means that the guys who aren’t enjoying a spike and posting below league average marks are even less valuable in fantasy leagues. It’s no longer desirable to roster a bunch of average strikeout, good control, guys as you’re at risk of losing lots of strikeout category ground.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.