Talking baseball: home runs, velocity and commanding the fastball

Jakob Junis strikes out a career-high 10 in a Royals win

Kansas City Royals pitcher Jakob Junis struck out a career-high 10 batters and allowed just one run in seven innings to get the win against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium on July 16, 2019.
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Kansas City Royals pitcher Jakob Junis struck out a career-high 10 batters and allowed just one run in seven innings to get the win against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium on July 16, 2019.

Once again home runs are being hit at a record-breaking pace, and there’s no shortage of theories that attempt to explain why: the baseballs are different, hitters are less worried about striking out and swinging for the fences or maybe it’s that everybody is bigger and stronger.

Well, here’s one more theory to consider:

Fastball command isn’t what it used to be.

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost recently said that location used to be more important than velocity, but now most pitchers’ priorities have flip-flopped.

These days pitchers want to light up the radar gun because that’s what gets them noticed and promoted. Developing good, repeatable pitching mechanics that gives a pitcher control isn’t a priority; throwing harder than God is.

But unfortunately for those flame-throwing pitchers and the teams that employ them, 98 mph poorly located is less effective than 91 mph in the right spot.

Fewer fastballs in fastball counts

OK, so a pitcher throws 98 but isn’t exactly sure where the ball is going.

Some of the consequences of that are obvious — the pitcher will find himself behind in the count more often than he’d like.

Some of the consequences are less obvious.

Say the count is 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1, and in those counts the hitter has a history of looking for a fastball on the inner half of the plate so he can pull the ball into the short part of the park and hit a home run.

In that situation a fastball down and away would be a safe pitch. If the hitter takes it’s a strike; if he swings he’s likely to hit a weak rollover grounder to the pull side of the field.

But if the pitcher isn’t sure he can locate a fastball down and away, he might throw a slider instead. Even if he can’t control that pitch either, at least it’s not straight.

This is one of the reasons some people say there’s no such thing as a fastball count anymore. In the old days, pitchers with fastball command thought it didn’t matter if the hitter was looking for a fastball, because they were going to locate a fastball where the hitter couldn’t hit it.

Nowadays pitchers without command shy away from throwing that fastball because they’re not sure where it’s going and it might wind up smack-dab in the middle of the hitter’s happy zone.

But throw enough sliders — give hitters enough looks — and that pitch can lose its effectiveness.

Shorter outings

In the not-too-distant past, starting pitchers would sometimes try to go through the opposing lineup once throwing nothing but fastballs. Then they’d add a breaking pitch and changeup the second and third time through the order. Every time they came to the plate, hitters were seeing something new.

Pitchers without fastball command are now throwing every pitch they have in the first inning and that makes it tough for them to make second and third trips through the order — they’ve got nothing new to show.

Lack of fastball command means throwing more off-speed pitches in the early innings, throwing more off-speed pitches in the early innings means shorter outings and shorter outings mean more stress on the bullpen.

A game that could have been won had the starter gone seven innings is lost because the starter went five and the bullpen couldn’t cover four innings of relief.

Less time in the minors

There are always exceptions, but ask old-school players and coaches and they’ll probably tell you that guys are making it to the big leagues faster than they used to.

Here’s an example of how things have changed.

Bubba Starling played 694 minor-league games, and a big deal has been made about how long he had to wait for his chance at the big time. In 1985 the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals had six position players who played more minor-league games than Starling and nobody gave it a second thought.

Here’s another one:

Compared to the players on the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the 1985 Royals World Series position players averaged 108 more minor-league games and their pitchers averaged almost 100 more minor-league innings.

Even the oldest of old-school ballplayers admits there’s no doubt that today’s players have more physical talent than players from their era, but there’s also no doubt those old-school players were likely to spend more time polishing their games in the minor leagues.

Fans might be impressed when a player works his way through the minors as fast as possible, but coaches know that means the player will need a lot of help once he makes it to the big leagues.

And consistent pitching mechanics might be on the list of things yet to be mastered.

So why not go back to the old days?

If players need more time to develop, why not go back to the old days and have them spend more time in the minor leagues?

Ask that question and you might hear a couple reasons.

A journeyman player making $2.5 million might be only marginally better than a rookie making the major-league minimum. So a team can save $2 million by putting a slightly worse player on the field. If the team isn’t going anywhere anyway, what difference does it make?

Now here’s a non-financial reason for bringing a player to the big leagues: As Royals GM Dayton Moore has said on numerous occasions, it’s hard for a player to improve beyond his competition.

For a player to learn how to hit major-league pitching, he has to face major-league pitching. For a pitcher to learn how to get big-league hitters out, he has to face big-league hitters.

Royals coach Mitch Maier also points out that when players get to the big leagues they’re over-amped and the game speeds up on them.

A rookie who gets picked off or breaks the wrong way on a line drive may not need more minor-league instruction — he already knows what he did wrong; he just needs more time in the big leagues because once he gets used to it, he’ll calm down. The game will slow down and the player will make better decisions.

And no matter how well a minor-league player is taught or how many minor-league games he plays, he will always have things to learn when he gets to the big leagues.

But there’s still no reason consistent pitching mechanics couldn’t be learned at the lowest level of baseball.

Unfortunately, too many people in baseball value velocity over location, so when a pitcher gets to the big leagues because he throws hard, the big-league pitching coach might be expected to fix his mechanics so he has some idea where that fastball is going.

And that doesn’t happen overnight.

Keep it simple

Royals manager Ned Yost recently pointed out that some people try to make things overly complicated.

We can talk about velocity, spin rate or pitch sequence until we’re blue in the face and none of that means anything unless the pitcher can throw a pitch where he wants to throw it.

Yost used Jacob Junis as an example.

If Junis gets the ball down and on a corner of the strike zone, opponents hit less than .206 and he looks like an All-Star; if Junis leaves the ball up and in the middle of the zone, opponents hit .381 and they look like All-Stars.

It’s that simple.

You can throw as hard as you like, but if you leave a pitch in the middle of the zone it’s still got a good chance of getting hit a long way. And until pitchers and the teams that employ them value location over velocity, we’re going to see a lot more home runs.

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