As the cavalcade of high-velocity pitchers continue to roll into the major leagues, is the game starting to lose some of its novelty? It seems that everything in MLB is starting to become homogenized. Every pitcher throws hard and every hitter is searching for the perfect launch angle. If MLB wants to speed up the game, why are they putting a premium on strikeouts which create more inactivity? This is a question that Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Jackson and James Shields are asking themselves each passing day.
The lefty is still waiting for a job, and he’ll eventually get one, just not at the price point or the number of years that he wants. The current MLB market values strikeouts, not contact. MLB GM’s are looking for four-seam fastballs that rise, not two-seamers that sink. High velocity up in the zone is one of the best ways to combat the launch angle revolution. This doesn’t bode well for Keuchel who primarily throws two-seamers that sink which induces contact. According to Sports Illustrated, the two-seam fastball has become the easiest pitch to hit, which is why its usage has gradually declined over the last few years.
The right-handed journeyman came into the league throwing 97 mph but since his velocity has tailed off in the latter portion of his career, he’s relying more on movement to get hitters out. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw his 4-seam fastball 18 percent of the time while using his cutter 34 percent, resulting in a lot of weak contact. It’s strange that after his 2018 season with the Athletics where he posted a 3.33 ERA in 17 starts, he would still be looking for a job. There was a time when ground balls were more desirable than strikeouts.
In 10 of the past 12 seasons, Shields has pitched 200 innings or more, but analytics values velocity and spin rate. Should be there be a premium for maneuvering through a lineup using touch and feel? What the market is telling Shields is that clubs don’t just value an “innings eater” anymore. They want a high ROI for each specific hitter. Shields’ fastball tops out around 90 mph but relies heavily on his cutter (87 mph) as well as knuckle curveball which comes in around 79 mph. Due to his below average velocity, he has to mix up his pitches consistently. According to Brooks Baseball, the natural sink on his fastball induces a high rate of fly balls, which in the launch angle era is not what you want.
Launch angle has hurt the value of low-velocity pitchers who rely on movement to get outs, thus creating more inactivity during games. This is good for front offices, but is it good for the game? One fundamental question that should be asked: is MLB a sport or is it entertainment? One could argue that it’s both. What you can’t argue with is that it’s not entertaining to watch a baseball game where the ball is only put in play once every 3 minutes and 45 seconds, per Tom Verducci’s SI piece. What is entertaining is double plays, diving catches and yes, home runs.
The million dollar question that MLB is struggling with each passing day as their demographic becomes older and the game becomes longer: Do you want to grow the game or win the game?