The objective of pitching has never changed: prevent the other team from scoring.
The only sure-fire way to prevent a hitter from crossing the plate is to strike him out. Any event that involves a ball-in-play includes some degree of randomness/risk that the batter gets on base and scores. This stunning revelation has radically changed the way pitchers go about game planning, career development, and execution.
This has not caught on with every fan, however. Every baseball purist will bring up the example of Greg Maddux to “prove” that location and moving in/out is the best way to pitch, no matter the velocity. But how many pitchers have there ever been like Greg Maddux? Don’t you think that if a pitcher was able to locate stuff on a dime with insane movement that they would?
Being able to locate the way Maddux did with his movement is something that takes a lifetime of practice and likely involves a high degree of natural ability that may not be replicable. Pitchers have caught on to this and had to adjust. If you can’t hit your spots consistently working the bottom of the zone (where the margin for error is razor-thin) then where do you go?
The Modern Fastball
The answer, is up in the zone. Below is a simple diagram from Ted Williams that depicts what hitters are trying to do nowadays (in an exaggerated manner):
Hitting the ball hard, and in the air is the mantra for the modern hitter, and the easiest way to do that is to swing with a slightly upward path. Naturally, this type of swing is perfectly engineered to scoop balls in the lower portion of the zone and put them in the seats since the swing has to go down to come back up. Where does that leave hitters the most vulnerable?
When your swing has to go low-to-high, the fastball up in the zone takes longer to get to since your swing has to travel further to catch up to the pitch.
Baseball is difficult, and for those who say “well why not just revert back to the “level” swing that worked for so long for so many hitters?,” it’s because the opposite is true as well. If you are working a “straight to the ball” swing (i.e. high-to-low, “The Level Stroke” from the Williams diagram) then you are vulnerable to low pitches and pounding balls right into the infield grass where uber-talented infielders get you out at first base.
Since fastballs are preferred up in the zone, what kind of fastball is typically successful in that area? The answer to this question has led to an exponential increase in the use of the measurement “spin-rate” in recent years. Spin rate is quite self-explanatory: it measures the spin (in rotations-per-minute, or ‘RPMs’) of any given pitch using radar technology. You can find a good explanation of spin rate here, but essentially for fastball purposes a higher spin rate means the pitcher is creating more optimal backspin (not diagonal) which leads to a “flatter” pitch (i.e., less vertical movement, or drop). You might think that “flatter” means “bad,” but in reality the modern pitcher wants their fastball up in the zone to have very little drop so it does not play into the hitters swing that we discussed earlier (a pitch that drops less than the batter expects is what leads to some hitters saying that a pitchers fastball “rises”). See the above video of Gerrit Cole for a visual example of a high-spin fastball.
Modern Secondary Pitches
The fastball/curve combination has become one of the most popular duos in baseball recently, and it can largely be attributed to a concept called pitch tunneling.
In short, pitch tunneling is trying to make all of your off-speed pitches look exactly like your fastball for as long as you can on the way to the plate before it breaks in an effort to fool the hitter. This is what this looks like in practice, from the great Rob Friedman (aka The Pitching Ninja):
Of course, this practice is not exclusive to the fastball/curveball combination, but it has largely become the template for all these random relievers that you see throughout the year that come out throwing gas with a nasty breaking ball (largely with sub-par command).
Another combination that is gaining popularity is the sinker/slider combination for those who just can’t seem to keep their fastballs from moving horizontally/vertically:
This duo is just as deadly as the fastball/slider combo in that the hitter has no time to differentiate between what direction the pitch is going to break, but tends to be worked more east/west instead of north/south. If an evolved Greg Maddux was a pitcher in 2022, this is what he would look like.
“Establishing your fastball” is often a thing traditionalists point to as the key to success for pitchers. The thinking behind this is that if you can successfully make hitters worry about your fastball, it will make it that much harder to adjust to offspeed pitches and get them out in front.
The new style? Throw your best pitch as often as possible. This new line of thinking does not care whether the best pitch is a fastball, slider, curveball, or a screwball, if it gets guys out at a high rate, throw it.
Intuition would say this makes sense, but obviously you can’t throw your best pitch every single time or hitters would adjust and begin to make hard contact, no matter how good the pitch is. However, studies such as these show that throwing a breaking ball over and over does not reduce its effectiveness, likely because these pitches are so nasty. I mean seriously, how does anyone in MLB ever make contact with this?
The trade-off that comes with throwing pitches this nasty and this hard is that starting pitchers are now going shorter into the game than ever before, a topic that has been discussed ad-nauseum, especially in the postseason.
Since nearly every pitcher in MLB now throws mid-to-high 90s with movement to great effect, starting pitchers no longer are pressured to throw complete games. Instead, they are incentivized to go max-effort from opening pitch until they are no longer effective (typically around 5 innings), and pass the baton to the next guy who likely throws harder and has nastier stuff than he does, just in shorter spurts.
Whether this style of pitching where the value of a starting pitcher is minimized is up to one’s opinion. This writer does miss the narrative value of seeing a starting pitcher have to fight and claw his way through 7-9 innings without his best stuff, but it is mesmerizing to see the raw stuff that these max-effort pitchers are able to produce.
While the storytelling for the modern pitcher may be lacking compared to old-school baseball, there is no denying that MLB pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and likely with more movement too. This evolution has led to the modern game that you see today where nearly a third of all plate appearances end in a strikeout, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. There’s a reason that Greg Maddux is so popular among social media baseball traditionalists: his stuff was downright filthy. I would strongly encourage those same people to take a long look at modern pitchers, you might be enamored with what you see.