The Twins drew some headlines and some chuckles last week when starting pitcher Kenta Maeda pitched two scoreless innings against Tampa Bay. The attention-getting part of that outing was that Maeda pitched while the volume of the PitchCom device that he and his catcher Tony Wolters were using to communicate their pitch selections with each other was set so loud that the Rays’ hitters and the umpire knew nearly every pitch before it was thrown.
Well, here's some important context for Kenta Maeda's outing today:— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) March 2, 2023
The PitchCom receiver in catcher Tony Wolters' ear was too loud in the quiet Trop environment, so Rays hitters knew every pitch that Kenta was throwing before he threw it.
Still threw 2 scoreless innings.
Despite that disadvantage, Maeda worked around a one-out walk in the first inning, collecting a strikeout along with a line out and a pop-out. The first two batters of the second inning led off with singles, and Maeda struck out Charlie Culberson and then coaxed a double play grounder to escape the frame, and his outing, unscathed.
“We were thinking, ‘Hm, maybe they’re sitting on something in particular,’” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said to reporters after the game. “Who knows? You don’t know.”
While it was only a mostly insignificant Spring Training contest and it’s generally thought that pitchers are ahead of hitters early in camps, Maeda’s scoreless outing serves as a good reminder of just how hard it is to hit major league pitching.
“The hardest thing to do in baseball is to hit a round baseball, with a round bat, squarely”
– Ted Williams
I was reminded of this famous quote from Ted Williams and thought today we could revisit some of the reasons why it’s so difficult to hit.
The Science Behind Hitting a Pitch
First and foremost, the challenge of hitting big league pitching is a physical one. The distance from the pitching rubber on top of the mound to home plate is sixty feet, six inches. Pitchers reduce that distance when they step down the mound about six feet (or upwards of seven feet, if you’re Bailey Ober) to deliver their pitches, which we measure with the Statcast metric extension. At the velocities today’s pitchers throw their fastballs, it only takes around 400 milliseconds for an average fastball to travel that distance to a catcher’s glove, and it takes something like 375 milliseconds for a 100-mph fastball. That’s literally “the blink of an eye” when you consider that it takes between 300 and 400 milliseconds for humans to blink.
Neuroscience research has found that it takes about 80 to 100 milliseconds for the hitter’s brain to process the image to identify the ball from the pitcher’s hand. We also know that it takes another 175 milliseconds or so to decide and then perform the physical act of swinging the bat. Some quick math means that leaves the batter only about 125 milliseconds to process the pitch trajectory and decide to swing or not, as this excellent short video and the graphic below illustrate:
If all of that seems next to impossible, then consider that the window in which the pitch will be in place for the batter to meet it with the bat and hit the ball in fair territory is all of about 7 milliseconds.
Catching up with the fastball has become even more difficult as fastball velocity has ticked upward. The league average heater sat above 93 mph last season, an increase of about 2 miles per hour from just 15 seasons ago and about 4 miles per hour from just 20 seasons ago. Today, better than one in four (28.4%) fastballs top 95 mph, a rate that is more than double 2008’s 12.2%.
“They throw ungodly breaking stuff in the show”
Catching up to the fastball challenges the limits of physical human ability, but it’s far from the only way that pitchers can make things difficult on hitters. They can also change speeds with offspeed pitches that look like fastballs but aren’t. They can also make pitches move in various directions, like those “exploding sliders” that Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis talked about in Bull Durham.
Major League pitchers have ratcheted up the difficulty level by throwing their non-fastball pitch types more and more frequently. Since 2008, the share of non-fastball pitch types has climbed higher and higher. About a third (33.2%) of all the pitches thrown in 2008 were classified as breaking (curveballs or sliders) or offspeed (changeups or splitters) pitches. That share surpassed 40% in 2019 and reached a record high of 43.6% last season.
The reason behind this is that these pitch types have proven to be even harder for batters to handle than the heat. Since 2008, batters have combined to hit .223 / .266 / .359 (.273 wOBA) against so-called “secondary” pitches, compared to the .274 /.350 /.442 (.346 wOBA) they’ve batted against fastball pitch types. That differential has held true despite the increased usage of breaking and off-speed stuff. In 2008, those pitch types combined to allow .281 wOBA. Last season, with about 25% more of those secondary pitches offered, they combined to allow .274 wOBA.
Weaponizing Location for Maximum Effect
The final tool in the pitcher’s toolbox is location. It’s long been understood that pitchers who could consistently and intentionally vary the locations to which they threw their pitches would have an advantage, especially if they also had the ability to change speeds and movements as discussed above.
While we often think of location as where the pitch ends up around the strike zone, we have learned in the past decade or so that intentionally throwing pitches through specific locations on the way to home plate, to make different pitches look like each other, makes life on hitters even more challenging.
Research by Harry Pavlidis, Johnathon Judge, and Jeff Long at Baseball Prospectus identified a batter must make their decision to swing or take, and then physically start their swing when a pitch is about 24 feet from home plate — a point they named the “tunnel point.”
Given the very limited amount of time from that point on, the hitter’s brain extrapolates the pitch’s expected trajectory and speed based on what it’s seen so far and makes an educated guess as to where the pitch will end up. What this means is that batters are essentially swinging blindly for the final 20-plus feet. Any deviations from the batter’s most likely expected speed, trajectory, and location for the pitch are to the pitcher’s advantage.
Naturally, then, pitchers have learned ways to make their pitches look as similar as possible through the tunnel point, before snapping them off in any number of directions for the final distance.
It just so happens that the very first article I published at Twinkie Town was about how Kenta Maeda’s arsenal is quite good for this and the video clip above demonstrates it well.
Recent findings from Ethan Rendon, Elijah Emery, Will Sugar, and Tieran Alexander writing at ProspectsLive have been able to put some numbers to the optimal pitch pairings for tunneling and Maeda checks many of the most important boxes. That’s a key reason why he is able to be successful (when healthy) despite well below-average fastball velocity, extension, and only average-ish spin rates.
If hitters are making their decisions and best guesses at 24 feet, it’s easy to see why the margins for pitchers to exploit are fairly small. Just making the pitch end up a few centimeters different than expected, in three-dimensional space, is enough to disrupt hard contact or get a swing and miss. That’s why there has been such an acute focus on weaponizing pitch spin over the past several seasons. Using concepts like spin mirroring, training techniques to develop the active spin that makes pitches move subtly more than expected, and using sneaky release points that add deception in conjunction with tunneling strategies serve to give pitchers even more advantages over hitters.
The best strategy, as Greg Maddux once put it, is that “every pitch should look as close to every other as possible.” Combine that now widely adopted approach with faster-than-ever velocity, and more breaking and offspeed pitches than ever, and yeah, it’s really hard to hit major league pitching. Even if you know what’s coming.