Phillies manager Joe Girardi was hopping mad when superstar Bryce Harper took a 96.7-mph fastball to the dome in a game last month. Harper only missed a handful of games, but if Genesis Cabrera’s high-90s cheese had landed an inch in any other direction, Philadelphia’s $330-million slugger might have been looking at a serious, potentially career-threatening injury. Harper’s close call should be a warning to other hitters as baseball’s trend toward higher velocity—coupled with a lack of fastball command—continues to yield dangerous consequences.
It’s no secret pitchers are throwing harder than ever, but as many have yet to realize, there’s a price to be paid for all that speed. It’s not just arm injuries (though those are also on the rise) or no-hitters becoming a near-weekly occurrence. The problem, as Hall-of-Fame hurler-turned-color-commentator John Smoltz sees it, is that most pitchers who throw that hard have zero in the way of command and overcompensate by throwing high and tight, which—in their eyes—is better than missing middle-in and having Harper launch one 400 feet.
“Pitching inside never had the elevation behind it that it does now,” said Smoltz on a recent broadcast for FS1. “When you match the velocity with the elevation, you’re playing with fire.”
There will always be exceptions (Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer among them), but by and large, baseball’s velocity obsession has come at the expense of throwing strikes. Just ask Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna who, as noted by national columnist Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, has already been plunked 22 times in just 345 MLB games. Compare that to Braves legend Hank Aaron, who absorbed just 32 HBPs throughout his 23-year career (3,298 games). Last year produced the most hit-by-pitches on a per-game basis since 1899 and, unless something drastically changes, Rosenthal expects that number will easily be exceeded this season.
“To pitch inside waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a [hitter]. And there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer,” explained Smoltz. “Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”
Moving hitters off the plate is nothing new, though now that pitchers are routinely hitting 100-mph with little to no idea where’s it’s going, batters like Harper and Acuna are at higher risk of getting drilled than ever before.