From a baseball fan’s standpoint, taking in masterful pitchers like Clayton Kershaw or Dallas Keuchel is a goosebumps-inducing activity. Their variety on the mound and their pure ability to keep the batters guessing is unreal.
Even All-Star pitcher Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox and former Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey of the Atlanta Braves fit into this boat — the guys who never have the prototypical, major-league fastball velocity, yet can strategically place the ball better than a Noah Syndergaard or Carlos Martinez type.
For example, Syndergaard, a righty from Mansfield, Texas, and Martinez, the Opening Day starter for the St. Louis Cardinals, each ranked inside the top ten for highest average number of pitches thrown over 100 miles per hour.
Meanwhile, Wright and two former Cy Young winners — Dickey and Keuchel — rarely throw pitches above the 90 MPH mark. Kershaw’s fastball shifts from the 91 to 95 MPH range, but that still isn’t overwhelmingly fast to any degree.
What makes these players elite, though, is their variety and high IQ on the mound. Strategy as an MLB pitcher is just as important as skill, and in watching these men hurl, the ability to compartmentalize their situation and pitch accordingly is evident.
However, professional talent scouts generally see eye-popping numbers on their radar guns as the biggest indicator of talent; it’s quite rare to witness a player like Keuchel, whose record with the Houston Astros sits at a perfect 7-0, jump into The Show nowadays due to lack of velocity.
“It takes more than a good fastball to succeed on that mound — we all realize that — but it seems to be the first thing discussed when debating the talents of a pitcher, pro or amateur,” Steve Malenski, a Baltimore Orioles columnist for MASN.com, said. “How hard does he throw? Does his velocity hold up into the later innings? What speed does he top out at? Is he throwing harder than he did last year?”
To me, it’s much more entertaining to watch a pitcher without an imposing, fiery fastball keep batters off balance with command and smarts. But it seems to be a quickly ending sensation.
Players like Kyle Hendricks, whose fastball for the Chicago Cubs normally tops out at about 90 MPH, would not have the same success in MLB competition if the 27-year-old happened to actually be an 18-year-old prospect working his way up through the system. Since major-league teams appear to value velocity over variety, the common “dealer” is a dying breed.
Unfortunately for fans like me, and many of our readers, the age of a pitcher winning on strategy and discipline is over. Not to say that throwing 100 MPH down the center of the plate isn’t exciting, but nevertheless, pitching will steadily become more about speed than skill as the time goes on.