MLB 2024: What would happen if pitchers didn't throw as hard?

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 28, 2024

LOGAN WEBBIS one of the best starting pitchers in the major leagues -- certainly one of the few you might confidently call an ace. The San Francisco Giants' 27-year-old right-hander throws a sinking fastball with 30 inches of vertical break plus arm-side horizontal movement, a changeup considered one of the best in the game and a sweeper he likes to throw when ahead in the count -- and he has the command to hit the corners or the bottom of the strike zone with all three pitches.

Since his breakout season in 2021, Webb ranks fourth among all pitchers in WAR -- and is about to pass the injured Gerrit Cole and Sandy Alcantara to trail only Zack Wheeler. He has been durable, leading all pitchers in 2023 with 216 innings. With the movement on his sinker and changeup, he induces a high rate of grounders, thus limiting home runs better than your typical starter.

In many ways, Webb looks like the perfect prototype for a modern starting pitcher, except for one thing: He doesn't throw hard, at least by current standards. His sinker has averaged 92 mph this season, well below the MLB average fastball velocity of 93.7 mph.

In a season in whichso many starting pitchers have been hit with injuries, those around baseball have speculated on how to keep pitchers healthier, and velocity has been part of that discussion. Would pitchers get hurt less often if they weren't throwing as hard? In other words: If they were more like Webb?

It's a theory -- although one that not even its poster child necessarily lives by.

"I'll be honest, I still chase velocity," Webb told ESPN. "Every offseason I'm trying to add miles per hour."

But now that Webb and others have shown an alternative path to ace-dom -- will anyone else follow their lead?

WHEN WEBB REACHEDthe majors in 2019, he was more of a conventional four-seam fastball pitcher. He had Tommy John surgery in 2016 and returned throwing 93 to 96 mph. The Giants wanted him to throw his four-seamer up in the zone, and he threw it 43% of the time during his eight-start call-up. When the Giants hired Brian Bannister as their director of pitching after that season, he convinced Webb to drop his arm angle and throw his sinker more. After Webb dropped his arm angle even more in 2021, it all came together -- his sinker and changeup merging into a potent pairing.

"The cool thing about Major League Baseball is that nobody's the same," Webb said. "So, guys that throw hard, they just throw hard. Guys that don't throw hard, you have to find ways to get outs. I wouldn't say to try to do what I do, because they might not throw that way, right? Since everyone's different. I wouldn't tell Spencer Strider to throw like me and I wouldn't tell me to throw like Spencer Strider."

Strider, the Atlanta Braves' ace, had surgery to repair his UCL in April -- and he's one of nine of the 10 starters with the hardest fastballs from last season who have been on the injured list in 2024. Strider, Sandy Alcantara, Eury Perez and Shane McClanahan are out for the season, andShohei Ohtani won't pitch after having elbow surgery last year. Gerrit Cole has yet to return after going down in spring training. Grayson Rodriguez and Jesus Luzardo are back after short IL stints while Bobby Miller is still out. Only Hunter Greene hasn't missed time.

Pitchers understand the risks involved with throwing high-velocity pitches. They also know the payoff.

"It's obviously harder to hit 98 than it is 92," said Red Sox reliever Liam Hendriks, who is sidelined after undergoing his own Tommy John surgery last summer. "I mean, when I was 92 guy, I had a 7.00 ERA. When I was a 98 guy, it was sub-2.00."

Hendriks is right -- and the numbers are stark. Here are how batters fared against fastballs in increments of two miles per hour in 2023:

100+ mph: .188/.265/.225

98-99.9 mph: .253/.333/.357

96-97.9 mph: .262/.342/.383

94-95.9 mph: .279/.357/.413

92-93.9 mph: .290/.369/.431

90-91.9 mph: .286/.363/.449

Under 90 mph: .323/.394/.515

Throw softer, get hit harder -- not to mention that if you throw faster, it's that much more difficult for batters to adjust to off-speed pitches.

And less contact isn't the only positive that comes from throwing harder.

"Everyone's chasing velocity now, because guys get paid for those numbers, certain numbers that require better stuff," Hendriks said. "It will always edge that way no matter what, just purely based on the finances of the game. If they paid guys for just outs rather than strikeouts, it probably wouldn't be as big of an issue. It's not even the front office, it's the arbitration process. Those numbers are skewed toward certain statistics. Even ERA isn't generally a huge indicator of how it goes."

Blue Jays starter Chris Bassitt said on Chris Rose's podcast earlier this season that he's been on teams where relievers with a 3.80 ERA get released while relievers with a 4.80 ERA are kept -- as long as they throw harder. Red Sox starter Lucas Giolito pointed to Tyler Glasnow as proof of how the system works: The Dodgers gave Glasnow, who throws 96 mph with a wipeout breaking ball, a $136 million extension this past offseason even though he has never pitched more than 120 innings in a season.

However, when asked what would happen if pitchers didn't try to max out velocity as much, rookie left-hander Kyle Harrison -- Webb's teammate on the Giants whose fastball sits at 93 mph -- said he believed it could perhaps help baseball's pitching injury crisis.

"I think that you'd probably see a little more offense, but you'd probably see less injuries. You hate to say it, but you probably would," Harrison said. "But we're trying to get these guys out and it takes every ounce of what we got to get them out sometimes. But that's a good question. I think definitely some stuff would maybe get hit harder, but who knows, maybe you'd hit your spots better."

And of course, even Harrison picks his moments to turn it up.

"If I got a guy 1-2, two outs in a situation with runners on, then I'm going to kind of reach back and get a little more," he said. "I've never looked up the stats, but you always know when it's that sixth or seventh inning and you're at 98 pitches, you know that's your last pitch, it feels like every pitcher, that last pitch might be an extra 1.5 mph."

In fact, while Harrison averages 92.7 mph on his fastball overall, with two strikes it ramps up to 93.4 mph. Batters have hit .155 against his fastball with two strikes.

Sometimes less is better -- sometimes more is better.

STILL, THOUGH, A number of pitchers are proving that the art of pitching can still work, despite the financial incentives and stats pushing them to throw faster and faster.

Webb is having another good season, with a 2.74 ERA, while tied for the MLB lead in innings pitched. Ranger Suarez of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a 91 mph sinker -- which is actually down in velocity from last season -- and he's off to an incredible start. Shota Imanaga of the Chicago Cubs has come over from Japan and befuddled batters with a 92 mph four-seamer and splitter. Seth Lugo of the Kansas City Royals sits 92-93 mph and is having the best season of his career. Despite all the injuries to big-name, high-velocity starters, 26 qualified starters have an ERA below 3.00 through Sunday. Sixteen of those 26 have an average fastball velocity below the major league average.

Tanner Houck of the Boston Red Sox is one of those, with a sinker that clocks in at 93.3 mph, a little under the MLB average. He first reached the majors in 2020 and has shuffled between starting and relieving, spending most of 2022 in the bullpen before making all his appearances last season and this year as a starter. At 28 years old, he's having the best season of his career, with a 1.90 ERA and just one home run allowed through his first 11 starts.

He's found that, for him, not throwing as hard works.

"I realized that if I'm at 92, 94 [mph], I hit spots better," Houck said. "My movement's better. It produces ground balls earlier in the count. I'm in the zone more and that allows me to get deep in the games. So, it didn't take much to convince myself [to not throw as hard]. I just really had to kind of look at the mirror and realize the person I am and the man I am. Just had to ego check myself."

When Houck pitched out of the bullpen in 2022, he threw his four-seamer nearly as often as his sinker, with the four-seamer averaging 95.2 mph. As a starter, he's now completely ditched that pitch, sticking with a sinker, splitter, slider and occasional cutter. The splitter, thanks to a slight grip change, is better than ever, but as with Webb, the key is understanding what works best for him.

"If you're a guy who can throw 97 to 100, by all means, I applaud you," Houck said. "I think the big thing for young pitchers is you just have to find who you are as a pitcher. If you're going to be a 94, four-seamer guy at the top of the zone with a curveball, like [Nick] Pivetta, who can also run it up there to 97, 98, that's great. If you're going to be a sinkerballer who is hitting the knees, that's great. For me, I'm an east-west guy, I'm a low three-quarter. I'm not going to throw four-seamers at the top of the zone. I've tried that and it didn't work out."

For Webb, part of that pitching identity has also become maximizing efficiency. When he first reached the majors, his teammates included Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija -- all pitchers who had thrown 200 innings on multiple occasions. Webb wanted to be like those guys, and in his brain, being a starter meant getting to 200 innings.

Last season, Webb was one of just five pitchers to reach 200 innings while averaging 6.5 innings per start -- getting there, in part, because he ranked second in fewest pitches per inning among qualified starters. This year he's averaged 6.0 innings (thanks to a couple poor outings in April) and 97.8 pitches per start, still above the MLB averages of 5 innings and 87 pitches.

Don't mistake efficiency for an inability to strike batters out, though -- it's hard to survive just on grounders alone. Webb has fanned 20.3% of the batters he's faced this season, just below the MLB average of 21.8% for starting pitchers. Last year, he was a tick above average at 22.8%. Suarez (28.4%), Imanaga (27.8%) and Houck (24.4%) are among those with above-average K rates in 2024.

But pitchers like Harrison know that strikeouts still aren't everything -- it's all about getting out of the inning whatever way you can.

"I was a big strikeout guy in the minor leagues," he said. "That's something I really wanted and would kind of strive for at times. The starts I've had up here, I kind of realize I'll take the out however it comes if it saves me five pitches. That's five more pitches I can give later in the game. So that's kind of my mindset. Obviously everyone loves strikeouts, but we want to be efficient as pitchers -- and that's something I picked up in watching Alex Cobb and Logan Webb last year."

HALL OF FAME pitcher Greg Maddux, the master of the running two-seamer, likes to say that "pitching isn't a speed contest, it's an execution contest." We're seeing that from pitchers like Webb, Houck and Suarez.

While the chase for velocity isn't going away, that quote reminds us of the importance of knowing how to pitch. And as the game continues to evolve, so too will pitchers -- and batters.

As hurlers sort out their pitching identity and what works best for them, batters have slowly adapted to changes in the game as well, fine tuning their abilities to keep up with the varying types of pitches and speeds they see in the batter's box.

Houck has seen that firsthand in teammate Rafael Devers.

"It's special -- what he can do in today's game," Houck said. "How he can hit 100, but then he can also wait back and hit 85. I don't know how anybody gets a hit. It's genuinely the most fascinating thing, watching a hitter, because what they do is impossible."

Pitchers have responded to the Deverses of the world with fewer fastballs -- even high-velocity ones get hit -- with more sweepers. The percentage of four-seamers and sinkers has dropped from 52.4% in 2019 to 47.2% in 2024. Meanwhile, pitches classified as sweepers have increased from 0.6% to 5.8% in that timeframe.

Will that eventually lead to more pitchers who don't rely purely on velocity?

"If you look at any analytics or stuff they give you, off-speed pitches work better, they have better numbers," Webb says. "If you're talking ISO or X-slug or all those expected things, breaking balls and changeups were better than fastballs.

"So, it's like, do you want to keep throwing your fastball? Or do you want to throw off-speed? It's really just about whether or not you execute the pitch. Because if you execute the pitch, it doesn't matter if batters know what's coming or not. It's most likely going to be an out. That's what pitching is."