While watching Shohei Ohtani take a Dylan Cease fastball that was at the height of his Adam’s apple 450 feet out to right center Sunday night, I felt my curiosity piqued when the Statcast numbers came in. 450 feet seemed right, because he utterly murdered that ball. But that wasn’t what shifted my eyebrows. It was the 115 MPH exit velocity. Not that that number seemed out of place, because again, Ohtani had guessed the first-pitch fastball and squared it up. 137 MPH exit velo would have been believable.
It was the fact that over baseball’s first weekend, I felt like I’d been seeing numbers over 110 MPH ... a lot.
Turns out it was because I have, even if I’d only had one eye on MLB while trying to keep track of my normal NHL and soccer duties. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” indeed. (Soundgarden opened with this when I saw them, and it still remains one of the better moments of my life.)
Per BaseballSavant.com, to date, there have been 88 balls hit with an exit velocity of 110 MPH or higher. There were just 508 all of last year. So we’re at 17 percent of that figure already, in just a week of play. It was a shorter season, obviously, but one week is only about 10 percent-11 percent of last year’s 60-game schedule. So, yeah, hitters seem to be thwacking lasers on a more regular basis so far. It would be easy to dismiss this as pitchers trailing hitters in preparedness as we always get at this point in a season. But pitchers were probably even more lacking last year with only that mini-training camp in July before being thrown to the wolves, and this didn’t happen.
It’s also about 5 percent of the exit velocities over 110 MPH of the entire 2019 season, and that makes sense, as one week is a little less than 5 percent of a season. But the 2019 season was one where the baseball was filled with flubber. If the goal was to not repeat that, so far (with a very limited sample size), MLB isn’t on the right track.
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MLB made a whole thing over the winter about how it was altering the baseballs for this season to try to reduce the number of homers. Anyone who’s watched baseball the past couple seasons saw some pretty half-assed dingers that had no business traveling that far, and the game had become borderline-cartoonish. It was one of many strands of baseball’s action problem.
Now, tracking any rate over just one week of a season is futile, because any number of factors can lead to a spike in anything over seven days of a baseball season. It’s barely a grain of sand on the beach. It’s just a point we can come back to in a couple of weeks or months. There have been 203 homers in 176 games played so far. That’s 1.15 per game, only slightly down from the 2019 figure of 1.23 that drove everyone batty (get it?). And it hasn’t gotten warm yet around the country, when offense and home runs tend to rise no matter the pill being tossed around.
The sheer amount of hits being ‘returned to sender’ at 110-plus MPH is a strict counting stat though, and that can be discussed and studied. It may have something to do with MLB actually lightening the ball a touch in its adjustments, as an attempt to increase drag and bring down the number of homers. The lighter baseballs would travel at higher velocities. Four days into the season, it would appear MLB hasn’t gotten any of it right. In other breaking news, tomorrow is Friday.
It could still even out, of course. Balls that fly from bats at higher speeds don’t necessarily fly further if the drag on them in the air has, in fact, been increased. But the COR, or bounciness of the ball, was what MLB cited in its memo to front offices as the leading effect of homers. The higher exit velocities would suggest that that bounciness hasn’t been reduced at all. The average exit velocity so far this year is up one MPH from last year, which could mean anything. The percentage of “hard-hit” balls, what Statcast defines as an exit velocity over 95 MPH, has increased four percent this year to 40.5 percent this year from 37 percent last year. But again, percentages can fluctuate for four days for any reason and any direction. It’s the sheer number that’s the focus here.
And fans like big numbers, whether it’s fastballs or exit velocities. Infielders can take a step or two deeper to adjust. The only danger, as far as I can tell, is the pitchers who cannot play deeper and are at risk of pitches coming back at them at speeds no one can handle. But that was an issue before an uptick in exit velocity anyway.
There are no conclusions to be drawn yet from the abundance of lightning bolts screaming through infields and out toward the warning tracks so far this season. But it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.