When J.D. Martinez made his debut in 2011 with the Houston Astros, the average fastball velocity in the major leagues was 91.5 m.p.h. It was more of a horizontal game, with pitchers attempting to exploit hitters from corner to corner.
But with Martinez in the midst of his 11th big league season, average fastball velocity is 93.3 m.p.h. Pitchers try to exploit the top of the strike zone with their fastballs and the bottom with off-speed and breaking stuff.
The game has changed. This is giving hitters a headache, and it is a topic of discussion around the sport. As of Monday, the cumulative batting average across the majors was just .234, with a .391 slugging percentage. The strikeout percentage is up to 24.1 percent, and the .311 on-base percentage is the lowest since 1968.
“I think what people don’t understand is that this is a stuff-over-command league nowadays,” Martinez said. “It’s guys that throw 100 miles per hour. You see it every day, every team.”
The suffocating pitching at the big league level has led to pitching empires at the amateur level. Vanderbilt, for instance, has starters Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker projected as top-five picks in this year’s draft. Leiter is projected to go No. 1, while Rocker could fall to the Red Sox at No. 4. Both can hit the upper 90s, but beyond that, they have data at their disposal in a way that hitters do not.
Outside of college, Driveline Baseball, TreadAthletics, and others focus on pitching development. These outlets for pitchers — and the results that follow — are why many talent evaluators have restructured their expectations. Many scouts now look at an amateur hitter’s process more than results, including the Red Sox’.
“Don’t get me wrong, seeing present results is a way of mitigating risk to a certain extent,” said Paul Toboni, Red Sox director of amateur scouting. “But if all the attributes are there without the results, as long as you have a narrative to point to [and] we think it’s crackable, then we’re OK with it.
“But that’s really hard. I think it’s human nature when you see a player not performing, I think it’s really hard to jump in with both feet.”
There isn’t one clear, defined way to hit. The Red Sox try to develop their minor leaguers in a space where they can take multiple approaches to beat this dominant pitching era.
“Hitting is so much more reactive, to where I think it’s hard to get too fixated on one particular plan,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “We have to make sure these guys are equipped to handle whatever the league is going to throw at them.”
The talk up and down the Red Sox system has steered toward a more balanced approach, which includes shortening the swing and making contact on high-velocity pitchers. That’s what the Sox preach to their minor leaguers.
In the same breath, Toboni and Bloom want velocity from their pitchers, too. The margin for error, Toboni explained, is greater when you throw harder. Nonetheless, pitchability matters, as do projections.
“We want to identify the attributes that player development has a really tough time improving,” Toboni said. “Scouts draft those players that have those qualities.
“If we think there’s a capacity to improve velocity, as an example, then we don’t necessarily need to gamble on present velocity, if we think it’s coming down. I think teams are getting better and better at figuring out what those things are.”
Depth may be tested
Since Bloom arrived in Boston following the 2019 season, he has preached sustainability and flexibility, which is why he views the recent injury to WooSox righthander Tanner Houck (sore right flexor muscle) as a tough blow.
“You’ve heard me say since I got here how important pitching depth is and how, despite the fact that our depth is dramatically improved from 2020, it’s still not where it needs to be,” Bloom said. “This is an area where you really can’t ever have enough.
“But however much you do have, you know that the season is going to test it. And this bump in the road for Tanner is just the latest example.”
The Red Sox view this as a short-term issue with Houck, who essentially serves as the sixth man in their rotation. That leaves Daniel Gossett, Stephen Gonsalves, Kyle Hart, and Raynel Espinal as potential options for the big-league club, if need be. Bloom wouldn’t say specifically which of the four could fit that role.
“I don’t think it’d be fair for us to anoint someone right now,” said Bloom. “We have a number of guys there who are going to get the ball and are going to get plenty of opportunities to show what they can do. We’re going to be keeping an eye on them very closely.”
High hopes for young man
Second baseman Nick Yorke, the Red Sox’ 2020 first-round pick, is just a year removed from high school. He’s still just 19 years old and is playing in Low A Salem.
“Getting to know Nick a little bit better in major league camp and seeing what we saw of him, both there and then minor league spring training, just reinforced how we feel about him,” Bloom said.
The Red Sox believe Yorke has an advanced hit tool well beyond his years, which makes them feel the adjustment won’t be too much for him.
“It’s a tough assignment for a player his age,” Bloom said. “At the end of the day, you want to put players where they can succeed but where they’re also going to be challenged, and everybody felt strongly that this is the right spot for him.”