“I think it’s very difficult to go into any series with all pitch-to-contact guys relying on their defense, because when you say ‘relying on defense, pitch to contact,’ you’re also relying on a little bit of luck,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It really enhances your chances of not having a big, big inning when you go out there and strike a guy out in a situation where a groundball to shortstop scores a run or a sac fly scores a run and starts a big inning.”
This, too, extends throughout a game. Increasingly, hard-throwing relievers are appearing earlier in games, and managers are willing to play matchups — a lefty on a left-handed hitter, say — in the sixth or seventh inning, rather than just in the eighth or ninth.
Take last year’s National League Division Series between the Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals. In the seventh inning of Game 4, a game Washington had to win to extend its season, Johnson inserted Jordan Zimmermann, who started the second game. This, Rizzo said, is “a prime example of what pitchers can be.” Zimmermann’s fastball normally sits around 93-94 mph, but he can ramp it up.
He got three straight hitters behind 0-2, wasted a ball on each of them, then struck them out on the fourth pitch. He hit 97 mph five times, 96 twice more, and threw three 91-mph sliders.
“I think that’s been the philosophies of a lot of teams,” Rizzo said, “building bullpens from the ninth backwards and getting power guys that can strike you out and they can use two or three games in a row.”
There are, too, under-reported factors that effectively make pitching easier. In 2007, MLB commissioned a company called Sportvision to install cameras that track the velocity and movement of pitches for use on the league’s Web site — a system known as Pitch f/x. That system also maintains knowledge of the strike zone, one on which umpires are evaluated.
“From that, it looks like the strike zone has gotten significantly larger,” said Fangraph’s Cameron. “There’s more called strikes now.”
And pitchers now have access to all that Pitch f/x information, including which hitters tend to swing at particular pitches in particular counts. So they use it.
“When I can get 70-80 percent odds in my favor that on a 2-2 count he’ll chase the breaking ball off the outside corner, or he’ll chase the change-up down, I’ll take those odds every time,” said former Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, an analyst on ESPN whose career spanned from the late 1970s to 1992. “There’s some amazing tendencies that the majority of hitters have that pitchers have knowledge of now, and you incorporate that with better stuff, and I mean, it’s pretty obvious why the strikeout total has gone up, and may continue to go up.”