I was talking to a member of the Phillies personnel department yesterday and we somehow arrived at the subject of velocity. Specifically, how much higher velocities seem to be now than they were only seven years ago when I first started covering baseball. I distinctly remember back in 2008 when Ryan Madson's velocity spiked late in the season and he started hitting 95 on the gun. It was a moment: whoa, Madson just hit 95. Brad Lidge averaged 95 on his fastball that season. Madson averaged 93-94. After that, you had JC Romero at 92 and Chad Durbin at 91.
Last year, the Phillies had three guys average 95 and two average over 97. Ken Giles and Jake Diekman were both 97.7 on their fastball, according to Fangraphs.com. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez averaged 95.9. Justin De Fratus sat 92-93.
It just seems every team has three or four guys sitting 95+, and doing it with ease.
The Phillies personnel guy agreed and told me about a phone call he fielded from a call league out in Arizona at the fall league this year. The guy on the other end, a scout, was incredulous.
"I've got X of them out here throwing XX MPH," he said.
He didn't say X or XX, he said specific numbers, I forget what the specific number was, but whatever X and XX were, they were enough of a deviation from the norm to warrant comment. It'd be a better anecdote if I remembered the numbers, and I'll figure them out when I see him today, but for now, you are just going to have to get what you paid for.
Anyway, I'm milling around the clubhouse today, and I see Jerome Williams getting his lean on in an office chair in front of his locker, talking to Bob Nightengale, the USA Today reporter who wrote the Cole Hamels story yesterday. Williams is on the short list nominees for this year's Chillest Dude in the Clubhouse award. I'd say that makes sense, because Williams is from Hawaii, and everything he does has this lime-in-the-coconut vibe to it, except the last guy from Hawaii did everything like he was a 33 1/3 playing at 45, so I'm not going to make any generalizations about islanders. Regardless, I'm curious what a guy like Williams thinks about these young whippersnappers coming up throwing 96, 97, 98 MPH with the ease of Aaron Rodgers' release. Williams is what you used to expect out of a reliever who wasn't a closer. He averaged 91.4 on his fastball last year, 92.4 the season before.
"We were just talking about that," he says, nodding to Nightengale.
"You used to watch TV on Fox, and they'd have the radar graphic, and it would light up with (animated) flames whenever a pitcher hit 95 "Now, every pitch is 95."
The power surge in the Phillies' bullpen is not an isolated instance. Relievers are getting better. We're watching the evolution of the game. Frankly, it might be the No. 1 reason why offense has dropped so much, not including any changes that have been, um, legislated out of the game. Sine I started covering baseball, the average fastball velocity of all big league relievers has jumped by more than 1 MPH. Meanwhile, they are relying less on those fastballs, which would seem to indicate the presence of better secondary stuff and better command of all pitches (i.e., fewer fastball counts means fewer fastballs thrown)
Below is the year-by-year velo average across the majors, with the percentage of fastballs of all pitches thrown in parentheses.
2014: 92.5 (60.3)
2013: 92.5 (60.6)
2012: 92.5 (60.9)
2011: 92.3 (60.6)
2010: 92.1 (61.4)
2009: 91.8 (61.2)
2008: 91.4 (62.4)
Guys are throwing harder these days. Specifically, relievers. I suspect that, like everything in this world, the reason for the spike in velocities is economics. Relievers can make big money now, so guys are more willing to switch to the bullpen at an earlier age, and specialize their body to the task of throwing one inning at max effort. Williams agrees with all of this.
"Now, it's all about velo, velo, velo," he said. "If you throw hard, you get the money."
So let's put the Phillies' fireballers into some context. Last year, Giles, Diekman, Gonzalez and De Fratus combined to average 96.5 MPH on 1,958 fastballs thrown. In 2008, Lidge, Madson, Romero and Durbin combined to average 92.9 MPH on 2,632 fastballs thrown. I used Gonzalez because he throws hard, but even if I substituted Mario Hollands and his heavier workload, it wouldn't matter much. Hollands averaged 93.8 on his fastball.
I haven't looked at how the Phillies compared to every other major league team, but I did do a quick calculation of the average fastball velocity of the top four relievers in the four teams that made the LCS, plus the Nationals. The Phillies ranked second. For the Royals, I used Luke Hochevar's 2013 numbers since he was hurt all last year.
1. Royals (Holland, Davis, Herrera, Hochevar) 97.1
2. Phillies (Giles, Diekman, De Fratus, Gonzalez) 96.5
3. Cardinals (Rosenthal, Walden, Belisle, Siegrist) 95.8
4. Orioles (Britton, Hunter, Matusz, Brach) 95.3
5. Nationals (Storen, Janssen, Thornton, Barrett) 93.9
6. 2008 Phillies (Lidge, Madson, Romero, Durbin) 92.95
7. Giants (Casilla, Affeldt, Romo, Machi) 92.9
Not scientific, but kind of interesting when you consider how important the Phillies' bullpen was to their success in 2008, and how much harder the great bullpens are throwing in 2015.