If you’ve been following baseball at all the last few years, you know that velocity has become extremely important. It seems like everyone throws gas. Per Statcast, a whopping 427 Major League pitchers have thrown at least one pitch at 95 mph or harder this season. Nearly 40% of those pitchers have done it 100 times or more. Five years ago, the number of pitchers who threw 95 or harder was only 394. That means that basically every team in the league has added a guy who can dial it up to 95 or better over the course of only a few years.
Accordingly, the average fastball speed has gone up a mile and a half over the last decade. And accordingly, hitters have had to adjust. Every tick of velocity, or even a fraction of a tick, matters. As Zach Schonbrun details in The Performance Cortex, that’s because there’s a gap between when a hitter decides to swing and when they initiate that motion, a leisurely latent period. Everyone’s brain is like this and we don’t know why the gap exists. But it does, and it’s a mere 50 milliseconds long, give or take a few, and it’s critical.
Gerrit Cole has thrown the most fastballs in the Majors this season at 95 mph or more, totaling 1,368. Consider this pitch visualization from Statcast of fastballs he threw to Matt Chapman on August 27 that qualify under that umbrella:
The light yellow dots are when Chapman could have ID’d Cole’s heaters. The pink ones are when Chapman would’ve had to commit to swinging. His decision whether to swing would’ve had to come in between and a fairly sized portion of that time — those mere fractions of a second — would have required a window for that 50 millisecond delay between deciding and initiating his hack.
Chapman didn’t put any Cole fastballs into play that day.
This is what hitters face on a regular basis now. They can’t currently train to reduce that leisurely, 50 millisecond flash, and every tick up on fastballs forces them to decide to swing quicker and quicker. It’s also what makes what Patrick Corbin has done this season so much more impressive.
Plenty has been written about Corbin’s monster 2018. First it was Jeff Sullivan on how he was using his slider more than ever, and in different ways, effectively making two pitches out of one. It made up for his bad changeup. Then it was about how his velocity had gone down and how that could be the harbinger of injury for him and trouble for the Diamondbacks. The injury never came, his velocity went back up a little, and then Craig Edwards detailed his overall development from the time he broke into MLB. Most recently, Ben Harris dug into how Corbin’s sliders have given him a tremendous weapon against righties, who have gone from crushing him to cursing him.
Corbin has been the sixth-most valuable pitcher this season by fWAR. He’s struck out at least seven batters in each of his last seven starts, and 31% of all batters faced this year, which is the eighth-most in all of baseball. And in a day and age where velocity has become king, where every team wants it, his new repertoire is letting him achieve success in an unprecedented way. See the following chart, containing the pitcher in the top 10 in K% with the slowest average fastball going back through the last decade.
Corbin has the largest gap between his own average fastball and the league’s in a given season over this time period, at 2.9 mph. The next closest, Madison Bumgarner in 2016, was only a 1.8 mph gap. After that, it shrinks to Jered Weaver’s 1.4 mph all the way back in 2010. And after that, the gap just keeps shrinking. None of the pitchers above were exclusively known for their fastball when they were leading strikeout getters, but it’s plenty fair to consider it an indicator of their success. It also underscores just how important Corbin’s sliders have been for him and the Diamondbacks.
Without the evolution of his breaking balls, Corbin’s fastball would leave him as a two pitch guy somewhere in the range of Julio Teheran (.4 fWAR) and Alex Wood (2.2 fWAR). Instead, he’s on pace to be worth at least nearly three times as much to his team.
Right now every little bit counts. Arizona currently leads the NL West at 73-60, but only by a half game over Colorado and one game over LA. They have 44.3% odds to make the playoffs and every whiff Corbin provides is going to have an impact.
Each whiff Corbin provides could also impact his next contract. He’s set to become a free agent at season’s end. Everyone remembers how last year’s market was an absolute mess for the players and, in another capacity, the fans, too. Corbin is only working with what he’s got but he appears to be zigging when everyone else is zagging.
Whether he can replicate this kind of performance moving into his 30s, or what he becomes if his velocity truly dips further, are questions as good as any. You can’t fake whiffs at the rate Corbin has gotten them, though. Surely, the answers will dictate millions of dollars, and could keep having an impact on playoff races for years to come.
K% and velocity data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports