"It's an easy measurable," Cubs president Theo Epstein says. "In the information age things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionately.
"Also, this is speculation, but maybe more pitchers are throwing harder because they're pitching every fifth day now instead of every fourth day, they're throwing 180 innings a year instead of 300, and instead of throwing 160 pitches a game, they're throwing 100. Maybe that's what allows velocity to pick up."
The evolution is undeniable. According to fangraphs.com, in just the past six years the number of pitchers who average at least 93 mph with their fastball has jumped by 88% (from 100 to 188). The ones who average 95 mph and better have increased 133% (from 21 to 49).
Managers use one elite power arm after another to match up late in a game. The Royals, a team that lost 90 games last year, used seven relievers who averaged 93 or above with their fastball. (Kansas City's bullpen ERA was 3.17, fourth in the American League.) "Thirty or 40 years ago you're facing the same guy all the time," Hickey said. "It's a different game now. There's no way you can tell me if Stan Musial plays today he wouldn't strike out 50 times. [Musial averaged 33.1 strikeouts per season.] There's so much going on with pitchers."
When Musial won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1948, he faced 52 pitchers. When Miguel Cabrera of Detroit won the MVP Award last year, he faced 225 pitchers. And each of those pitchers comes armed with more information to exploit hitters' weaknesses. Says Red Sox manager John Farrell, "If a hitter has a high swing rate on 1-and-0 pitches, we'll know it. So we will pitch to him 1 and 0 like it's a pitcher's count, not a hitter's count. Whatever weakness is there, the numbers expose it."
And it's not as if hitters can negate that information edge with analytics of their own. "The information hinders a hitter," says Hickey. "First of all, if you're up there thinking, you're done. Secondly, hitting is so reactionary. Pitching, nothing happens until you're ready. You size up the situation, you line it up and decide what you want to do. As a hitter all you can do is react. If you start getting bogged down with the fact this guy throws 36% backdoor cutters on strike two and that's in your mind, that's where the hindrance comes in. So I hope hitters get all the information they can—that they're overloaded with info."
In 1968 pitchers so dominated the game that owners lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 to give hitters a better chance. Pitchers struck out 15.8% of batters in '68. That percentage immediately began declining, especially after the designated hitter was introduced in the AL in '73. Through the '80s the strikeout percentage began to slowly climb. It wasn't until '94 that it reached the '68 level again. A period of strikeout stability followed in an otherwise volatile era of steroids, ballpark construction and expansion. From '95 to 2007 the strikeout rate toggled up and down in the narrow range of 16.2 to 17.3%.
Since 2008, however, the game has gone strikeout crazy. The percentage has gone up in statistical leaps and bounds: 17.5, 18.0, 18.5, 18.6, 19.8. One out of every five batters who comes to the plate today will strike out. And as the strikeout rate is booming, the rate of walks actually is decreasing. Last year it fell to 8.0%, its lowest level since 1968.
More pitchers, more velocity, more movement, more information, more strikes. The environment for pitching hasn't been this robust since Norworth and Von Tilzer were alive and the ball was dead. Night after night, game after game, pitchers are asserting their power, three strikes at a time.