What’s an “average” fastball velocity? This year, it’s 91.9 mph. Last year, it was 92.0 mph. In 2012, it was 91.8 mph. We could go back further, but since that’s all pretty consistent and this isn’t really going to be about how hard pitchers throw anyway, three years is fine. We can say that 92 mph is pretty much the average fastball speed in Major League Baseball.
So with that knowledge in mind, here’s what I wanted to know: what hitters have to deal with the most heat that’s at average and above velocities? And how do they handle it? Fortunately, we have Baseball Savant, so we can look at this pretty easily. With a minimum of 500 fastballs seen — for reference, Matt Carpenter and Brian Dozier have each seen over 1,200 total pitches, so 500 pitches would be fewer than half of what an everyday player would have received — there’s only three hitters who have seen at least 35 percent of pitches coming in at 92 or higher:
That’s fun, though perhaps not illustrative of anything. Also showing up on the top 10 of the “most heat” list are Kolten Wong and Mike Trout, so it’s not as simple as “good (or bad) players see higher velocities.”
But the second part of the initial question — who does what with that heat — well, that turns into a thread that all but forces you to keep on following it down the rabbit hole.
Here we have lowest slugging percentage on pitches at or above 92…
…and lowest isolated power on those pitches:
1) Jeter, .016
2) Nick Markakis, .016
3) Bradley, .018
Were we to do batting average, then Bradley, Jeter and Carter all appear in the bottom 10 as well, and obviously these things are not unrelated. What you have here are three players who cannot hit pitches at plus velocity, but that’s about all they have in common. Bradley has a career wRC+ of 62 and is almost certainly going to find himself in Triple-A at some point soon. Carter is still showing power, though not enough to make him more than a replacement player. Jeter may be the first real challenger to a 100 percent Hall of Fame ballot when he’s eligible in five years.
One of these is not like the others, but he’s showing up as among the most inept fastball hitters in the bigs — that ISO is one extra base hit in 63 tries, by the way, and came back on April 17 on a liner right over the first base bag against the since-DFA’d Heath Bell. So knowing that harder pitchers are eating him up, you inevitably go look at a spray chart just littered with balls to the right side…
…and then you go right back to Baseball Savant to check on which hitters have the lowest percentage of balls struck to left field:
…and what began as a question about fastballs has quickly turned into a discussion about just how much Jeter’s bat has slowed, leaving him all but incapable not only of getting a ball beyond the infield to left, but to do anything with authority to right.
Not that I have a particular interest in demolishing the legend who is limping along in what he’s already acknowledged is his last season, but let’s at least lay out the numbers: Jeter is tied with B.J. Upton for 157th in wRC+ of the 167 qualified hitters in baseball. He’s 20th among 25 shortstops, primarily because guys like Zack Cozart and Brad Miller are doing their best to set historical lows for offense. His defense has been below-average, though perhaps surprisingly not catastrophic, but largely because of Jeter, the Yankee shortstops as a whole are currently ahead of only the collection of not-Jose Iglesias that the Tigers are rolling out at short.
It’s to his credit, really, that he’s managed to return from the injury woes that cost him nearly all of 2013 to stay healthy enough to collect 234 plate appearances, third-most on the Yankees behind outfielders Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury. But it’s also not helping the Yankees so much that he has, and neither is the fact that 51 of his 52 starts (save for one game at leadoff in early April) have come in the second spot in the order.
That’s particularly troublesome because we know, now more than ever, how important it is to have a quality hitter in the second spot. So far this year, 28 hitters have had at least 100 plate appearances hitting second. Here’s how they’ve done:
That Ned Yost is letting Omar Infante and his .277 OBP hit second is only about No. 14 on the list of Royals-related problems. The Brewers finally wised up and moved Ryan Braun into the second spot more than two weeks ago. The White Sox, slaves to the “second basemen hit second” plague, used Marcus Semien as an injury replacement while Gordon Beckham rehabbed an injured oblique; since returning, Beckham has an acceptable 104 wRC+.
But the Yankees continue on with Jeter hitting second, in deference both to his status as a legend and the fact that the back end of the lineup is so thin that there’s perhaps not an obvious replacement. Then again, what good does it do when Gardner gets on and then is either erased via double play (or fielder’s choice) or watches as an out is made in front of Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Yangervis Solarte and Carlos Beltran? It’s not the only reason the Yankees have fewer runs scored than the Twins, Mets and Astros — and think on that for a minute — but it’s certainly part of it. It’s probably not realistic to expect Joe Girardi to take Jeter off of shortstop (Brendan Ryan, for all of his defensive prowess, has had health trouble this year, and is such a wreck at the plate that it actually makes a swap less than a no-brainer, though I won’t even discuss the ridiculous scenarios when Ryan has played first base) but getting Jeter out of the two spot is a conversation that is long since overdue.
Going back to the first list, the one about the highest number of fastballs thrown, maybe your first reaction was, “well, why aren’t they throwing him more if they know he can’t hit them?” As it turns out: they are. Running the same query, but just from May 1 on and cutting the minimum in half gets you this as far as percentage of pitches at 92 or above:
This isn’t an accident. Abreu is even more ancient than Jeter, and makes the cutoff here by all of one pitch. Revere is such a non-threat at the plate that when he actually homered a few weeks ago, it spawned an entire post here in celebration of it. In April, Jeter saw just 30.9 percent fastballs at or above 92. Since May 1, that’s jumped by 10 percent, and while there’s something to be said for the overall velocity of the sport tending to increase past April, the fact is simply this: Jeter can’t catch up to good fastballs any longer, and teams are increasingly taking advantage of it. It’s getting to the point than other than the occasional breaking ball just to keep him from timing it, you wonder why he’s ever not seeing fastballs.
Other than a mild increase in strikeouts, Jeter’s peripherals aren’t all that different than they were during his quality 2012. He’s not losing his plate discipline or popping up more or chasing pitches or missing pitches; some of those things are actually better this year. It’s just that he’s no longer able to do anything with the pitches he’s touching, especially the hard ones. That he’s on pace to do something done only one other time in the last 60 years — qualify for the batting title as a shortstop at age 40 or older, along with 2007’s Omar Vizquel — says a lot both about who he is and why so few other players ever get the opportunity to. Even the great Jeter can’t fight off the cold truth of age.
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