When Adam Ottavino recently boasted he would strike out Babe Ruth, it reignited one of baseball’s favorite debates: how would modern players fare against the stars of yesteryear? The debate typically boils down to a few things - the impact of integration, the improvement of training methods, and the shifting ways that players are used. All of those factors have diversified and improved the talent pool for MLB teams to a point where players are faster, stronger, better informed, and throw with greater velocity than ever before. According to Baseball Savant and Statcast, the average fastball (4-seam, 2-seam, sinker, and cutter) in 2018 was 92.4 mph. In 2008, it was 91.1 mph. If we head to Baseball Info Solutions, which provides FanGraphs with their velocity data, but has discrepancies with Statcast’s measurements, the average fastball velocity in 2002 was just 89.0 mph.
The game has changed, with relievers and expertly trained hurlers delivering triple-digits nightly, but even within the league there is a clear separation between some teams and others. Famously, the Yankees are Velocity Kings, with a league-leading 93.8 mph average fastball. The Bronx Bombers were one of nine teams to average over 93.0 mph on their heaters, with the entirety of the league averaging at least 91.2 mph. Well, every team but one.
The Mariners’ mean fastball velocity in 2018 was just 90.8 mph, a full three miles per hour slower than the Yankees’ average offering. On the one hand, it’s obvious. If you give Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Marco Gonzales, and Nick Vincent a collective 39.4% of all your team’s total innings, you’re going to end up with some low velocity numbers. But it’s still staggering, on the whole.
To put it a different, sillier way, if you watched every Mariners game this year, you spent 109 minutes and 28 seconds just watching their fastballs happen. That’s almost 10 minutes more than you’d have spent watching every Yankees fastball. Even if the Yankees threw the same number of fastballs as the Mariners, they’d still have ended up spending around three and a half minutes less than Seattle. Think of all the time you could have spent elsewhere! Actually, maybe don’t.
While the chronological implications are interesting, the root causes are even more so. The way Baseball Savant categorizes “fastballs” defaults to including cutters, and doing so pegs Seattle as one of the most heater-heavy groups in the league. Seattle ranks 7th in MLB at 62.6% by percentage of total pitches that are fastballs in this grouping. If we drop cutters from the group, however, Seattle drops all the way to 29th in MLB, at just 48.7%. Interestingly, the only team that used non-cutter fastballs LESS frequently than Seattle was the Yankees, at a mere 47.5%. While Jerry Dipoto has mentioned his apprehension at the health risks of heavy breaking-ball usage and has spoken about the sustainability of fastball usage for pitchers, it’s clear the organization has made a concerted effort to target pitchers they can develop their favorite pitch with.
Depending on which measurements you trust, their commitment to cutters is somewhere between near-historic and groundbreaking. Since Baseball Info Solutions began tracking pitch types in 2004, there have been 450 seasons played by individual teams. The 2018 Mariners had the 6th-highest percentage of cutters thrown (14.4%) in that time frame, and, it’s safe to assume, in MLB history. They trail only the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Phillies, led by Roy Halladay’s heavy cutter diet, as well as the 2016 Indians and this year’s Rockies. Statcast puts them even higher, with their 14.0% placing them 1st by a sizable margin over any team in 2018, and 3rd all-time behind Halladay’s 2010-11 Phillies.
James Paxton, Wade LeBlanc, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, Nick Vincent, and Álex Colomé all love to cut it, and had great success with the pitch in their repertoire. Despite the Mariners’ famous roster churn over the past three years, they’ve made strides tweaking and enhancing players on their 40-man roster, and 2018 seemed like a shining moment for the pitching staff and their most popular adjustment. With Seattle set to bring in a slate of new faces, including prospects like Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn, and Ricardo Sanchez, don’t be surprised if any or all of them start showcasing a cutter in 2019. It’s the Mariners’ way, and so far, it’s worked pretty well.