2024 MLB Draft: Who Murders Fastballs?

January 29, 2024

“If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.” — Harry S Truman

Surely the 33rd president of the United States knew his expressive metaphor would be used to describe one’s ability to handle velocity in collegiate baseball 70 years later. Alas, it surely applies. Velocity in the game of baseball has continued it’s linear climb through time. 2023 saw the fastest average fastball in the history of the sport at 94.2 mph. The average fastball velocity has ticked up or remained the same for 16 years in a row. In fact, the average fastball velocity is up 2.3 mph since 2008. You have to hit the fastball.

It’s a prerequisite in today’s game. Blowing a fastball by a hitter who can’t hit the heat is one of the easier paths a pitcher can take toward getting an out. The game has shifted so much in fact, over the last two years fastballs are used less than secondary offerings. Pitchers are ripping sliders and curveballs at record rates to get hitters off their fastballs. Timing up velocity has become commonplace. Pitchers are being forced to explore new weapons as primary offerings.

Just because breaking balls are becoming the norm doesn’t mean hitters can come off the heat. Whiff rates on fastballs have steadily climbed over the last 16 seasons with that trend potentially finally leveling off in 2023. Most guys throw 95-97 these days. If a player’s scouting report suggests a pitcher doesn’t need to throw a breaking ball, they won’t. If an elevated heater is one’s kryptonite, they can expect a heavy dose.

Velocity in college baseball continues to climb, though not at the rate of Major League Baseball. There’s still plenty of 88-91 on any given night, but weekend arms in Power 5 conferences (and at several mid-major schools) will still bring the heat. When identifying whether a player can succeed at the next level, a starting block should always be can they hit the fastball? Are the hands and eyes fast enough to get to velocity?

The sample collected here represents the “Top 200” college hitters currently on the FSS 2024 Draft Board. Dissecting who can hit a good fastball, and possibly more important, who can do damage on the fastball was the goal. In order to qualify, a hitter had to have seen at least 200 fastballs at or north of 92 mph in 2023. As an added measure, a player’s overall contact rate vs. all pitches places heat buckets to show their overall bat-to-ball skills.

While not labeled, at the very top of this chart you’ll find Arizona third baseman Garen Caulfield and Georgia catcher Fernando Gonzalez. They’re the only two players in this sample to run a whiff rate south of 5 percent on fastballs over 92 mph. Other players with extremely high contact rates vs. velocity and overall (dark red points) include Virginia shortstop Griff O’Ferrall, George Washington outfielder Eddie Micheletti Jr., Louisiana shortstop Kyle DeBarge and West Virginia infielder JJ Wetherholt.

Those labeled on this chart represent players who hit the ball hardest. While they each bring varying degrees of overall bat-to-ball skill, together they stand out for doing damage. LSU third baseman Tommy White hits the ball very hard and did a ton of damage on velocity last season with a contact rate north of 85 percent. Florida first baseman (and left-handed pitcher) Jac Caglianone hits the ball harder than just about anyone in the country, though his roughly 75 percent contact rate against velocity presents a developmental goal for the 2024 season. Mississippi State outfielder Dakota Jordan is a bit on an outlier in that he absolutely annihilates the baseball, and has had a good deal of success against velocity, though his 31 percent overall whiff rate will be something scouts track closely this spring. Georgia outfielder Charlie Condon and Wake Forest first baseman Nick Kurtz have nearly identical metrics, both of whom are likely looking to improve their success rate against elevated velocity in 2024.

2024 will be an opportunity to every player in the country to prove they have the tools and projection to suggest they’ll hit at the next level. It starts with fastballs. We’ll worry about spin for another time…

 

Joe Doyle
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