Why Major League Pitching is So Hard to Hit

You step into the batter’s box with 50,000 screaming fans behind you – their cheering is unrelenting. The tying run is on third base and you are down to your last out. All you need is a single to extend the game. The pitcher stands 60’6” away glaring in for the sign. He shakes his head once, and then again. Finally he nods and comes set. The pitcher has been mixing up pitches on you all at-bat. He’s been dancing around the corners with his changeups and curveballs, but has been coming in tight with the fastball. Is he going to try to get the strikeout with something soft and away or will he try to fool you into making weak contact with something inside? As the pitcher starts his motion towards the plate, you have but a split second to decide.

Aside from the thousands of screaming fans who are trying to ruin your concentration, hitting a baseball is just about one of the toughest tasks in sports. Making contact is difficult enough, let alone putting the ball in play where it can fall safely for a single. The ball is moving, your bat is moving, and your timing must be perfect.

Before we go on, let’s set some basic foundations for our analysis today.

  • Diameter of a Baseball – 3 Inches
  • Diameter of a bat at its sweet spot – 2 ¾ inches
  • Width of home plate – 17 inches
  • Average Height of Strike Zone – 3 feet

This means that a 3 inch diameter baseball could be anywhere within an area of 612 square inches and you have to hit it with by swinging a bat that is smaller around than the ball. Any question that it takes talent to hit a baseball?

But these are just two-dimensional stats. What about the added dimension of a pitch’s speed and eventual movement, either horizontally or vertically? The reaction time needed to identify a pitch, determine whether it will be a ball or strike, locate where you think the ball will end up in terms of the strike zone, swing your bat and make contact is just astounding. Here are some other numbers to consider.

Pitch Type Avg. Speed Avg. Break Reaction Time
Fastball 95 MPH 1.3 Inches .43 Seconds
Changeup 85 MPH 2.1 Inches .48 Seconds
Curveball 77 MPH 14.1 Inches .53 Seconds

The reaction time signifies the amount of time needed to put the bat in the proper place to hit the ball from the moment that the ball leaves the pitchers hand (this is based on the distance from the pitching rubber to the front of home plate and does not account for a pitcher’s stride before releasing the ball which would significantly reduce the amount of reaction time you had at your disposal.

Why Fastballs are So Hard to Hit

The fastball, as its name implies, is the fastest pitch that a pitcher can throw at you. Its average speed in Major League Baseball is 95 miles per hour, give or take a few MPH. It doesn’t break a whole lot in either direction, but it’s subtle movement can be the difference between a solid single and a weak pop fly. The batter has less than half a second to decide a few things:

  • Is the pitch actually a fastball?
  • Is it going to be a strike if I don’t swing at it?
  • Is it going to be high or low?
  • Is it going to be inside or outside?
  • Should I Swing or not swing?

By the time these decisions are made, the ball is rapidly approaching. I don’t think I need to beat into your heads anymore that hitting a fastball is easier said than done.

Why Changeups are So Hard to Hit

Changeups are difficult because when the pitcher throws it, it looks an awful lot like a fastball. Depending on the quality of the pitch, however, a changeup can be thrown 8 – 18 MPH slower than a fastball, significantly changing the timing needed to hit one as opposed to a fastball. If you start swinging at a changeup at the same time you swung for a fastball, you will miss, and usually miss by a lot. Changeups, because they go slower and are gripped differently, have a little more break in a downward motion than a fastball, making them even more difficult to hit. The hitter must go through the same checklist with the changeup that they went through with the fastball, taking into account the slower speed and increased break. A pitcher that can mix up their fastballs and changeups effectively can keep hitters off balance all game.

Why Curveballs are So Hard to Hit

Last on our list is the curveball. It is the slowest of the three pitches we are analyzing, but don’t let that fool you. The average MLB curveball breaks about 10 inches both horizontally and vertically. If we apply a little Pythagorean Theorem, we can deduce that the average MLB curveball breaks about 14 inches from where it started. Since the plate is only 17 inches wide, that means that the ball can literally go from one side of the plate to the other, leaving you looking confused on your swing. The hardest part about hitting a curveball is reading the spin. The spin will tell you first and foremost that the pitch is indeed a curveball. You can then judge by the spin just how much it will break (the tighter the spin, the harder it will break). Then you have to decide whether the anticipated break will leave the ball in the strikezone. Remember kids, it doesn’t matter if the ball doesn’t start off a strike, as long as it crosses through the strike zone at some point in its journey, it will be called a strike.

Even if you knew what pitch was coming before you dug in for your at-bat, you would probably have a hard time hitting the ball. Combine that with the fact that you are completely oblivious to what the pitcher is throwing and you have but a blink of an eyelash to decide if, when, and where to swing the bat.


About Aaron Garcia

Aaron is an avid sports fan who passionately follows the NFL, NBA and MLB, in addition to NCAA Sports. He is an Arizona State University grad who loves the Dodgers and the Patriots.