Trevor Hoffman watched it happen. On the tail end of his accomplished career, when his fastball had dipped down the mid-80s, he could see the trend developing among younger closers: They were getting stronger, they were throwing harder.
That's not to say the long-time San Diego Padres closer wasn't successful. You need a long run of dominance to reach 601 career saves. But he understood the direction baseball was moving in. So he's not surprised at the state of the closer position today, where a strong arm is seen almost as a required attribute.
"It definitely is a velocity game," Hoffman says. "There isn't a guy that comes out of a pen that isn't throwing in the 90s."
In the beginning, Hoffman was no different -- he entered the majors in 1994 with a well-known fastball that routinely clocked in the 90s. But during the MLB strike that year, he suffered a shoulder injury that caused problems the following year, eventually leading to offseason rotator cuff surgery.
When he returned, he'd lost his power, struggling to clear 90 mph. Amid that turmoil and uncertainty, he started working on a changeup, which emphasized his ability to locate the ball over his ability to hurl heaters over the plate.
So began Hoffman's new style of pitching, which he describes today as "cat and mouse." Until his retirement in 2011, he built his success on his ability to precisely locate his pitches, winning the mental battle against batters even though his pitching speed was limited. By the end of his career, his fastball was only averaging 86 mph. But he still managed to retire as the all-time leader in saves, earning seven All-Star Game nominations among nine 40-save seasons.
"[Velocity] was something I couldn't do much about. It wasn't coming out quite as high as it once did," Hoffman says. "Fortunately, I had the ability to locate with my fastball, try to get strike one."
"You never really know if the added velocity would have put more stress on joints. Instead, I was able to maintain being able to go out on a day-to-day basis."
That's no small consolation, either. As Major League Baseball's closers have evolved into velocity pitchers, injuries have become far more prevalent at the position. In fact, 25 percent of all MLB pitchers have had Tommy John surgery to fix injuries associated with power pitching.
High-speed throws are a coveted asset in baseball because they're so difficult to hit. But it's turning relief pitching into more of a disposable commodity, with teams grinding down relief pitchers and moving on when injuries get the best of them.
But the most alarming aspect of today's rash of pitching injuries isn't the high occurrence rate -- it's that, short of pitching at lower speeds, there's no known solution.
"They've tried to limit innings, monitor pitches, changes that they hoped would curtail [the injuries]," Hoffman says. "And it hasn't proven to be the case."
Between 2008 and 2013, the average speed of an MLB pitch rose from 90.9 mph to 92.0 mph. The numbers are small, but the difference it's made has been significant in several ways. Batters have a harder time catching up to the speed of those fastballs, and for pitchers relying on their strength, it's their best way to keep their job and their position in the rotation.
But all of the medical research suggests that increased velocity on pitches increases the risk of injuries. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of Tommy John surgeries performed on MLB players increased by 193 percent. And the epidemic is no longer restricted to the pros: According to The Physician and Sports Medicine journal, 30 percent of all youth baseball players have reported injuries or pain associated with high-velocity pitching.
It's a problem without any answers, but it's a problem baseball will have to solve to save its pitchers from shortened careers and increased stays on the disabled list. Hoffman, who has stepped back into the spotlight as an ambassador for this year's MLB All-Star Game in San Diego, also sees it as a product of changing styles of game management.
"You're seeing teams build their bullpens backwards," he says. "They're wanting to shorten games. We saw that with the Royals."
The Royals are a good example in more than one way. Their World Series win last year came despite losing the team's lead closer, Greg Holland, to a UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery. Kansas City prevailed on the strength of its pitching depth -- an asset teams will need to overcome the inevitable losses of their staff.
In the long run of baseball's history, Hoffman is that far removed from the game -- he became eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time this year, just missing election with more then 67 percent of the vote. Still, his pitching style seems Stone-Aged compared to the hard-slinging styles that dominate the game today.
But with even these increased speeds, Hoffman's style could work at the MLB level. In fact, with batters so used to seeing pitches pushing into the mid- and upper-90s, Hoffman's change-of-pace might actually be an asset.
"I think I'd be better, honestly," Hoffman says. "I'd be throwing so much slower."