The velocity loss phenomenon

One of the top prep arms in the 2011 MLB draft, Dylan Bundy has instructed the Royals and the Pirates to draft someone else.

Bundy told the Pittsburgh Pirates, who own the No. 1 pick, and the Kansas City Royals, who pick fifth, that he’d prefer they not use their pick on him, according to the source. Seattle (picking second), Arizona (third and seventh) and Washington (sixth) all advocate long toss. Bundy’s older brother Bobby plays for Baltimore, which chooses fourth.

Trevor Bauer (UCLA) shares the same sentiments, and I’ve already written about his unorthodox workouts.

Dylan Bundy has been known to long toss over 300 feet and has a grueling workout on top of that as well, including boxing-style workouts to strengthen his rotator cuffs and internal rotators:

As a result, teams are scared to draft a guy like this in the first round. Both Bundy and Bauer have very strong and unorthodox workout regimens that teams balk at, fearing they might hurt their arms. They worry that lifting too much weight, throwing too far, doing too many explosive speed and agility exercises, and pitching too much will either cause arm injuries or a severe drop in effectiveness.

And what do they base these fears on? Absolutely nothing. There exists no research that shows that training hard will result in a loss of velocity or an increase in possibility of an arm-related injury. None. Research by Dr. Fleisig about youth pitchers does show this:

The study concluded that participants who pitched more than 100 innings in a year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured. By the 10th year of the study only 2.2 percent of the study participants were still pitching and 5.0 percent had suffered a serious injury requiring surgery or retirement from baseball.

However, this was a study conducted on 10- to 14-year olds, not mostly-biologically mature high school pitchers. (And guys who throw 90-plus are generally far ahead of their peers in a biological maturity sense.)

But consider this duplicity: Teams are afraid of pitchers who work very hard to achieve elite plus-plus velocity, but praise guys like Doug Fister, who recently added a few ticks to his fastball. How did he do it?

“I have been putting in a lot of work in the weight room,” Fister said. “I’ve spent a lot of time lifting, conditioning and throwing. So, yeah, I feel a lot stronger this year. I’m in good shape. We’ll see where it takes us.”

However, there’s the case of this current MLB pitcher who is a giant injury case:

He’s special in that he plays long toss every day, and it’s not even the normal long toss. It’s almost an extreme long toss. He probably throws the baseball about 280 to 300 feet. For the most part you see guys go out—the longer guys—200 feet, maybe 225 feet.

In his case, he throws the ball with a lot of height—he really gets a lot of air under it—and what he’s accomplishing is not only strength, but also extension. It’s a bit far, but hey, you can’t argue with the success he’s had.

Except… that’s Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners, the current Cy Young winner.

Velocity Loss Phenomenon

It’s often said that pitchers are drafted with a certain velocity on their fastballs, and then it spirals downwards until it stabilizes. However, Josh Kalk showed that pitchers tend to increase their fastball velocity until about 29 years of age, then start to lose it. But if high-value prep/high school pitchers tend to be babied when they enter the pros, why is their velocity decreasing—if this is even true?

Let’s take a look at the first-round prep arms that reached the majors over the past few years and check their early scouting reports against their current fastball velocities. We’ll use mid-summer months (July 2010, typically) to estimate their fastball velocities, as fastball velocities for starting pitchers tends to be lower at the beginning of the year, and we want to exclude this bias if possible.

It’s important to note that by using only pitchers who reached the highest rank (MLB), we’re actually introducing a selection bias that favors the best pitchers. There will undoubtably be many prep arms that don’t reach the big leagues due to declining velocity, injury, or just ineffectiveness.

2005
Chris Volstad (Palm Beach Gardens HS), 16th pick overall: Video shows him sitting 92-94 MPH with his fastball. In July 2010, Volstad’s sinker (faster than his average four-seam fastball) averaged 90.7 MPH.

Michael Bowden (Waubonsie Valley HS), 47th pick overall (Compensation A): “Plus FB velocity.” “Similar to Roger Clemens.” Video shows him throwing 92 MPH with his fastball in game situations. From June, 2010 through August, 2010 as a reliever, his average four-seam fastball was 90.2 MPH. Remember that starters who are converted to relief generally have higher fastball velocities than they did as a starter.

2006
Clayton Kershaw (Highland Park HS), seventh pick overall: Reportedly sat (not reached) in the mid-90s in high school. In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 92.0 MPH.

Jeremy Jeffress (Halifax County Sr. HS), 16th pick overall: Reportedly sat in the high-90s and reached triple digits on multiple occasions. In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 95.2 MPH.

Kyle Drabek (The Woodlands HS), 18th pick overall: Said to have the best arm in the draft with a mid-90s fastball. In July 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 93.4 MPH.

2007
Rick Porcello (Seton Hall Prep School), 26th pick overall: Touched 96 MPH on many occasions and sat 94-95 “very comfortably.” In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 91.0 MPH.

This is by no means an exhaustive list or conclusive study, but it does seem to lend anecdotal support to the theory that prep arms that are drafted high tend to lose velocity as they become professionals when many pitchers in the pro ranks are doing the opposite—gaining velocity.

Root Cause

So what’s the root cause of the velocity drop? I personally believe that it’s the fearful nature of the teams to wrap their investments up tight and not allow them to work hard. Both in theory and in practice, this makes absolutely no sense.

Guys like Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy did not come out of the womb throwing at elite velocities—Bauer at 93, Bundy at 98 (touching 100). They worked their butts off by throwing a lot of long toss, lifting weights, and doing whatever it took to develop into a front-line pitching prospect.

The same can be said of guys like Stephen Strasburg, who came out of high school throwing 90 MPH and developing into an elite flamethrower through very hard work and dedication in college, only to be curtailed in the pro ranks.

Here’s a startling thought: What if the hard work and unorthodox training methods they employed to become MLB-caliber pitchers might be something they should continue doing while they’re in the pro ranks? And perhaps organizational players who have middling velocities should also think about adopting these types of programs!

A hypothetical: Let’s say your average organizational non-prospect pitcher in a system is at a low risk of injury but has virtually no chance to break into the big leagues. And let’s further assume that strenuous “unorthodox” training (as demonstrated by guys like Fister, Tim Collins, Hernandez, Bundy, Bauer, Tim Lincecum…) will lead to a slight increase in injury risk but will also increase their fastball velocities.

We know that fastball velocity is positively correlated with strikeout rate (which seems obvious, but is worth restating), and that strikeouts lead to pitchers becoming more valuable and effective.

What would it be worth to an organization if just two average non-prospects developed into prospects that moved up just one level of competition? What would it cost to implement such a plan across all the minor leagues?

I asked the first question to an unnamed MLB executive when talking about training methods and our biomechanical labs, and he responded, “A lot.” He asked me the second question, and I told him, “Not very much.”

We see organizations like the Seattle Mariners making strides with Dr. Marcus Elliot’s program (one that likely influenced Doug Fister’s workouts). Who will follow suit?

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Comments

  1. t ball said...

    hit post too soon…
    Seems like teams would be looking to fitness regimens for better injury prevention instead of considering it a risk factor.

  2. gdc said...

    I agree with #4 above.  As an amateur it seems that projectability and lighting up radar guns is more important than actually pitching to win as far as getting drafted.  Once in A ball the coaches would prefer 8 K/9 and 3 BB/9 to 11 K/9 and 6 BB/9.
    So there might be another selection bias in that the guys that keep throwing 95 and don’t get hurt don’t develop the secondary pitches and speed changes to make it to the bigs.

  3. William said...

    Another explanations for velo drops could be the need to refine command in big leagues. Because   major league hitters dont chase as much as high schoolers, pitches may be forced to sacrifice velocity for control.

  4. Kyle Boddy said...

    t ball:

    Good points. I took verifiable radar readings from video whenever possible, and most scouts tend to be pretty accurate with their reporting of velocities. But your #4 point is great, and it lends more support to the idea that pitchers should work on improving velocity so if they need to make the tradeoff that they don’t lose much effectiveness in doing so.

    As for your second post, it’s clearly a continuum. You want Justin Verlander to be healthy and injury-free, but they don’t really care about the injuries to a 24 year old in AA ball who has middling velocity. That guy should be approached completely differently, and at most levels of pro ball, this is not the case.

    ecp:

    Interesting, did not know that.

  5. chuck said...

    would be interested to see what TYPE of pitches and HOW MANY pitches were thrown by the study group of kids.  innings pitched is not always the right barometer, although little league teams tend to ride a particular pitcher, throwing him out there too many times, the NUMBER and TYPE of pitches are what really matter.  kids should not throw curveballs, screwballs or any other pitch where they snap to get the break.  that will cause more damage down the road and leave them unable to throw anything.

  6. t ball said...

    Great read, I agree that many teams seem stuck in the past when it comes to fitness and pitching.  When it comes to explaining velocity drop, though, I think there might be some additional, simpler explanations:
    1. velo readings from high school games may be unreliable, and
    2. reports tend to emphasize a number only reached a few times, rather than where the pitcher actually sat during the game.
    3. high velo readings in #2 may stick in our memory more than where a pitcher sits the majority of the time.
    4. high school pitchers may be throwing more than pitching, overpowering inferior competition with their highest velocity.  When they go pro they dial it down a bit for control/command purposes. 

    Just some theories to go along with the fitness.  I think it’s a combination of things.

  7. Dave said...

    This article is good but missing one extremely important variable: length of season. High school pitchers will pitch nearly 3 times the amount as a pro then they will in school, college pitchers about double.

    Their young bodies can sustain the high effort max velocities and corresponding workouts in short doses, not in long ones. You’re body can take more and recover much better when you’re say 17-25. If you want to pitch longer than that you need to work smart, not more.

    Don’t baby your high draft picks, but they should be monitored and not left to just continue with their amateur training programs.

  8. Kyle Boddy said...

    I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. Prep pitchers in the south throw a ton of innings. 20-25 games in HS, 40-60 games for select summer ball (tournaments), 20-30 in winter ball, plus fall ball exhibitions as well.

    Lots of collegiate guys will throw innings in summer semi-pro leagues and fall ball as well. So while a guy like Bauer will have “130” innings pitched, it may actually approach 160-170.

    The idea that the training that got them there is no longer a good thing to do once they are there has no grounds in logic – or research science.

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