Quite often, when we hear about a pitcher’s troubles, we are told that “so-and-so has lost X miles per hour off his fastball.” Usually, this is accepted at face value, as it seems perfectly reasonable that if a pitcher is throwing his fastball at a significantly lower velocity, his numbers are probably suffering.
But is this always true?
Clearly, velocity isn’t the be-all/end-all for success in major league baseball. Jamie Moyer came back from the dead to don a major league uniform and he can barely top 80 mph. But it seems that the general belief is that power pitchers suffer more than finesse hurlers when it comes to loss of velocity.
With that in mind, let’s look at the current starting pitchers who have undergone the greatest decreases in velocity since last season, with an eye toward why (and if there’s any real sort of relation to poorer performances).
The following are the top five decreases in miles per hour (using each starter’s main fastball type). All miles-per-hour numbers are thanks to brooksbaseball.net, as of Monday, May 21.
American League starters
1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
As Cy Young voters showed us a couple of years ago, his 3-3 record can essentially be ignored. And if anyone’s worried about the loss of 2.5 mph off his average sinker, they shouldn’t be—at least not according to the numbers.
Last season, Hernandez threw his go-to pitch at an average speed of 93.8 mph, but it is down to 91.4 in ’12. Clearly, he can live there if he continues to hit his spots. And he is.
His K/9 rate is the highest it has ever been since he came into the league, at 8.76, and his walk rate is 2.73, just about matching his career average. King Felix has the arsenal and control to adjust to the drop in speed, so, no problems here.
There is really no good explanation as to why the drop is taking place (that we know of), but Jeff Sullivan of Baseball Nation has a good explanation as to why he surviving at the lowered speeds (other than the ridiculous movement on his pitches):
He gets “ten inches more extension than the average [pitcher] … Long story short, while Felix’s fastball velocity is down this year, it looks slower to us than it does to the hitters. He might be sitting at 90-93, but he might look like 91-94, or 92-95.”
In other words, his reach is longer, so it looks much faster to the hitter coming out of his hand. All hail King Felix.
2. Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
Masterson relies on his four-seamer nearly as much as his sinker, and has lost significant speed off each pitch. In addition, the sinker isn’t exactly dropping off the table, as he sits at 1-3 with a 5.04 ERA. His K/9 rate is down while his walks are up.
Things are just not going well for the former Red Sox prospect in 2012.
The sinker has gone from 92.7 mph to 90.3, while the four-seamer dropped to 91.9 mph from 94.2. This is a problem, considering that the two pitches combined account for 68 percent of all balls thrown by the 27-year-old.
We can perhaps chalk his troubles up to mechanical issues, as he is perfectly healthy by all accounts. And there’s no reason for a pitcher who lives and dies by his fastball/sinker combo to take anything off of those two pitches intentionally.
Clearly, the loss in velocity hurts in Masterson’s case, but his control is the real kicker. Who knows, maybe the speed will come back if/when the command does.
3. Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins
Probably no one outside of Minnesota and mustache aficionados cares much about Carl Pavano anymore, so I won’t spend much time here. But for a guy who throws a sinker over half the time he pitches, a loss of 2.4 mph probably doesn’t help.
This year, though, he’s approximately where you’d expect him to be—hovering around .500 with an ERA close to 5.00.
At this point, he’s an innings-eater for the Twins, and the decreased velocity is probably just due to age. Even so, if the trend continues, Pavano and his spectacular mustache won’t be around much longer for fans to marvel at.
4. Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Hunter, dealt to the O’s last summer in the Koji Uehara deal, seems to be roughly the same hurler who came over from the Rangers, despite a loss of nearly two mph off his four-seamer.
His K/9 rate is up this year, but so are his walks. His ERA is a tick higher than his career mark, and his BABIP sits at .273. He’s also taken off well over two mph from his sinker, but his significant reliance on this (so far) effective pitch has his groundball rate up to a career-high 45.9 percent.
There’s no clear relation to a drop in velocity and decreased success on this one.
5. Bartolo Colon, Oakland A’s
Bartolo Colon’s unibrow is distracting. So is the rubber tire wrapped around his chin. But that still doesn’t explain his performance on Wednesday, April 18.
The man threw 38 consecutive strikes against the Angels, a feat that will trump the aforementioned physical attributes when it comes to top Colon memories.
As far as the loss in velocity, the 1.7 mph drop from his average sinker, combined with the strike-streak, is a testament to the control vs. speed debate: a big leaguer can survive, as long as the control is there.
National League starters
1. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
The presence of Big Time Timmy Jim, the man with the most hilarious self-assigned nickname of all time, really isn’t a surprise here (though I didn’t expect him to top the list).
Lincecum has lost 2.5 miles per hour off of his average fastball, which is unsettling since he’s relying on it more heavily now that he’s dialed back the frequency of his slider. Reports out of camp that he was shelving the breaking pitch to save wear and tear on his arm didn’t entirely pan out, but 14 percent of his pitches this year have been sliders, compared to 29 percent in 2011.
Is he hurt? All signs point to no.
His ERA is inflated (6.04), but his K/9 rate is up over 10, higher than the last two seasons. His ground-ball percentage is right around his career average, and his BABIP is seventh-highest in the majors at .353.
So, he’ll probably be fine. Here’s hoping he avoids injury and gets craftier as he ages.
2. Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants
Vogelsong’s 2011 was a nice, heartwarming story. But did anybody really expect it to continue for the 34-year-old? Aside from Brian Sabean and Vogelsong’s mom, probably not.
The thing is, those expectations would be wrong, because he’s doing it again. Sort of. His ERA sits at 2.66 over 40.2 innings, though his BABIP is pretty low at .243. Also, his BB/9 rate is up slightly to 3.8 from 3.1 last year.
Despite the fact that he’s lost over two mph off his four-seamer thus far, he continues to be valuable for the Giants. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.
3. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies
Not only has he lost 1.9 mph from his cutter (down to 89.6 mph), his sinker has fallen off as well (down from 92.7 in ’11 to 91.6). The decreased velocity of the sinker wouldn’t even register here, but for the cutter as well.
Has it affected him much?
Maybe a little. His K/9 rate is down from 8.47 last year to 6.99 thus far, while his groundball percentage is down and his walks are up (almost negligibly). Also, this is the second year in a row that he’s lost a little something off the cutter.
He may just be getting old.
I would expect things to even out for him as the season goes on, if for no other reason than his name is Roy Halladay.
4. Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh Pirates
I think we can just chalk this (and his career) up to injuries and call it a day. Bedard may be trade bait for a contender come July, but I’d be wary here if I were a buyer. The Red Sox learned that the hard way last season when they picked him up out of desperation for the back end of the rotation.
The former Oriole and Mariner has lost 1.7 mph off his fastball, a situation that needs to improve for the 33-year-old as the season goes on, as he is living around 89 mph these days (though his strikeout and walk numbers are very respectable thus far).
His numbers aren’t bad by any means, as he sports a 3.07 ERA over 41 innings for the Pirates, but I wouldn’t expect that to hold (or his body to, either), should he be traded to a contender.
5. Kevin Correia, Pittsburgh Pirates
Every time Kevin Correia records an out, an angel gets its wings.
All kidding aside, Correia’s numbers are hurting across the board, including the loss of 1.6 mph off his four-seamer. Unlike others such as Halladay and Hernandez, he clearly doesn’t have the pitching acumen to deal with such a drop.
As we can see, a drop in velocity happens for a variety of reasons: old age, injury, mechanical flaw, change of approach, or being named Kevin Correia. When these things occur, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as the pitcher can compensate with control.
With that said, it will be interesting to see which, if any, can reverse the trend the rest of the way.
References & Resources
Dave Cameron recently covered similar ground at Fangraphs.