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February 18, 2010

Under The Knife

Hitting the Floor

by Will Carroll

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Last year, Kevin Goldstein discussed the magic mark where pitching prospects needed to be to sustain any success in the major leagues. With the advent of PITCHf/x, we're now able to virtually look over the shoulder of scouts and get those radar-gun readings that teams have always had access to, plus location, movement, and more. While scouts had the information, they didn't do a whole lot with it. Fast was good, slow was bad, and in the end, that's really all they cared about. Comparisons were superficial.

That 90.5/50 scale mark was more anecdotal than anything; there's obviously pitchers that have been successful with fastballs that weren't menacing. It's just that they're clearly the exception. Goldstein pointed out that most of the pitchers last season who were living below 90 with any level of success had some gimmick, be it sidearming or showing an angle that most can't do. While it's hard to throw in the 90s, it's harder to grow up to be Chris Young.

A recent piece at FanGraphs was pointed out to me, discussing which pitchers had lost the most off their fastballs. Putting that idea together with what Kevin had put in my head, I wondered if that velocity floor was an absolute and whether pitchers who started above it, but dropped below it would have problems.

I got with Eric Seidman, one of our sharp knives, and he did a little data dissection. I asked him to take a look and see if there was any way to tell whether a pitcher's game-to-game or even in-game loss of velocity resulted in a noticeable pattern. I tried to keep it simple and just looked for pitchers who had an average velocity over 91 mph who then went to 89 mph or below their next time out. It was easier to go from game to game, so Eric looked at results in terms of the game's score. The entire look at this isn't very deep, but remember, I wasn't trying to do anything more than see if there was any kind of pattern. Here's the answer in handy spreadsheet form.

The technical answer here would be that there's no answer at all. We'd have to look deeper to figure out anything more definitively. On the more superficial level, it's clear that there's no real pattern here. Some pitchers get better while some get worse. There's no reason that seems to jump out. A more in-depth look at the pitchers themselves offers no further clarity. There's no advantage to a certain type, a certain repertoire or secondary pitch, or anything noticeable. There's aces and future Hall of Famers as well as journeymen and LOOGYs.

So if the loss of velocity on a game-to-game level doesn't show any pattern of loss of effectiveness in step with the loss of velocity, is there any takeaway? I think as Goldstein's original work showed, there's a floor where pitchers-at least right-handers-need to be to be consistently effective. Dropping below that on occasion or as the result of fatigue can have effects if there are not additional elements of the pitching tool kit to make up for it. A pitcher has velocity, location, command, and deception as he stands out on the mound alone. There have been extreme elements of each, but no one is a real Sidd Finch and can rely solely on velocity.

Over a broader sample, and certainly for a player trying to establish himself at the major-league level-or even just announce his presence with authority-a fastball of average or better velocity is a must. Beyond that, it's up to that thrower to become a pitcher. We've seen over and over that while plus-plus velocity will get you drafted, it is no guarantee of even a small measure of success. For a better predictor of success, we'll have to do more work than this attempt at finding a predictor of impending failure.

It's a bit bothersome to spend time and effort-especially that of not just me, but that of Seidman, who is working on about a million things in front of and behind the scenes here-but I think it's important sometimes that we get more than just the formulae and the proofs out there. Baseball needs to constantly be asking questions. Goldstein's original article is the result of a couple casual conversations and some intelligent curiousity. The bias to velocity is very real in baseball. Finding out that at least at the most basic level-success or failure-it's not that predictive is interesting.

If nothing else, I'm hoping that someone will look at this and see where this could go. I'm not a doctor, and I'm certainly not a statistician. What I am is curious about the game of baseball, one that rewards our passion with the constant surprise of discovery.

Related Content:  Kevin Goldstein

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