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June 7, 2012
Slow and Steady Wins Some Races
There’s more to being a major-league pitcher than throwing hard. Plenty of pitchers have had successful careers without making the mitt pop. On the whole, though, throwing hard helps. All else being equal, the harder a pitcher can throw, the more effective his offerings are, and the easier it is for him to get away with mistakes. It’s no coincidence that the team with the hardest-throwing staff this season, the Nationals, also boasts the big leagues’ best ERA.
In a 2010 study, PITCHf/x analyst Mike Fast found that starting pitchers from 2002-2009 allowed, on average, 0.28 fewer runs per nine innings for every mile per hour of velocity gained. Relievers, who tend to rely more heavily on their heaters, shaved 0.45 runs for every extra tick.
So far this season, pitchers who’ve seen significant declines in velocity have suffered even more dramatic declines in performance. The average four-seam fastball velocities of 27 starters have fallen by at least one mile per hour from 2011 to 2012. Despite a league-wide decrease in scoring, those starters have seen their combined ERAs rise from 3.59 to 4.31, an increase of 0.72 runs. The five starters whose four-seamers have slowed by at least 2 mph—Alex Cobb, Graham Godfrey, Tim Lincecum, Justin Masterson, and Carl Pavano—have had even more disastrous results: their ERAs as a group have inflated from 3.44 to 5.55. These figures aren’t park-corrected, we’re comparing full-season velocities from 2011 to partial-season velocities from 2012, and fastball speed tends to increase as the season goes on, but those declines are still scary.
However, a handful of pitchers whose fastball velocities have declined by a mile per hour or more since we last saw them have held their own or made real improvements in performance in 2012. Here’s how they’ve done the job despite diminished stuff.
Johan Santana (Four-seam)
Even before the capsule tear, Santana wasn’t the overpowering pitcher he had been in his prime, and he likely left a little more velo in the operating room. Fast’s study revealed that pitchers in their mid-30s were especially sensitive to decreases in velocity, which didn’t bode well for a slower Santana. However, Santana’s out pitch has always been his changeup, and as his fastball speed has fallen, he’s preserved the velocity separation between the two offerings. The change now leaves Johan’s hand at around 78 mph, nearly 2 mph slower than it did in 2010, and he’s still just as good at disguising it, so hitters’ timing is still disrupted. As a result, the pitch is missing more bats than it has since 2008, and Santana has excelled even without a fastball that routinely tops 90.
Santana threw a career-high 134 pitches en route to the no-no last Friday. We don’t know whether the lengthy outing will have any lingering effects, but Santana’s adjustments so far this season suggest that as long as he’s healthy, he can survive some further degradation in his stuff due to fatigue.
Andy Pettitte (Four-seam)
Most of that moving around has consisted of keeping the ball down in the zone: 47 percent of Pettitte’s four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters have been concentrated in the bottom of the zone or below, compared to 39 percent in 2010. Pettitte has been especially good at preventing his sinker from staying elevated, throwing 80 percent of them down, up from 49 percent two seasons ago. He’s been rewarded with a 59.6 percent groundball rate, the third-best among AL starters and by far his highest on record.
Mark Buehrle (Four-seam)
Like Santana, he has delivered his changeup nearly 2 mph slower to compensate for his decreased fastball velocity. He’s also increased its usage, throwing it 32 percent of the time compared to 22 percent in 2011. Because they’re forced to master the more subtle arts of deception early on, pitchers who throw slower to begin with are less affected by subsequent declines in velocity than pitchers who start out throwing hard. Buehrle’s experience as a soft tosser is one of his strengths.
R.A. Dickey (Sinker)
James McDonald (Four-seam)
Brandon Morrow (Sinker)
Bartolo Colon (Sinker)
Colby Lewis (Four-seam)
Aroldis Chapman (Four-seam)
Most declines in velocity are unintentional, but Chapman’s slightly slower speeds are the result of a conscious decision to take a little off in exchange for improved control. The new approach has paid off: after 29 innings, Chapman has yet to allow an earned run. His walk rate is less than half of what it was last season, he’s struck out almost half of the batters he’s faced, and he hasn’t had a recurrence of the shoulder problems that have plagued him in the past. Results like that are worth the double-digit radar readings.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .