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March 1, 2013

Raising Aces

Over the Radar

by Doug Thorburn

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It has been 28 days since my last entry into the chronicles of Raising Aces, and though I did manage some vacation time during the break, my baseball schedule has been otherwise locked and loaded throughout the month.

I had a blast with our mock arbitration series in early February, in which I went toe-to-toe with Ian Miller for a couple rounds of “name that comp.” I also dropped by the Effectively Wild studios to share my thoughts about the 2013 Athletics with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, and behind the scenes I have been preparing more than 100 mechanical profiles for this year's Starting Pitcher Guide with Paul Sporer, which is currently in the final stages of production.

The highlight of the past month was a 10-day hiatus to Costa Rica for my wedding and honeymoon. I enjoyed the experience of a lifetime with my lovely bride, but I must admit that it felt like I was cheating on baseball, leaving the country for a soccer-based nation just as pitchers and catchers were reporting to camp.

It would seem that baseball has forgiven me, with BP 2013 appearing on my doorstep before I could fully unpack my bags. Every vacation is followed by a necessary period of baseball re-absorption, and the one topic that has dominated my consciousness in recent days is pitch velocity, particularly the sport-wide tendency for pitchers to lose velocity as they age.

The phenomenon of dipping velocity occurs in-game as a pitcher fatigues, or over the course of a season due to the physical toll of the baseball schedule. Pitchers are also known to lose pitch speed as they grow older, and the pitchers that survive the aging process are often those who make the necessary mechanical adjustments to compensate for the loss of power.

The topic of age-related velocity loss was addressed last July in the second episode of Effectively Wild, in which Sam lamented the disappointing MLB performance of Trevor Bauer, citing the expected diminishing rate of return with a prospect's stuff. I agree with Sam's premise, but I also believe that there are exceptions to the rule, as effective player development can potentially overcome the physical taxation of pitching.

There are a few ways for a pitcher to add velocity. He can get functionally stronger, which ranges from building arm strength to stabilizing the oft-neglected shoulder muscles, as well as developing core strength and flexibility to take advantage of better torque. Greater strength and flexibility will allow a pitcher to increase hip-shoulder separation, which can be accomplished either by increasing upper-body load or by delaying trunk rotation to allow the hips to rotate further before the shoulders fire. In this sense, proper timing and sequencing of the kinetic chain also plays a role in maximizing pitch speed. Finally, a pitcher can reap velocity benefits through an uptick in momentum, thereby adding kinetic energy to the system that can be transferred to the baseball.

I set out in search of this rare breed of pitcher who increases velocity across seasons, but first I had to establish some boundaries. Utilizing the indispensable PITCHf/x data that is available at Baseball Prospectus, I limited my search to starting pitchers who had thrown at least 500 fastballs in both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Players were selected based on one necessary condition: their 2012 velocity had to be at least 0.5 miles per hour higher than it was in 2011 and 2010.

One might expect that the modest criteria would trigger a laundry list of names, but the half-mph threshold proved to be a considerable limiting factor, and a good chunk of the pitchers who gained velocity from 2011 to '12 were just rediscovering their radar-gun readings of 2010. In fact, there were only 12 starting pitchers who met the 500-pitch requirement with an average fastball velocity in 2012 that was at least 0.5 mph higher than both of the previous two seasons.

The dozen over-the-radar pitchers fall into a couple of categories. Five of the pitchers registered relatively humble gains, with overall improvements of 1.0 mph or less between 2010 and 2012.

 

MPH Difference, 2011-12

MPH Difference, 2010-12

2010

2011

2012

Mike Leake

0.6

0.9

89.2

89.5

90.1

Jason Hammel

0.8

0.6

93.7

93.6

94.4

Max Scherzer

0.9

1.0

93.9

93.9

94.9

James Shields

1.5

0.9

92.4

91.8

93.3

Alexi Ogando

1.8

0.7

97.0

96.0

97.7

The numbers for Mike Leake represent his sinker, rather than his four-seam fastball, as his four-seamer fell short of the sample size constraint. Leake relies on the sinker as a power offering, and his velocity has improved incrementally in each of the past two seasons. Jason Hammel gained more velocity than Leake when looking at the one-year comparison, yet his two-year improvement of 0.6 mph is the lowest among the 12 qualifying starters.

Max Scherzer's velocity gained a full click in 2012 after consecutive seasons averaging just under 94 mph, adding fuel to the hype machine about his prospects for dominance in 2013. The Royals may have been encouraged by James Shields' improved velocity at an age (30) when most pitchers are watching their speeds decline, and though his 1.5-mph gain over 2011 may have overstated the case, his 2012 fastball velocity was 0.90 mph faster than his heater in 2010.

The big jump for Alexi Ogando was influenced by his 2011 stint in the starting rotation, sandwiched between seasons in the bullpen where his velocity is expected to rise. Ogando's 2012 velo was still significantly higher than it was in his previous season in the pen, jumping 0.7 mph over his 2010 performance, and the right-hander is a good bet to match or exceed the 96-mph average fastball that he brought to the table during his 2011 season, as he re-enters the Texas rotation in 2013.

 

MPH Difference, 2011-12

MPH Difference, 2010-12

2010

2011

2012

Jason Vargas

0.5

1.2

87.6

88.3

88.8

CJ Wilson

0.7

1.5

90.8

91.6

92.3

Gio Gonzalez

0.6

1.6

92.5

93.5

94.1

J. Zimmermann

0.6

1.6

93.0

94.0

94.6

The above group of pitchers displayed decent velocity gains when comparing their 2011 and 2012 seasons, but their improvement becomes more impressive when looking at the two-year trends. Each hurler upped his velocity between 0.50 and 0.75 miles per hour in 2012, a continuation of the trend-line that saw each pitcher increase his velo between 0.65 and 1.0 mph from 2010 to 2011. These multi-year patterns are indicative of successful development, reflecting continued improvements in mechanics, timing, and functional fitness. In particular, the Nationals duo of Gonzalez and Zimmermann have honed their mechanics to elite levels over the past couple seasons, with each discovering a new tier of performance in the process.

 

MPH Difference, 2011-12

MPH Difference, 2010-12

2010

2011

2012

David Price

0.8

2.7

93.5

95.5

96.2

Rick Porcello

1.8

1.8

90.7

90.7

92.5

Chris Tillman

2.9

1.9

91.1

90.1

93.0

From a development standpoint, David Price is one of the most fascinating pitchers in the game. Price’s professional career started with an exceedingly high floor as well as a vaulted ceiling, as a polished left-hander selected first overall in the 2007 draft. He needed just 144 innings in the bush leagues before making his presence felt in Tampa, and in his four-year major-league career, he has shown consistent improvements with his stuff and his mechanics, the benefits of which are clearly evident in his statistical record. The numbers above reflect his sinker velocities, as he fell just short of the 500 four-seamers required to qualify in 2012, but his four-seam fastball also met the velocity-based requirements: his four-seam average was 96.6 mph in 2012, a mark that was 0.7 mph higher than his 2011 average and 0.6 mph higher than his mean fastball in 2010.

Rick Porcello is another pitcher who relies on the sinker as his power pitch of choice, and his stark velocity jump of 2012 stands tall when compared with his numbers from 2010–11. Porcello's sinker remained static in the 90.7-mph range across those two seasons, but his bowling-ball sinker gained significantly more weight in 2012, sitting comfortably plus at 92.5 mph, which represented a nearly two-mph increase from his previously established velocity. His four-seam fastball has also made considerable gains despite counts that fell below the 500-pitch threshold; in those limited samples his 2012 fastball velocity of 93.5 mph was 2.0 mph higher than 2011 and 1.2 mph higher than 2010. Porcello's combination of youth and experience has fueled breakout projections for 2013, and the right-hander has already laid the groundwork for a major leap forward in performance.

The greatest velocity gain of 2012 belongs to Baltimore youngster Chris Tillman. His 2.9-mph increase was easily the highest among qualifying starters, and though he had established a higher velocity baseline in 2010, Tillman's two-year jump of 1.9 mph was exceeded only by Price's sinker. The velo was not unprecedented for Tillman, who averaged 92.8 mph as a 21-year old in 2009, but his considerable velocity gains help to support his statistical breakout of last season. He has bounced back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk for the past four seasons, starting between 11 and 15 games in the majors each year, but Tillman is poised to spend the entire 2013 campaign in the Oriole rotation.

Pura Vida!

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Velocity

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

DetroitDale

Several months ago an article focusing solely on Porcello noted that he had abandoned his curveball for a slider cited this as a possible stall in his development as an ace.

(I might point out that a more reasonable explanation was sadistic combination of teaching him to "pitch to contact" to save his pitch counts then saddling him with a lousy infield, but I digress)

Anyway, the local media has reported that Little Ricky is now focusing on his curveball again. If this takes, this could FINALLY be the year Little Ricky graduates from sitcom kid to heartthrob singer and gets invited to the "Garden Party" reserved for Aces.

I only hope he's still wearing the Olde English D when that happens.

Mar 01, 2013 07:10 AM
rating: 0
 
BayCityM

Porcello is 4/5 guy at best.

Mar 01, 2013 09:54 AM
rating: -2
 
DetroitDale

Well yeah, he's a 4-5 guy in a rotation that has verlander sherzer fister and Sanchez, but as Doug points out in his article above and comments below there's reason for hope he finally meets his potential, I understand your skepticism given that we've been waiting for this every year but c'mpn man its spring , the season of hope, when every team is a contender. Save that cynical stuff for September, when the snow starts flying up there in bay city. :-)

(Former Saginaw resident here)

Mar 02, 2013 07:15 AM
rating: 2
 
Sam Rothstein

Congratulations on your wedding!

Mar 01, 2013 07:59 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Many thanks, Sam!

I am a lucky man to have found my partner in crime, and her support of my obsession with baseball allows me to fully indulge in life.

Pura Vida!

Mar 01, 2013 13:51 PM
 
SaberTJ

Doug,

Any chance to see if this increased velocity went along with higher whiff rates and/or increased movement on the fastballs?

Mar 01, 2013 10:24 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Excellent point, and I probably should have added those numbers in retrospect. Here's the numbers for the big 3 velo gainers:

Tillman, FB whiff %
2012 - 7.49%
2011 - 6.19%
2010 - 5.52%


Porcello, SINK whiff %
2012 - 5.71%
2011 - 4.12%
2010 - 4.60%


Both Tillman and Porcello saw positive ripple effects with their rates of swings and misses, supporting the optimism of the velocity increases.


But David Price is a big of a mystery:

Price, SINK whiff % / FB whiff %
2012 - 6.39% / 9.05%
2011 - 7.96% / 12.87%
2010 - 10.94% / 11.64%

So his whiff percentage fell precipitously as he added velo, meanwhile his K% has actually increased from 2010 to 2012:

2012 - 24.5%
2011 - 23.8%
2010 - 21.8%

David Price presents a much more complicated scenario, and I find him to be one of the most fascinating players in the game.

Mar 01, 2013 14:06 PM
 
SaberTJ

Doug, Thanks so much for posting this. Price's results are fascinating.

Mar 02, 2013 06:59 AM
rating: 0
 
JoshC77

Is Price losing movement and/or command as he gains velo?

Mar 03, 2013 08:36 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Great question, Josh.

His command has improved, thanks to steady mechanical development that has helped his balance, posture, and especially timing. Price's mechanical development is underpinning his improvements in velocity, command, and the stats on the back of his baseball card.

Movement is more difficult to determine. The PITCHf/x data indicates that he has lost a touch of vertical movement on his 4-seam and sinker, though his horizontal movement has gone up a bit. There might be some caveats with comparing movement across seasons, however, so I'm not as confident with the numbers for movement, but the trends make sense in theory.

At the end of the day, I think that the overall package represents an upgrade.

Mar 04, 2013 12:13 PM
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Wow, 4 of those 5 lines in the 2nd paragraph start with the word, "Movement," and the other lines has movement as the 4th word. Clearly, I need to consult a thesaurus.

Mar 04, 2013 12:16 PM
 
doublesteel

Looking forward to the release of the Sporer/Thorburn 2013 pitcher review. I pre-ordered and encourage others to do so by clicking on the "Starting Pitcher Guide" link in the 2d paragraph of this article.

Interesting to note in connection with this article that an uptick in velocity can be counterproductive if it causes the pitcher to tweak his pitch selection (e.g., Boston's Alceves last year ... his newfound zip seems to have caused him to lean on the fastball more and throw less of what had been for him otherwise perfectly effective non-fastball pitches. I wonder if there's a way to graph that and see exactly where the benefits of tossing more (and faster) fastballs meet the costs of tossing less (and otherwise effective) non-fastballs.

Mar 01, 2013 13:34 PM
rating: 1
 
doublesteel

Correction. "Al. Aceves."

Mar 01, 2013 13:35 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Great point, as there is not necessarily a straight-line relationship between pitch velocity and performance, and I suspect that players who fall in love with their newfound power can lose sight of the other elements that made them successful.

I'd like to thank Willie Mays Hayes and coach Lou Brown for that valuable insight.

Mar 01, 2013 14:10 PM
 
MGL

I agree. Very good point. If your fastball velocity increases and consequently you use it more, the effectiveness per fastball may not increase as much as you might expect or it might actually go down. This is true even if you are increasing that percentage by the correct amount. It is all about trying to optimize your mix of pitches, according to game theory.

If that effectiveness of your fastball goes down, and you are not overusing it, then the effectiveness of your other pitches would have to increase to more than offset the decrease in effectiveness of your faster fastball.

For Price, according to the pitch f/x data on Fangraphs, he had a huge jump in his 2-seam velocity from 2010 to 2011, by 3 mph (part of that might be pitch classification errors of course). So you would expect that the effectiveness of that pitch would be much, much better. The value of that pitch, however went down!

Why? Perhaps it is because he doubled the usage of that pitch, from 17 to 34%. If you throw a particular pitch twice as often, you would expect that the value of that pitch would plummet, since the batters can look for it that much more often. The fact that the value (per pitch) only went down from +12 runs to +10 runs is a testament to the fact that it was that much of a tougher pitch to hit, at 3 mph faster.

And if you look at his changeup, the value of that pitch went up from +2 to +10 runs! If you double the frequency with which you throw one of your fastballs, then the change up is going to be that much harder to hit, and it was. Plus, the velocity of that change up actually went down (while the fastball velocities went up) AND he doubled the frequency of that change up as well! So it is amazing that the value went up so much.

Basically what I am saying is that increasing the quality of a certain pitch (in these cases, by increasing velocity) is only one part of the equation. If a pitcher changes the frequencies of all his pitches, then all kinds of interesting things might happen. A pitcher's overall effectiveness is a combination of his individual pitch quality (as determined by velocity, movement, location, and deception) plus the game theory aspect of pitch frequencies given the count, score, runners, inning, fielders, and batter (plus the ability of the pitcher/catcher to "read" a batter on that particular AB).

Mar 01, 2013 19:15 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Dead-on, MGL, and your points demonstrate exactly what I mean by Price being such a fascinating case. There is so much more to the story, and your examples drive the point home.

Quick and dirty rules can be alluring, which is why theoretical constructs such as the Verducci Effect and the inverted-W gain traction, but reality is always more complicated than we like to admit. Personally, I find that embracing the complexity of the game stokes the analytic fires.

Mar 01, 2013 20:16 PM
 
MGL

"...the velocity of that change up actually went down (while the fastball velocities went up)"

I did not mean to imply that a decrease in change up velocity is a bad thing. Actually the optimal speed of a pitcher's change up is a very individual thing. He doesn't want it too fast or it becomes too similar to the fastball, and he doesn't want it too slow or it becomes batting practice. And it all depends on the deception of course. The more it looks like a fastball vis a vis the pitcher's motion, the better it likely is. And of course the optimal velocity of the change up depends on the speed of the pitcher's fastballs. A pitcher who can throw 98 might have a 92 mph change up and a pitcher who only throws 88 might have an 81 mph change up.

Typically the difference between the change up and fastball is less than the difference between the fastball and curve (but more than the difference between the fastball and slider), but not always. Again, it depends on lots of things, not the least of which is the slowest a pitcher can throw the change up without altering his delivery to give it away (basically you throw it exactly the same way you throw the fastball but with a grip which slows it down and imparts less spin).

Mar 01, 2013 19:22 PM
rating: 0
 
dodgerdan

Congrats to you and your spouse. What a great place to go to for honeymoon. Costa Ricans are a very warm and friendly group and the country is beautiful....but yeah, best you follow soccer.

Mar 01, 2013 13:59 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Costa Rica was incredible. We felt very welcomed by the locals, whose positive approach to life was absolutely infectious, and the wildlife in the rain forest was unforgettable.

All they need is a baseball academy in CR and I might become a permanent resident.

Mar 01, 2013 14:14 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

When visiting Belize a few years ago, one of the coolest things I saw was a baseball diamond in a remote town in the western end of the country - near San Ignacio IIRC.

Mar 01, 2013 14:21 PM
rating: 0
 
davinhbrown

Forgive me if this sounds off... but wouldn't Gio's have been from PEDs possibly?

And J-Zim recovering lost velocity from past major surgery?

Mar 01, 2013 15:21 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

There could be something with Zimmermann, though he threw harder in 2012 than he had in 2009 (before the surgery), by a difference of 0.64 mph. The vast majority of pitchers would not be expected to improve velocity 3 years later, even assuming perfect health in the interim.

Regarding Gio, I wouldn't consider the PED connection without better evidence. Of all the guys named in the Miami probe, he is the one who stands out as most likely innocent. He didn't receive anything banned, he has an alibi (his dad went to the clinic), and he has been the most vocal and willing to prove his innocence.

Besides that, Gio has made some legit improvement to his mechanics over the years, and he currently has one of the better deliveries in the game. I wrote about it here.

Mar 01, 2013 16:30 PM
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Congrats on the wedding! San Jose is a disgusting unsafe shithole, but the rest of the country is one of the most wonderful places in the world.

Mar 06, 2013 19:13 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Just wanna say, "really good article & follow-up" plus "congratulations - and the best of good fortune for the two of you".

Mar 08, 2013 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
Brady Childs

Interesting to look back at this.

2013 velocity increases/decreases:

Mike Leake: .7
Jason Hammel: -.8
Max Scherzer: -.9
James Shields: -.2
Alexi Ogando: -3.6

Jason Vargas: -.4
C.J. Wilson: -.6
Gio Gonzalez: -.5
Jordan Zimmermann: +.0

David Price: -2.1
Rick Porcello: -1
Chris Tillman: -.6

Sep 29, 2013 19:41 PM
rating: 0
 
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