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March 1, 2013
Over the Radar
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.
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.
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.
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.