March 8, 2013
Under the Gun
In last week's episode of Raising Aces, we looked at those pitchers who have increased fastball velocity over the last three seasons. The article was inspired by the general tendency for pitchers to lose velocity as they age, and with this premise in mind, I decided to flip the switch and go digging for those pitchers who have lost some speed over the past three years.
For the purposes of this analysis, I chose to utilize the same threshold as with the pitchers who were over the radar: to qualify for the study, a starting pitcher had to have thrown at least 500 fastballs (or sinkers in select cases) in both the 2012 and 2011 seasons, and the average velocity of those pitches in 2012 had to be at least 0.50 mph lower than in each of the previous two seasons. The purpose of these boundaries is to capture a sustained loss in velocity across multiple seasons.
The first item that stands out is that twice as many pitchers qualified under the conditions for velocity loss than the number within last week's sample of velo gainers, with 24 pitchers in the sample. The other glaring trend was the magnitude of velocity loss, which reached more extreme one-year and two-year changes than those seen in last week's study. The 24-pitcher sample breaks down into three separate groups, based on the magnitude and shape of the velocity trend, and each of those groups is conveniently represented by exactly eight pitchers.
I chose to organize the groups based on the multi-year trends, which are bold within the charts. The first group consists of players whose velocity drop is less severe when considering previously-established baselines, with some having a zig-zag pattern of decline and others experiencing a flat-line between 2010 and 2011. Group two consists of pitchers who have experienced a steadier decline in velocity, with noticeable dips from 2010-2011 and again from 2011-2012. The final group is the more extreme version of group two, with a steeper slope of deteriorating velocity that triggers fears of K-13 proportions.
Group 1 – Zig-zags and Flat lines
The most glaring examples of the switch-back pitchers include former Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia, whose single-year drops in velocity were the first- and third-largest speed bumps in baseball, respectively. Lincecum was the only qualifying pitcher who’s lost two full ticks from his fastball since 2011, and the power outages of 2010 and 2012 were both rooted in conditioning; he lacked the athleticism necessary to consistently coordinate the 80-grade momentum that has become his trademark, while a lack of timing sapped the efficiency of his torque.
A handful of these pitchers maintained their velocities from 2010 to 2011 before suffering the speed decline in 2012, including Jhoulys Chacin (age 25), Yovani Gallardo (27), and Edwin Jackson (29). These pitchers may be experiencing a single-year blip on the radar gun, or perhaps their 2012 numbers from PITCHf/x are just the beginning of a down-sloping trend, like that of the following group of pitchers.
Group 2 – Down Slope
* = sinker velocity
Justin Verlander can add or subtract velocity at will. He has developed a devastating penchant for saving his hardest throws for late in the game—he is basically his own late-inning, power reliever—and the decline in average speed could be a reflection of altered strategy as opposed to a decline in power. The guy still hits triple digits in the ninth inning, so I'm not too worried.
Mark Buehrle is not fooling anyone with his velocity, and his game has actually improved as he’s fallen further into the Jamie Moyer zone of radar-gun readings. The decline is more worrisome for those pitchers who are steadily slipping down the wrong side of the bell curve, crossing the 90-mph hard deck, including the quartet of Ricky Nolasco, Ryan Dempster, Jonathan Sanchez, and Jaime Garcia.
Nolasco catches too much plate on a regular basis to survive long with a more hittable fastball, while Sanchez's career is on the brink as his stuff fails to compensate for a dearth of command. Dempster is at an age (35) where physical decline is inevitable, but any talk of the 26-year-old Garcia's velocity has to start with the condition of his left shoulder—three surgeons suggested off-season surgery for his labrum tear, but Orthopedic guru Dr. James Andrews suggested rehab—and the southpaw's over-the-top arm-slot fires additional warning flares. The Cardinals are fortunate to have a stable of upper-tier pitching prospects to buffer the rotation in case Garcia is unavailable.
The loss of zip on the fastball of Colby Lewis is likely linked to a bum elbow that cost him more than half of last season, an injury that will keep him sidelined into the summer months of 2013. Bud Norris doesn't have a known arm injury on which to pin his declining velocity, but his two-year trends are worrisome, and the Astros might be looking to unload their highest-paid player while his pitch-speed still has a plus reputation.
Group 3 – The K-13
* = sinker velocity
The list of the most dramatic velocity drops is littered with All-Stars in various stages of decline, as well as a couple of arms who have learned how to adapt to life with a lesser fastball. Many of these pitchers are climbing down from a high perch of max velocity, so it makes sense that they would suffer a steeper fall, but there is a glaring year-over-year trend of losing a tick from 2011, which pushes their two-year losses over the two-mph mark.
Felix Hernandez turns 27 on April 8, and his age is an outlier on the above list of the steepest declines in fastball velocity. Hernandez has tallied a massive innings count despite his relative youth, including an average of 219 innings per year over his seven full seasons in the majors, and the heavy workloads could be producing signs of wear.
Jered Weaver has pitched 300 fewer innings in the majors than Hernandez despite being three-and-half years older, and Weaver's pitch speed dropped far below the 90-mph line in 2012. More of his pitches registered as sinkers via PITCHf/x, yet the velocity drop was even more pronounced on his sinking fastball that it was for his four-seamer (-1.43 mph / -2.18 mph).
Injuries have dogged Josh Johnson throughout his career, limiting him to fewer than 1000 innings pitched. Trips to the disabled list nearly knocked Johnson out of the sample, as he barely qualified with 523 fastballs in 2011, and his continued downturn of velocity is a disturbing piece of evidence with respect to his future health.
Roy Halladay actually throws more cutters than sinkers, and I am cheating by the smallest possible margin with his inclusion, as the right-hander threw 499 sinkers in 2011. He and Tim Hudson are at an age of expected physical decline, getting further from their physical peaks while carrying the mileage of more than 2600 innings pitched in the big leagues.
Dan Haren and Josh Beckett find themselves in a similar situation, in which they need to make mechanical adjustments in order to compensate for the deterioration of physical skills as they advance into their mid-30s and attempt to cross into 2000-inning territory. Beckett has already begun the adaptation process, with a quieter delivery that requires less athleticism to properly execute, but Haren continues to carry the stop-n-go momentum and the postural instability that have weighed down his delivery for years.
The story of Ubaldo Jimenez deserves its own category, or at least its own article. His steepest fall came in 2011, when he dropped 2.36 mph from the previous season, and the downward trend continued in 2012. Jimenez has devolved in every category since his 2010 peak with Colorado, showing rapidly deteriorating stuff, mechanics, and performance. At this rate, Jimenez is sprinting down the Jonathan Sanchez path to oblivion.
Raising Aces has been conspicuously lacking in evaluations of pitching mechanics lately due to the temporary focus on PITCHf/x, but there was a glaring pattern that cropped up among this particular group of pitchers, one that is so pervasive that it deserves mention.
I often rail against over-the-top pitching motions, as pitchers sacrifice posture by tilting the spine in the effort to achieve a high arm slot. Not only does the aggressive spine-tilt cost a pitcher release distance (and often command), but it has also been identified as a precursor to injury, specifically to the shoulder. Shoulder injuries are also related to drops in velocity, as the front-side shoulder muscles are responsible for accelerating the throwing arm and the back-side shoulder muscles perform the task of putting on the brakes. Therefore, it is logically consistent that pitchers with poor posture will have a tendency toward declining velocity due to wear and tear on the throwing shoulder, but I did not expect such an overwhelming trend of poor posture to emerge among the pitchers in this group.
The list of pitchers with a steep decline in velocity was basically a who's who of pitchers that I have taken to task for their poor posture, including Weaver, Jimenez, and especially Gallardo, who received a bottom-feeding score of 20 in the Making the Grade series. The number of pitchers in this group who possess particularly poor posture is striking.
Jered Weaver Yovani Gallardo Tim Lincecum
Dan Haren Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez exemplifies the most erratic of release-point strategies, with a motion that is directed wide of the left-hand batter's box in addition to the severe spine-tilt that typifies this particular group of pitchers.
Somewhere in the distance, Justin Verlander is rolling his eyes with A-grade mechanics.
If I can make a shameless plug at the end of the show, then please allow me to endorse the 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide, which is available starting TODAY at paulsporer.com. This is the sixth season of the SP Guide, and the first time that I have contributed to Paul Sporer's incredible manual on pitchers. I encourage the readers to take a deeper look at the mechanics of Verlander, Weaver, Gallardo, and more than 100 other pitchers who received full mechanics report cards within the Guide.