March 3, 2014
Under the Gun 2.0
When it comes to pitching, velocity is the straw that stirs the drink. Fastball speed provides the baseline for batter timing and sets up every other arrow in a pitcher's quiver, explaining why velocity is the most sought-after commodity in pitchers at every level of play. Consequently, it can be devastating when a big-league pitcher transitions from pumping premium octane to regular gas, as it slows the performance of the whole machine.
Thanks to the bounties of PITCHf/x and sites such as BrooksBaseball.net, we have the ability to monitor a pitcher's stuff over the course of multiple seasons. We expect that velocity will diminish over time, and that a pitcher must hone the finer elements of his game in order to sustain the performance of his youth. With this concept in mind, let's examine the pitchers who cooled down significantly last season and take a look under the hood to better understand the causes behind their downgrades.
First, the ground rules: We are looking at the three-year period from 2011-13. Each of the pitchers in the charts below suffered at least a half-mph drop from each of the previous two seasons to 2013, as well as the loss of a full tick from at least one of the two years under the microscope to 2013. In order to qualify, a pitcher had to throw at least 500 pitches that qualified as fastballs or sinkers in each of the past three seasons. The numbers in the charts were calculated based on a weighted average of the pitch-speeds of four-seam fastballs and sinkers in each season.
Fifteen pitchers finished the 2013 season in this group of velocity decliners, and the individual tales take on a variety of shapes and sizes. In a repeat of last year's exercise in velocity attrition, I present the pitchers who posted the most disappointing radar-gun readings of the 2013 season.
Let's hit the slopes.
Group One: The Bunny Hill
We begin with the first stop on our ski lift, where there are few major concerns and plenty of reasons to temper pessimism about impending doom for each pitcher. Some of these players have seen their velocity zig-zag over the past three seasons, while others have dealt with rather modest setbacks to their pitch speed. This group also includes cases of velocity-sapping injuries that are clouding the numbers.
Dillon Gee just barely qualified for the study, scraping the bottom of the barrel for the 0.5- and 1.0-mph thresholds. His velo was down a full tick from 2012, but that season was an improvement over 2011, and his average fastball speed has squatted firmly in the 89-90 mph range throughout his MLB career.
Cliff Lee dropped a full tick last season after five consecutive seasons of slowly-rising velocity, but the 35-year-old was throwing just as hard in 2013 as he was during his 2008 Cy Young campaign, and nobody is looking down on his 2013 results.
From 2007-12, Edinson Volquez had put up some of the most consistent velocity readings in the majors, consistently sitting on an average fastball a bit above 93 mph. Perhaps that makes his 2013 dip more alarming, but the pitcher who can't find the strike zone has at least earned some benefit of the doubt with respect to maintaining his velo, and the jury should still be out on the severity of his decline last season.
David Price’s velocity drop got a lot of attention last season, but he may very well have intentionally taken his foot off the gas pedal after dealing with an upper-arm injury earlier in the year. Price entered the season as one of the top velocity-gainers in MLB, with a positive trend that stretched back across four seasons and had him parked well above 95 mph, so the sudden dip may have just been a blip on the radar gun.
Injuries were at least partly responsible for Alexi Ogando's sudden drop, as he dealt with shoulder woes that sapped his velocity. His numbers are further skewed by the fact that he spent 2012 in the bullpen.
Group Two: Black Diamond
The above group of players has experienced a more continuous rate of decline, with at least a half-mph loss of velocity in each of the past two seasons. This trend is potentially disturbing, indicating that the down-slope could continue as these pitchers trek further from their physical prime.
Jhoulys Chacin had a very consistent fastball in his first couple of years in the league, but the past two seasons have seen him creep below the 90-mph danger zone. He did refine his control numbers last season, settling under a 10 percent walk rate for the first time in his career (7.5 percent), but he plays in a home park that is unforgiving when a pitcher lacks his best stuff, and the 26-year-old can ill afford to misplace another mile per hour. Compounding the concern is the fact that Chacin has very poor posture in his delivery, with considerable spine-tilt to the glove-side by the time he reaches release point. Poor posture is a precursor to shoulder injury, and it is potentially related to accelerated wearing of the joint. These mechanical traits have implications for the velo-dropping players, given that the shoulder is largely responsible for accelerating and decelerating the throwing arm; the simple rule of thumb is that the shoulder is tied to velocity and the elbow is linked to command.
Ubaldo Jimenez dominated down the stretch last season in after regaining some of his lost velocity, but his average fastball velo for the year was still the lowest of his career. Jimenez was actually a member of last year's class of velocity-droppers, and he continued his run down the slope with another 0.6-mph cooling off of his heater. Even during his run late last season, Jimenez was only matching the average velocity of his 2012 season, which was his career-low prior to 2013. He was able to regain some of that smoke thanks to better timing, as he kept his upper-half closed to delay his trunk rotation and allow the hips to open as the saloon-door swung open into foot strike. Ubaldo carries the poor-posture gene within his mechanical DNA, earning a 40-grade on the 20-80 scouting scale that I use to measure a pitcher's mechanics.
Mark Buehrle is the proud owner of one of the softest fastballs in baseball, trailing only Barry Zito and teammate R.A. Dickey on the list from last season. The fact that velo is not part of his game lowers the threat level of the 34-year old's decline in pitch speed, as he continues to carry the soft-tossing torch that was passed to him by Jamie Moyer.
Justin Verlander is the polar opposite of Buehrle: He’s one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game, and he’s notorious for adding oomph as the game progresses. Last season, Verlander continued his multi-year run of slowing velocity, and though he has the advanced repertoire to succeed without his best heat, he proved that he is still capable of putting the pedal to the metal by saving his best stuff for the postseason.
Mechanical issues threw Verlander off track for much of the 2013 season, including mistimed deliveries that prevented him from achieving maximum torque on a consistent basis, with the ripple effect of decreased velocity (though his stretch-drive performance included a reversion to his trademark delivery). Posture also played a small role, and the below picture compares his 2012 delivery (left) to his release point during a rough stretch of 2013.
Marco Estrada has been a big-league regular for three seasons, and though it was easier to look past his velocity loss in 2012 due to his full-time transition to the rotation, the terrain got rockier as he plunged beneath 90 mph last season. Now 30 years old, Estrada could face a steeper decline in the future, and his grade-F mechanics could accelerate his fall. His issues with spine-tilt are worse than any of the other Black Diamond pitchers, with 30-grade posture that results from a blatant manipulation in an attempt to find an artificially-high arm slot.
Group Three: The K-13
The above pitchers are tumbling down the mountain at break-neck speeds; the stories of players who have attempted to survive the K-13 are the stuff of haunted legend. The list is populated by household names who may be on the fast track down a path to obscurity.
Yovani Gallardo was once considered to have ace potential, but his escalating ERAs and declining strikeout rates over the past three seasons have been backed up by a diminished fastball. It’s not a coincidence that Gallardo and his teammate received the only two “F” grades among starters in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide. Gallardo is the only pitcher in baseball whom I’ve given a 20 grade for posture, and his spine-tilt is so extreme that his upper half is almost parallel to the ground at release point.
Juan Nicasio’s numbers are all going in the wrong directions, including walk and strikeout rates that were the worst of his career last season, back-to-back ERAs above 5.00, and fastball velocity that has descended from an intimidating peak to a merely above-average offering in the span of his three years in the majors. From a mechanical standpoint, Nicasio's velocity is greatly compromised by his slow pace to the plate. A typical pitcher's momentum accounts for approximately 20 percent of his pitch velocity, and a glacial charge into foot strike carries the ripple effect of complicating the timing sequence.
In Nicasio's case, he also has unusual timing of his hip rotation due to his odd action with the lead leg, and the combination often results in a misfiring that minimizes his hip-shoulder separation. He still spikes the occasional 95-96 mph on the gun, but his inconsistency drives down the averages on his PITCHf/x player card.
Ryan Vogelsong arose from the dead once already, emerging in 2011 after a five-year hiatus from the major leagues, and now the 35-year-old will have to fight off age-related decline in order to remain relevant. He missed 80 days last season after an HBP fractured the pinky finger of his pitching hand, and though the injury was obviously a fluke, his velocity was broken before he stepped into the batter's box on that fateful evening of May 20th.
Jered Weaver busted his elbow last year, an injury that cost him seven weeks of the season, but the fact that it was his non-throwing arm rules out that excuse for his precipitous drop in velocity. Weaver is the only pitcher to qualify for the K-13 group in consecutive seasons, but his physical likeness to Tad Mikwosky is purely coincidental. Weaver's velo has been free-falling since 2010, and his unorthodox delivery gets less charming with every 86-mph fastball. Not surprisingly, Weaver has horrific posture that has been a trademark of his delivery for several years, and though there were reports in the spring of 2013 that he was working to lower his arm slot, that adjustment was tied to his angle of shoulder abduction, while the egregious spine-tilt remained intact. His absurdly-closed stride adds to the comedic value of a Weaver freeze-frame at release point.
CC Sabathia’s velocity received much of the blame for his subpar season in 2013, but his 2012 campaign featured a similarly significant decline in velocity despite results that were right in line with expectations. Sabathia is 33 years old, but his arm has advanced wear due to his early introduction to the majors and his heavy workloads, with 2,775 innings on the big-league resume. CC was on the Bunny Hill last spring due to a zig-zag pattern to his velocity, having spiked in 2011 before suffering the fall back to earth the following season.
Sabathia is a classic example of a “big shoulders” pitcher who relies more on upper-body twist to create torque. Despite the moniker, Sabathia typically employed a delay of trunk rotation after foot strike, but in 2013 he was firing his upper-half closer to foot strike. This misfire compromised his separation as well as his pitch command, and the combination of diminished torque and potential wear on his left arm were enough to accelerate his stumble.
The Posture Link to Velocity
The evidence is even more compelling when I look at the grades that I doled out for the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide. I gave mechanics report cards to 209 pitchers in the Guide, and those players received an average posture grade of 51.5 (on the 20-80 scale), with a standard deviation of 10.72. I had not run those numbers until researching this article, but I was pleased to see the results adhere so closely to the construct of “50” being MLB average with a theoretical deviation of +/- 10 points. More intriguing was the fact that the 15 pitchers under evaluation for this article averaged a 45.0 for their posture (standard deviation of 11.95). Six points may not sound like much, but running a t-test for the two samples revealed a significant difference, with a p-value of 0.057. Looking beyond the means, 45 of the 209 pitchers in the SP Guide received a posture grade of 40 or lower (21.3 percent), yet seven of the 15 pitchers in this article (46.7 percent) were given grades of 40 or lower for posture. Small sample caveats apply, of course, but the year-to-year evidence is really starting to pile up.
Honorable Mention: Matt Moore. Thus far, we have seen pitchers who lost velocity due to age, workload, and mechanics. Matt Moore has none of these excuses to blame for his loss of velocity, which fell two full mph between 2012 and 2013 (to 92.3 mph on average last year) and was more than three mph slower than his 2011 cameo of nine September innings. Moore is just 24 years old and has pitched fewer than 180 innings in each of his two full seasons. His mechanical grades have stayed virtually the same, though his peripherals have gone backwards along with his velocity. I’m still searching for the main cause behind his decline, and I invite the readers to enter the search party. Below are two clips, the first from 2012 and the second from 2013. The evidence paints the picture of a physical breakdown, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the subject.