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September 3, 2009

Future Shock

Throw Hard or Go Home

by Kevin Goldstein

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Last week, while attending a minor league game between Kane County and Beloit, someone noticed me leaning to the right after nearly every pitch to see what the radar gun held by the player tracking pitches said. "You care about how he's pitching, or how fast he's throwing?" asked a scout sitting near me, sarcastically. "Is there a difference?" I replied, trying to equal his snark. We both laughed, knowing that there was some merit to the question.

The next day I was talking to another scout, and we were talking about velocity when he just came out and said what we were both talking around. "I've more or less come to the conclusion that, as unsexy as it is, velocity means more or less everything," he said. We talked about the rare exceptions, and how lefties aren't always limited to same restrictions, but then we started to test our theory by naming right-handers in the big leagues who don't have at least average velocity. Needless to say, it wasn't a long discussion.

That conversation stuck with me for a while, and then I realized that we have the data to prove or disprove the assertion. The PITCHf/x system measures a variety of things, but at its most basic level, it is measure that core piece of scouting data when it comes to pitchers-velocity. So we now know the velocity of every pitch thrown in the big leagues, and when measuring the data against the basic theory of the scout, the numbers support his theory, and on a staggering level.

That said, obviously there are exceptions to the rule. Asserting that, if you throw hard, you will get to the big leagues is not an absolute truth; baseball has no absolutes. But the inverse-all those who get to the big leagues throw hard-that's almost all the way there. Is command important? Yes. And secondary pitches? Absolutely important as well. But the leading statistical indicator for getting to the majors might not be measured by any spreadsheet or formula, but may instead be found on the radar gun.

To evaluate this data, just a quick step back to how scouts grade pitches. For fastballs, obviously location and movement can grade a pitch up or down, but velocity is the major factor. The standard 20-80 scouting scale, going on velocity only, looks like this:

Grade   MPH
 80     96+
 70    94-95
 60    92-93
 50    89-91
 40    86-88
 30    83-85
 20     82-

Now, with that in mind, scouts do give half scores out, such as 55, so a quick extrapolation gets us:

Grade   MPH
 80     96+
 75     95
 70     94
 65     93
 60     92
 55     90.5
 50     89
 45     87.5
 40     86
 35     85.5
 30     83
 20     82-

OK, now let's crunch some data. As of August 18, there were 230 right-handers who had thrown 300 or more fastballs in the big leagues. Taking their average velocity, how many have average velocity or better? Before crunching the numbers, my bet was at least two-thirds of them did. Afterwards, my mantra changed to "Throw Hard or Go Home." Here's the distribution:

Grade  MPH    RHPs
 80    96+      7
 75    95      11
 70    94      31
 65    93      34
 60    92      45
 55    90.5    56
 50    89      27
 45    87.5    11
 40    86       4
 35    85.5     4
 30    83       0
 20    82-      0

That's staggering. Nearly 92 percent of all right-handers have at least average velocity, 80 percent are above average, and well over half (55.7 percent) have true plus fastballs. If anything, it's a cruel reminder that you can have as much pitchability or command as you want, but unless you are really unique, if not downright special, it's just not going to matter unless you also throw one by a guy once in a while. For example, here are your five bottom right-handers in terms of average fastball velocity in the majors this year:

Pitcher        Avg. MPH
Brad Ziegler     84.6
Darren O'Day     85.2
Cla Meredith     85.3
Chris Young      85.9
Yusmeiro Petit   87.0

So, that's three side-armers followed by Chris Young, whose height (6'11") and deception makes him one of the most unique pitchers of the past decade, and then Petit, who has even more deception than Young. This suggests that standard-issue right-handers with over-the-top deliveries and three solid offerings have very little chance of making it without plus velocity or some kind of trickery, and this kind of data makes one a little leery of the upside of a prospect like Tim Alderson of Pittsburgh, who has put up impressive numbers in the minors while rarely getting clocked throwing anything outside of the 80s on the gun.

We can talk all we want about what kind of statistics one looks at when evaluating pitching prospects, and even delve deeper into things like BABIP, ground-ball ratios, and WARP, but when it comes right down to it, there is no evidence that we've found anything to replace the radar gun reading as an indicator for future big-league success.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

74 comments have been left for this article.

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