There’s more to being a major-league pitcher than throwing hard. Plenty of pitchers have had successful careers without making the mitt pop. On the whole, though, throwing hard helps. All else being equal, the harder a pitcher can throw, the more effective his offerings are, and the easier it is for him to get away with mistakes. It’s no coincidence that the team with the hardest-throwing staff this season, the Nationals, also boasts the big leagues’ best ERA.
In a 2010 study, PITCHf/x analyst Mike Fast found that starting pitchers from 2002-2009 allowed, on average, 0.28 fewer runs per nine innings for every mile per hour of velocity gained. Relievers, who tend to rely more heavily on their heaters, shaved 0.45 runs for every extra tick.
So far this season, pitchers who’ve seen significant declines in velocity have suffered even more dramatic declines in performance. The average four-seam fastball velocities of 27 starters have fallen by at least one mile per hour from 2011 to 2012. Despite a league-wide decrease in scoring, those starters have seen their combined ERAs rise from 3.59 to 4.31, an increase of 0.72 runs. The five starters whose four-seamers have slowed by at least 2 mph—Alex Cobb, Graham Godfrey, Tim Lincecum, Justin Masterson, and Carl Pavano—have had even more disastrous results: their ERAs as a group have inflated from 3.44 to 5.55. These figures aren’t park-corrected, we’re comparing full-season velocities from 2011 to partial-season velocities from 2012, and fastball speed tends to increase as the season goes on, but those declines are still scary.
However, a handful of pitchers whose fastball velocities have declined by a mile per hour or more since we last saw them have held their own or made real improvements in performance in 2012. Here’s how they’ve done the job despite diminished stuff.
Johan Santana (Four-seam)
2012: 89.1, 2010: 90.2
â€‹Difference: -1.1 mph
Santana’s season qualified as a success the moment he stepped onto a major-league mound, something he didn’t do during his recovery from September 2010 shoulder surgery last year. However, not only has he been healthy, he’s been a better pitcher than the one the Mets saw before the injury, recording the fifth-lowest ERA among NL starters and pitching the first no-hitter in franchise history.
Even before the capsule tear, Santana wasn’t the overpowering pitcher he had been in his prime, and he likely left a little more velo in the operating room. Fast’s study revealed that pitchers in their mid-30s were especially sensitive to decreases in velocity, which didn’t bode well for a slower Santana. However, Santana’s out pitch has always been his changeup, and as his fastball speed has fallen, he’s preserved the velocity separation between the two offerings. The change now leaves Johan’s hand at around 78 mph, nearly 2 mph slower than it did in 2010, and he’s still just as good at disguising it, so hitters’ timing is still disrupted. As a result, the pitch is missing more bats than it has since 2008, and Santana has excelled even without a fastball that routinely tops 90.
Santana threw a career-high 134 pitches en route to the no-no last Friday. We don’t know whether the lengthy outing will have any lingering effects, but Santana’s adjustments so far this season suggest that as long as he’s healthy, he can survive some further degradation in his stuff due to fatigue.
Andy Pettitte (Four-seam)
2012: 88.0, 2010: 89.8
â€‹Difference: -1.8 mph
Like Santana, Pettitte sat out the 2011 season, though he took his time off by choice. Inactivity and advancing age have cost him some speed, but so far the southpaw’s age-40 season has gone smoothly. Luck has been on his side, but he’s also altered his approach. Earlier this week, Pettitte said:
The feel for all my pitches has just gotten better. I feel like as long as I can stay healthy and you carry somewhat of a velocity on your fastball to keep hitters honest, if I can keep moving the ball around and keep the feel of my pitches, I feel like I’m going to be how I was when I left.
Most of that moving around has consisted of keeping the ball down in the zone: 47 percent of Pettitte’s four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters have been concentrated in the bottom of the zone or below, compared to 39 percent in 2010. Pettitte has been especially good at preventing his sinker from staying elevated, throwing 80 percent of them down, up from 49 percent two seasons ago. He’s been rewarded with a 59.6 percent groundball rate, the third-best among AL starters and by far his highest on record.
Mark Buehrle (Four-seam)
2012: 85.1, 2011: 86.5
â€‹Difference: -1.5 mph
Part of being a crafty lefty is knowing when it’s time to switch leagues. Buehrle’s stats have held steady even as his already-slow four-seamer, cutter, and sinker have dipped another 1 ½ mph. Facing the pitcher is a big part of that: opposing hurlers have batted, on-based, and slugged just .056 off Buehrle. The soft-tossing southpaw normally nibbles at the corners, throwing 42 percent of his pitches against non-pitchers inside the zone, but when a pitcher is at the plate, he pounds the zone 55 percent of the time, which has helped him post the majors’ third-lowest walk rate.
Like Santana, he has delivered his changeup nearly 2 mph slower to compensate for his decreased fastball velocity. He’s also increased its usage, throwing it 32 percent of the time compared to 22 percent in 2011. Because they’re forced to master the more subtle arts of deception early on, pitchers who throw slower to begin with are less affected by subsequent declines in velocity than pitchers who start out throwing hard. Buehrle’s experience as a soft tosser is one of his strengths.
R.A. Dickey (Sinker)
2012: 83.8, 2011: 85.0
â€‹Difference: -1.2 mph
Dickey’s sinker is the slowest in baseball, but the additional drop-off this season hasn’t hurt him. If anything, it’s encouraged him to ditch the sinker in favor of his knuckleball, throwing the former pitch half as often and the latter 10 percent more (with a whiff percentage 40 percent higher). That’s a good thing, given how effective the floater has been.
James McDonald (Four-seam)
2012: 92.6, 93.5
â€‹Difference: -0.9 mph
Some breakouts can be traced to velocity boosts, but McDonald’s career year (to this point) has come despite decreased fastball speed. The key has been the righty’s increased reliance on his slider, which he went to only 5 percent of the time last season and has thrown over four times as often in 2012. McDonald’s walk rate, BABIP, and HR/FB rate likely won’t last, but thanks to the slider, his K rate has a chance to hold up.
Brandon Morrow (Sinker)
2012: 90.0, 2011: 91.5
â€‹Difference: -1.5 mph
Morrow’s strikeout rate led the AL last season, but for the second straight year, his ERA didn’t match his peripherals. This season, he’s doing something different. Morrow has aimed his pitches a few inches lower in the zone, and he’s thrown 28 percent more sinkers. Both his sinker and his four-seamer have lost some speed, but his groundball rate has risen by 15 percent. He’s sacrificed some strikeouts, but grounders are a good thing in Toronto, since the Jays have converted them into outs at by far the best rate in the league.
Bartolo Colon (Sinker)
2012: 90.0, 2011: 91.5
â€‹Difference: -1.5 mph
Colon threw hard in the first half of last season, but poor conditioning took its toll, and his velocity dropped off the table late in the season, bottoming out in September. It hasn’t rebounded significantly since, but Colon has compensated by zeroing in on the strike zone, preventing free passes, and letting the Coliseum’s ample foul territory swallow some of the additional balls in play. Only three AL pitchers have walked batters less frequently, and largely as a result of this stinginess all 10 of his homers allowed have been solo shots. The question is how low his velo could go if his age and weight conspire against him again in the second half.
Colby Lewis (Four-seam)
2012: 88.8, 2011: 89.7
â€‹Difference: -0.9 mph
See Colon, Bartolo. Pinpoint control has kept Colby Lewis from suffering any ill effects from his velocity decline. The right-hander has walked only 10 batters in 80 innings, the best rate in baseball.
Aroldis Chapman (Four-seam)
2012: 97.3, 2011: 98.6
â€‹Difference: -1.3 mph
Very few pitchers could average over 97 mph and end up on a list of velocity losers, but Chapman’s heater has descended from what might have been the highest high in history. No one would call the current Chapman crafty, but his feats with the fastball aren’t wowing fans quite as regularly as they did during his first two seasons. The lefty can no longer claim to be baseball’s hardest thrower—that distinction goes to Andrew Cashner—and the percentage of his pitches that have hit 100 has fallen from 20.6 to 9.5.
Most declines in velocity are unintentional, but Chapman’s slightly slower speeds are the result of a conscious decision to take a little off in exchange for improved control. The new approach has paid off: after 29 innings, Chapman has yet to allow an earned run. His walk rate is less than half of what it was last season, he’s struck out almost half of the batters he’s faced, and he hasn’t had a recurrence of the shoulder problems that have plagued him in the past. Results like that are worth the double-digit radar readings.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .