keyboard_arrow_uptop
Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.

Every year, I write a pair of articles that breaks down the risers and fallers in pitch velocity, specifically targeting multi-year trends to look for any changes in baseline stuff. With all of the talk about pitchers who have lost a tick (or three) of velo, it seemed appropriate to revisit the movers and shakers to see if the changes in pitch speed have carried over thus far in 2016.

There are always caveats with this type of analysis, and at the top of the list is that many pitchers build velocity over time during the summer (“he warms up with the weather”), such that comparisons between full season averages and 2016 values might be a bit misleading. It's therefore critical to look at these players on a case-by-case basis, to better understand whether what we are seeing is indicative of larger trends or merely a blip on the radar gun.

Let's start with the pitchers who were over the radar, who gained velocity in 2015 when compared to the previous two seasons. The rules were that the pitcher had to have thrown 500 combined four-seamers and sinkers in each of the previous three seasons, and that the weighted average of his 2015 velo had to exceed that of each of the past two seasons by at least 0.5 mph. It was a short list, so let's break it down in it's entirety.

MPH Diff, 2016-'15

MPH Diff, 2015-'13

2016

2015

2014

2013

Clayton Kershaw

-0.9

0.8

93.3

94.2

93.7

93.4

Jeff Locke

0.3

0.8

92.3

92.0

91.4

91.2

Joe Kelly

-1.1

0.8

95.2

96.3

95.5

95.5

Cole Hamels

-0.8

1.1

92.8

93.6

93.0

92.5

Chris Sale

-2.2

1.2

92.9

95.1

94.5

93.9

Bud Norris

-1.7

1.4

93.2

94.9

94.4

93.5

Ryan Vogelsong

-0.1

1.9

91.8

91.9

91.1

90.0

At first glance, the results of the Over group might seem a bit disappointing, but what we see is perfectly within reason. Not only are we dealing with the in-season aspect of comparing April value to full-season pitch-speeds, but these players were largely coming off of peak seasons in terms of velocity and some regression is to be expected even if regressing to a player-specific mean. Finally, the truth is that the average pitcher loses velo over time as he drifts further from physical peak, so in a vacuum we would expect the numbers to go down.

The Kershaw reading isn't concerning. Not only is he still performing at his usual best-in-baseball skill level, but he has thrown with this velocity before, so even if Kershaw stays parked in the mid-93-mph range with his average fastball the rest of the season there will be no reason to sound the alarms—he had a 1.87 ERA that year and won the NL Cy Young Award.

Jeff Locke is the only pitcher who is continuing to build on his velocity increase of the past few seasons. It's only 0.3 mph, but given the downsized velocity of the other players on that board in addition to the earlier caveats, what he has done is impressive, improving from a fastball that might be considered average only because he's a left-hander to one that would fall right in line with average no matter which arm he threw baseballs with. Kelly has fallen back down to his pre-2015 levels, still throwing 95 mph with regularity but lacking the enhanced pitch-speed of last season. The extra tick didn't really help his performance then, as Kelly's stuff is more about movement than raw pitch-speed, but the return to his velo of two years ago hasn't tipped the scales in a positive direction, either.

Both Hamels and Norris have posted average pitch speeds that would put each on track with the average velo of a couple years ago. Hamels has made a habit of increasing velocity throughout the year in most of the seasons that Brooks Baseball has on record, which is to say all but his rookie year of 2006. In fact, his velo from April 2016 was better than his pitch speed from April '15, so there is still a chance that he will set a new ceiling before the year is complete. Norris, on the other hand, showed no such trend when he first started peaking velocity in 2014, though he did throw harder in the second half of '15 than the first. He still has time to turn it around, but there's a decent chance that we saw his peak velocity last season.

Ryan Vogelsong is a tougher call, as a veteran pitcher with velo-building seasons under his belt as well as those in which his hardest heaters came in April. The overall velo is within a rounding error of last season, but he threw harder in April (five starts) than he has so far in May (four starts). Chris Sale stands out not only for his high-profile name, but also the magnitude of his velocity drop this season. Granted, he was on a multi-year run of increasing velocity that was unsustainable and potentially dangerous, and Sale has made a point to ease off the gas pedal in order to have more efficient outings, at the expense of velocity as well as strikeouts. One can't argue with the results—1.79 ERA, 0.78 WHIP—and if effective then I applaud the move. The magnitude of change is striking, and it will be interesting to see how the league adjusts to Sale once it has notes on his new approach.

On to the velocity droppers:

The Bunny Hill

MPH Diff, 2016-'15

MPH Diff, 2015-'13

2016

2015

2014

2013

Wily Peralta

0.1

-0.6

95.2

95.1

96.6

95.7

Tom Koehler

-0.5

-0.9

92.4

92.9

93.9

93.8

Jeff Samardzija

0.0

-0.9

94.6

94.6

95.6

95.5

James Shields

-0.9

-1.0

91.0

91.9

93.4

92.9

Tim Hudson

-1.4

-1.4

89.2

89.7

90.6

Peralta has stayed true to his 2015 velocity this season, and as a pitcher who has shown no discernible in-season pattern to his velocity, what you see is largely what you get. From the looks of things, what we got was a velo spike in 2014 that is unlikely to be repeated. Koehler has taken another tumble down the velocity ladder, and his career-long tendency has been to throw with less juice in the second half of the season as he does in the first half, so we are likely to see him in the 2k16 version of Under the Gun.

Speed is one The Shark's greatest assets, but the waning velocity that chased him to shallower waters in 2015 has followed him this year. The Giants can take solace that the draining pitch-speed appears to have stopped, at least for now, and though Samardzija hasn't shown an obvious trend toward increasing pitch-speed during seasons past, so this probably represents a new level of expected velo. On the contrary, the pitch-speed of Shields has accelerated to a fast leak, with ticks bleeding out from the plus velocity of his best seasons. Last year, Shields upped the ante on his K rate despite the reduction in velocity, but his numbers have all taken a step backwards thus far in 2016. Huddy retired in the offseason, so he's off the hook.

The Black Diamond

MPH Diff, 2016-'15

MPH Diff, 2015-'13

2016

2015

2014

2013

Kyle Kendrick

-1.2

89.5

90.5

90.7

J. Zimmermann

-0.8

-1.3

92.6

93.4

94.7

94.7

Hisashi Iwakuma

-0.6

-1.4

88.2

88.8

89.5

90.2

Anibal Sanchez

-0.7

-1.6

91.8

92.5

93.2

94.1

Hector Santiago

1.4

-1.7

92.3

90.9

91.5

92.6

A.J. Burnett

-1.8

91.6

92.5

93.4

Phil Hughes

-0.1

-1.9

91.3

91.4

93.3

93.3

Bartolo Colon

-0.3

-2.0

88.8

89.1

89.6

91.1

Jerome Williams

-2.0

90.9

92.2

92.9

A trio of pitchers from the above list have failed to appear in the majors this season, as the magnitude of velo-loss increases as do the consequences of poor performance. Zimmermann is the most intriguing of the bunch, as he has taken his typical pitch-to-contact approach over to the American League and thrived. He was the most consistent pitcher in baseball, velocity-wise, from 2012-'14, which made last year's drop more alarming than most. He's lost almost another full tick this season, but rather than the career-worst performance that he endured last season, Zimm is coasting through the American League. As the velo goes down, the usage of secondaries goes up, and his frequency of sliders-plus-curves has gone from 27- to 39- to 42-percent over the past three seasons.

Iwakuma continues his decline in the velo department, slipping into the depths of high-80s radar-gun readings. Medical concerns about his shoulder nixed an offseason deal with the Dodgers, and given the known connections between shoulder health and velocity—in addition to Iwakuma's advancing age—and it's not surprising that he continues to leak pitch speed. Velocity used to be something that Anibal Sanchez could hang his hat on, but over the past three seasons he has fallen over the wrong part of the bell curve, from plus pitch speed to that which could soon be considered a liability.

Santiago made a blatant alteration to his approach, with the supposed intent of harnessing his bullpen ferocity from the role of a starting pitcher. It worked for a few starts, but Santiago either burned out or changed his mind, because his average fastball velocity from the past two games have been just 91.3 and 89.7 mph, respectively. It's a long season, and his could be headed in one of many directions. Hughes and Colon are throwing with essentially the same pitch speeds as they did last season, despite the 40-odd candles on the latter's birthday cake or the continued struggles of the former.

The K-13

MPH Diff, 2016-'15

MPH Diff, 2015-'13

2016

2015

2014

2013

Josh Collmenter

-2.6

85.7

86.9

88.3

R. Hernandez

-2.7

89.8

91.1

92.5

Alex Wood

1.5

-2.7

91.3

89.8

90.7

92.5

Dan Haren

-2.8

86.9

88.4

89.7

Tim Lincecum

-2.9

88.4

90.3

91.3

Jered Weaver

-1.3

-3.0

82.7

84.0

86.9

87.0

Doug Fister

0.1

-3.0

86.8

86.7

88.6

89.7

So we have four players who couldn't find work this season, one whose career is on the brink due to his precipitous velo decline, a swingman who is headed down the same path, and one guy who has reversed course on his pitch-speed and is chewing innings for Dodgers. Wood isn't pitching well, with a 4.58 ERA through seven starts, but he is maintaining pitch-speed that could reverse a multi-year run of decline and is doing so exclusively from the rotation. Weaver can't be long for this league unless he finds a cure for his velo drain. Like Weaver, Fister relies on deception and extreme angles to survive, but the margin for error shrinks along with his pitch speed.

Next time, we'll dig into a few of the high-profile cases of velo drop that we have seen this season, and discuss the blatant hypocrisy involved with my writing an article that wags the finger at our current velo-obsessed culture a few weeks ago, only to be followed now by a piece that is velocity-centric.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe