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In the last episode of Raising Aces, we followed up with the big velocity gainers and losers from last season to investigate any trends, for better or worse. We found that the velocity changes over time reflected George Carlin's view of people in general: a few winners but a whole lot of losers.

Jeff Passan recently wrote a piece on velocity decline in baseball, focusing on the steep drop of some of the game's elite hurlers. Passan specifically compared velocity from April 2016 to April of '15, in order to control for a pitcher's tendency to evolve velocity throughout the season, a strategy that I applaud. I wanted to take a look at some of the high-end arms that were covered in Passan's piece to not only update the data, but also to understand these pitchers on a case-by-case basis.

Here we'll show velocities compared to season averages of the past three years, with a nod to the reality that pitcher patterns of in-season velocity can be very different from player to player, and note which pitchers follow the conventional wisdom of increasing velo as we progress into summer and which have historically been more flat or downslid from the start of the season (some have been random):

(stats through games of 5/18/16)

MPH Diff, 2016-'15

MPH Diff, 2015-'13

2016

2015

2014

2013

Chris Sale

-2.1

1.2

93.0

95.1

94.5

93.9

Felix Hernandez

-1.8

-0.1

90.6

92.4

93.2

92.5

Gio Gonzalez

-1.8

-0.8

90.7

92.5

92.8

93.3

David Price

-1.6

0.3

93.2

94.8

94.2

94.5

Matt Harvey

-1.6

-0.5

94.9

96.5

97.0

Dallas Keuchel

-1.5

0.1

88.9

90.4

90.0

90.3

Madison Bumgarner

-1.4

0.5

91.6

93.0

92.8

92.5

Passan, author of a great new book on pitcher injuries, “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,” also noted the high-strikeout guys and the huge proportion of them that rank near the top of the velo charts. There are a few other pitchers that were named in the article, but they don't have the pedigree of the pitchers on the above list – guys like Kyle Hendricks, Mike Pelfrey, John Danks and Mat Latos. As noted in last week's article, Jordan Zimmermann's pitch-speed is also down, though he has shown signs of life that he might be able to climb back to last year's velocity levels, if not the years prior. Passan also mentioned that Adam Wainwright and James Shields had fallen below the 90-mph hard deck on their fastballs, but Waino has since righted the ship such that he is throwing slightly harder than last season, just 0.2 mph slower than in 2014. Shields was steering in the wrong direction, but his last start featured a 92.5-mph weighted average fastball that beat his average from last season. Of greater interest are the pitchers on the above list, each of whom has lost 1.4 mph or more off of their average gun readings on the fastball.

We covered Chris Sale in the last week, who has suffered the most precipitous decline among the game's top hurlers, and his most recent outings act to further cement the notion that his adjustments are by design and are working extremely well in the early going. The velo drop is part of an intentional adjustment to Sale's approach, emphasizing pitch command, weak contact and efficient pitch counts over raw velocity and gaudy strikeout totals. He still has high-90s velocity when he needs it, a factor which underscores the intent behind his alteration, and the success that Sale has enjoyed so far leaves little question that he made a wise decision in easing off the gas pedal.

The velocity drop of Felix Hernandez is a bit more ominous, and there are caution flags that wave in front of his future performance. His velo is on the way up, but even his best start of the season had a weighted fastball average that was more than a full tick off of his average pace from last year. Throw in a sudden disruption in pitch command, and Felix is lacking two of the three critical dimensions of an effective fastball. Gio Gonzalez is in a similar boat, in the sense that his velo is getting higher as the season wears on, but even at its best his fastball falls well short of previously-established levels. Potentially more troubling is the fact that Gonzalez has leaked a little bit of velocity every year, and even if he regains a full mile-per-hour over his current average it will represent a five-year run of decreasing pitch speed. The run prevention has been a pleasant surprise for both pitchers, but there are reasons to question whether that effectiveness will continue.

David Price made a mechanical adjustment and the results were immediate. In his first start with a higher leg kick, Price had his highest average velocity of the season, with a weighted average of four- and two-seamers of 94.0 mph. He gave back some of the pitch-speed in his next start, going heavy on the two-seamer (Brooks has 32 of his 34 fastballs labeled as sinkers) and his third-highest velocity on that pitch this season, and his cutter was also humming along, ranking as the third-hardest that Price has thrown the pitch this year, ranking behind his previous turn and one from April. He appears to be on track with addressing the issue, but that doesn't necessarily mean that his heater will work its way back to previously established levels.

The case of Matt Harvey is far more worrisome. One year ago we were marveling at his velocity and rapid comeback to previous levels of performance, after Tommy John surgery had robbed him of more than a year of on-field performance. A blood clot disturbed his spring, but Harvey's 2016 performance was highly anticipated. Unfortunately, right now he looks like a shell of his former self. I covered his mechanical issues in the second set of my weekly notes, and they are not getting better over time. Watching him pitch, it looks like Harvey lacks flexibility, failing to generate torque because the hips don't have enough rotation after foot strike, and he is trying to force an artificially-high release point after dropping his center-of-balance during the lift-and-stride portion of the delivery. Not only is his velocity lacking, but Harvey has lost the excellent release-point extension that once made him great, and in fact his release point is so inconsistent that it has had a negative ripple effect on his pitch command. The slider has been a pitch that he doesn't trust and is too often covered in dirt, such that Harvey has taken to throwing two-strike fastballs above the zone in order to get batters to chase. They're not chasing, but when Harvey misses his target the ball is left up to be smashed somewhere for an extra-base hit. So rather than a four-pitch hurler who disguises his pitches until late in the flight path (thanks to a deep release point), Harvey has been reduced to a one-trick pony whose lone trick (the fastball) is not nearly impressive as it was just 12 months ago.

Dallas Keuchel falls into the Harvey bin of troubling velocity dips, as I don't necessarily see improvement in sight. Unlike Harvey, however, Keuchel is not coming from a high baseline of pitch-speed and learning to cope with merely plus stuff; he is a sinkerball specialist with underwhelming velocity who relies on exceptional pitch command to induce weak contract. However, when his command is compromised like it is now (also like Harvey), then the reduction in pitch-speed becomes magnified.

Madison Bumgarner had been on a slow yet steady incline of pitch-speed over the last several years, so if he gives a bit back this season then it will not necessarily be a death knell, given that he has pitched at this velocity before and enjoyed success. Bumgarner is also a player that tends to ramp up the pitch speed throughout the year, throwing even harder in the 2014 playoffs and down the stretch than he did during the regular season, and it's possible that the southpaw is just on cruise control given the excellent results and modest readings on the radar gun. In fact, his average fastball from the past two ballgames has been 92.60 and 92.59 mph, respectively his two highest-velo outings of the year and more in sync with averages of previous seasons.

Sweeping generalizations are futile with any population of baseball players, but we do see a few categories that emerge when diagnosing these velocity-dippers on a case-by-case basis. There are those who are succeeding at lower pitch-speed and carry reasons to expect that the higher velocity is available when needed (Sale, Bumgarner), veterans who are learning to succeed despite the fact that they are watching radar-gun readings dissipate with the ticking of Father Time (Felix, Gio), and still others whose sudden loss of velocity might be more damaging to their performance, making us question whether a reassessment is necessary in order to reign in our expectations from previously elite levels of performance (Harvey, Keuchel). Meanwhile, David Price shows us that even veteran superstars can lose their delivery sometimes, and it often takes the willingness to make an adjustment in order to climb out of a rut.

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lewist
5/23
Great analysis, Doug
sam19041
5/23
Thanks, Doug! Does deGrom belong on the list? Any thoughts on his year over year changes?
Bob1475
5/23
How about average decline in speed by age?