In a strict sense, evaluating fastball velocity is the single, easiest thing for a prospect analyst to do. You find a reliable gun (read: a dude that has a Stalker) and start recording numbers. The gun tells you everything you need to know, and unlike even a stopwatch, there really isn’t anything the end user can screw up (outside of reading off a crappy gun). Grading it is easy: you just follow the chart that tells you what velo equals what grade.
Let’s take Joey Wentz as an example. I saw Joey Wentz last week, and he was a pretty consistent 90-92. I can then refer back to the chart in our scouting guide, where I find that a fastball comfortably sitting 91 grades as a 55. I’m tempted to adjust Wentz a half-grade up because he has excellent plane, but after contemplation I decide it’s straight enough to stay a 55—a grade that is supposed to represent a slightly above-major-league-average fastball.
What does it mean, though? Is he going to have a 55 fastball in five years? Will he give velocity back as he ages? Will he gain more as he fills out? Wentz has apparently been pretty consistent through that velocity band throughout this season. We even have a prior report from David Lee noting similar velocity—a report which is generally pretty glowing that we’ll get back to later.
We also have older reports that Wentz was bumping 95 fairly regularly as an amateur, only a little more than a year ago. That brings us to a strange truth: a lot of prep pitching prospects throw harder as amateurs, sometimes significantly so, than they ever throw during their pro careers. There are some obvious reasons for that: preparation for the showcase circuit, blowing it out when scouts are present or for a shorter appearance, and pitching with more frequent rest. Lucas Giolito, for example, was frequently touching 100 as an amateur, and has only done so extremely infrequently since.
This can also happen with college pitchers for a variant of the latter reason: colleges almost always use regular seven-day rest cycles running their top three starting pitchers in three-game weekend series, with the ace as the Friday night pitcher, the number two as the Saturday pitcher, and the number three as the Sunday starter. Often, when moving to pro ball and five-day rest cycles, velocity is lost. Wentz certainly could gain that velocity back. He’s tall and skinny, so there’s definitely a bit of physical projection, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s flashed 95 in the past.
What fascinates me about Joey Wentz is that I’m convinced that he would’ve been considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball ten or fifteen years ago. There’s a lot to like here, which David lays out in the above Ten Pack report and I’ll summarize: extreme plane and deceptiveness on the fastball, a potentially plus or even better curve, a decent change considering he’s fresh out of high school, good performance especially relative to age and level, a big signing bonus draft pedigree, a strong frame for pitching with remaining projectability, and good mechanics/Cole Hamels cosplay.
Isn’t that the profile of a top fifty prospect? Wentz didn’t make the list, and while he was at least a name brought up, he frankly wasn’t that close to the list. I wonder if, as velocities have risen throughout the game—insert a truism about the proliferance of the “95 and a slider” guy—we’ve started underselling the rest of the package. I am as guilty of this as anyone, with a couple dozen breathless tweets and a couple more breathless columns about Sixto Sanchez throwing down triple-digits a half-dozen times a start. That’s the easiest thing to write, the thing that you can’t reasonably question because it’s more a fact than an opinion.
But the flip side is that nearly every pitching prospect of note has a fastball that good or better now. The softest-tossers on our midseason top fifty are probably Wentz’s fellow Braves pitching prospects Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka. Allard is also a lefty, and frankly has similar quality stuff to Wentz, including fairly similar velocity reports; Soroka’s velocity might be a little better than both, but not much, and he loses a point in the discussion for being a righty. But Allard and Soroka are having just as good a season as Wentz, two levels up in Double-A yet both only about two months older. Given the command and polish differences, they have to be way ahead of Wentz on your ordinal rankings.
The average good pitching prospect simply throws harder and has better stuff than the average good pitching prospect of years past. It still doesn’t make it any easier to project roles—if anything it makes it harder because of the inclination to project relief roles to flawed high velocity prospects—but it is happening just as velocities around the game spike.