You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet
With so many pitchers struggling to start the year, how can we best mine a small amount of 2009 data for useful forecasting purposes?
I've always focused on velocity in the early going, watching as many games as possible to get a general sense of up-to-date radar readings. The measuring equipment years ago was very inconsistent and thus so was the data. Now, uniform technology at every park measures every pitch in exactly the same way. And we can access all the data courtesy of the hard work of Baseball Info Solutions made publicly available through the highly recommended FanGraphs.com.
Alas, I have to merge lists from 2008 and 2009 and hand enter a lot of data, which makes our cut-off this week the Sunday games. Once we do that, we must determine what kinds of dips or gains are significant. Scouts generally grade an 88 mph fastball as below average, 90 as average and 92 as plus. So it seems like two mph is very significant. We'll conservatively make our cutoff a little lower – plus/minus 1.5 mph or more.
I'm not surprised that we have far more guys losing velocity rather than gaining it because it's a lot easier to regress than to progress from the mean. Gravity is pulling players down all the time. There are way more reasons you can lose a skill than there are reasons you can gain it.
Since velocity is so consistent solidly projectable, even the group of guys losing a significant amount of velocity is small. The differences may seem insignificant – two mph lost gives a batter about another 1/100th of a second to get his bat through the zone. But time really slows to a crawl in the hitter-pitcher matchup where the hitter has just 0.4 seconds once the ball is released to make contact.
Here are the guys who have lost 1.5 MPH or more on their average fastball relative to 2008: Oliver Perez (minus-2.6 mph), Daisuke Matsuzaka (DL, shoulder, minus-2.6), Tim Wakefield (knuckleballer, who cares), Cole Hamels (minus-2.3), Daniel Cabrera (minus-2), Tim Lincecum (minus-1.7), Javier Vazquez (minus-1.6), Jon Garland (minus-1.6), Mike Pelfrey (minus-1.5).
There are only two guys who have gained more than 1.5 mph – Barry Zito (plus-2) and Justin Verlander (plus-2). Livan Hernandez (plus-1) and Chad Billingsley (plus 1.1) are also noteworthy. But Zito and Hernandez both have sub-par velocity even now at 86.9 and 84.7 mph, respectively. Chien-Ming Wang didn't qualify for our starter list last year due to injury, but he's minus-1.3 mph.
Now let's make some more specific recommendations. Again, "Buy" and "Sell" are broad designations relating only to prospective value relative to my sense of current market value.
Justin Verlander, Tigers: He had the perfect buy-low start last weekend in no-hitting the Mariners the first four innings before blowing up via yielding a string of hits. He's averaging more than a K per inning (95.6 mph average fastball), but his owners are frustrated by the 7.88 ERA and 1.56 WHIP and definitely listening to all offers.
Tim Lincecum, Giants: He said he noticed a flaw in his delivery and then leveraged his adjustment into a 13-K outing on Saturday. This lowered his ERA to 3.86 and WHIP to 1.53. I don't "Buy" him with confidence, though, because the average fastball was just 91.9 in that start, lower than his overall 2009 average of 92.4. And his peak velocity on Saturday of 94 mph was his average through all of 2008.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: He just started playing catch again to get his inflammation out, but at least he's been diagnosed, unlike a lot of the other velocity laggards. If I could get 60 or 70 cents on the dollar now, I'd broom him. But who's going to give you that? So we must wait.
Oliver Perez, Mets: He's coming off a "good Ollie" start. So the trade window is opened up a bit for people looking for strikeouts. He's hopelessly wild and/or very bad about a third of starts. But a key indicator usually is his ability to hit 92 mph consistently with his fastball and his average this year is just 88.6.
Cole Hamels, Phillies: He hit 89 mph consistently on Friday, a big step up for the 85 mph his fastball sat at in prior starts. When he can average 90.4 like last year, I'll give the all clear. And if not for the spring elbow woes, I would just attribute this to dead-arm stuff. There are a lot of believers out there still, but I remain as concerned as I was in March.
Javier Vazquez, Braves: The smart guys love him because of the 25:6, K:BB ratio. But he's 127-129 for his career with a 4.32 ERA and 1.26 ratio and the averages are likely to be very close to that this year, too. Stat guys like me aren't supposed to say this, but Vazquez pitches just badly enough to lose most nights.
Michael Salfino's work has appeared in USA Today's Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet, including SNY.tv, for which he also analyzes the Mets and Yankees. He's been writing "Baseball by the Numbers" weekly since 2005.