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Pitching by the Numbers: Radar love/hate

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Justin Masterson needs to pick up the pace of his pitches. (Getty)

One important takeaway in the early part of the season is velocity. We expect pitchers to be off about a mile per hour out of the gates. So we have to set the alarm bar higher.

Generally, every mile per hour in velocity gained or lost results in an ERA decrease or increase of about a third of a run. Of course, individual mileage may vary. These are averages. The more a pitcher utilizes a fastball, for example, the greater the effect may be. Pitchers with solid changeups may not be as susceptible to this effect if their changeup speed maintains the prior differential relative to the fastball.

Let’s focus on pitchers who have lost at least two miles per hour. But a mile per hour gained at any time is noteworthy. So we’ll highlight the few velocity gainers at this level, too.

Here are the biggest losers, thus far, not including Clayton Kershaw, who was down about four miles per hour in his overseas start (and now we know why).

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Unfortunately, a few of my preseason favorites are on this list: Masterson, Salazar, Kazmir, Ross and, to a much lesser extent, Ramirez.

I wish I could tell you that I’ll do a better job identifying pitchers who will suffer from significant velocity decreases, which is also an obvious injury red flag, but I’m afraid that just falls under what’s unknowable.

But I note with Masterson that his velocity was similarly down through two starts last year, before bouncing back to normal. He’s had three starts now, however. His control has also been poor. But note the hit quality he’s allowed has been low — isolated slugging against under .100, which is phenomenally good. It’s the walks though that have been the killer, along with some tough luck/bad fielding (the latter, to be fair, is projectable). At the risk of being foolishly stubborn, I’d definitely pick up Masterson on waivers. But his fastball velocity needs to get back to 2013 levels very soon.

Ross is very troubling because, unlike Masterson, he’s not at the age where we expect velocity to start slowly declining. Ignore his ERA. Ross has been terrible when it comes to baserunners allowed (1.50 WHIP), due to poor control (5 BBs/9). Perhaps he’s having a dead arm period now and he’ll be throwing 94 mph again soon. Give him enough rope to get you through April but not enough to hang your ratios.

Scheppers was a reliever and I was bearish on him anyway as it’s just too much of a transition, especially in a hitter’s park.

Salazar’s velocity has gone from unreal to just great. I’m least worried about him on this list. He’s still at about one K minus BB per inning, which is a rate that would lead baseball if it continues. K-minus-BB is still the gold standard for me. Of course, the trick is using past performance in the stat to predict future performance. This has failed miserably with A.J. Burnett, for example, but now we find that Burnett has been pitching with a groin issue since opening day.

Straily and Feldman have overcome their velocity woes when you look at their ERA. But I cannot bet on either guy, especially Feldman. A correction is coming and I expect it will be so gory we’ll have to cover our eyes.

Ramirez is there with an asterisk. That 2013 number is actually his 2012 velocity (he was hurt last year and last pitched well in 2012). That current MPH is not tenable for most righties. I have to see a spike back to 92 mph before I bet on him even as a low-end starter in deeper mixed leagues.

Carrasco was a mini-sabermetric darling. But the plus velocity has largely disappeared, with predictable results. Remember, Salazar is still about a mile per hour faster than Carrasco.

Sabathia should still be able to operate with his changeup in the high 80s. But he’s having a really hard time making the adjustment from being a power pitcher. Saturday, he was almost great again before a couple of late mistakes, which he really beat himself up over.

Kazmir has been effective. But his loss in velocity seems to indicate continued arm woes. He had biceps issues in the spring and they flared up again his last start, leading to his removal and uncertain status this week.

Now let’s look at the pitchers who have gained the most velocity. These stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com, which is great. But I do wish they let us pull velocity by year for current qualifying starters. I’ve pieced this together as best I can.

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If you’re looking for a reason to believe in Skaggs, here it is. That should translate into about a full run lower in ERA. So say you projected him for 4.70. He’s now 3.70, with the caveat that he has to maintain that increase in speed.

McCarthy is a two-pitch guy and the second-pitch is a curveball. That pitch is good in that it avoids platoon splits better than, say, a slider, but bad in that umps miss the most called strikes with it. So hitters can just choose not to swing at it. A scout long ago in Arizona told me curveball specialists are a dying breed for this reason.

De La Rosa throws 39 percent fastballs, which is way low. Plus he’s disqualified for being a Rockie. Vogelsong is well past his prime. Kennedy is still below average for a righty but that’s reasonably encouraging. I do think Kennedy in San Diego with that velocity spike is at least streamable at home.

That leaves Richards, Bauer and Morrow. That’s pretty much the order in which I would own them. I understand Bauer was sent back to the minors. He’ll be back soon enough. I can’t trust Morrow in the AL East. Richards though is very intriguing. He’s not likely to strike out batters in line with the radar gun, but it’s happening thus far and is thus possible. But his speed should continue to make him less prone to hard contact. Roster Richards in every format, especially given the Angels play in a pitcher’s park.

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