10 Degrees: Early season dip, rise in pitching velocity shouldn't be ignored

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Jonathan Papelbon, who brings the same amount of intellectual heft to a conversation as your standard-issue doornail, started ranting last week to an assemblage of Philadelphia-area media about the velocity of his fastball. His petulance, in this case, was mildly warranted. The perception that his velocity is significantly worse than last year is incorrect. Last April, Papelbon's fastball sat at 92.99 mph. This spring, it's 92.31.

He could have rested his argument on that. Instead, Papelbon threw forth a syllogistic error common for pitchers insecure about any velocity dip – and while this year is like last, Papelbon's fastball is off more than 4 mph from April 2007, which isn't just significant but a flashing neon sign.

"Why do you guys care about velo so much, man?" he asked, proceeding to use Roy Halladay as an example, a Papelbonian maneuver if ever there were one. When Halladay's velocity disappeared, so did his effectiveness. And that, in a nutshell, is why we – and that we covers not just the media but scouts and executives who evaluate players daily – care about velo so much.

Diminished fastball velocity does not guarantee anything. It is not always the sign of an injury. It does not always portend ineffectiveness. It will not always necessitate evolution. Rarely, however, does it come back. And even Papelbon understands the simple underlying premise: a slower pitch is easier to hit than a faster one.

Around this time last year, concerns surfaced over Justin Verlander's precipitous dip in fastball velocity to around 92.8 mph. Even small samples tend to reflect big velocity changes accurately, leading to fear something was amiss on the heels of his seven-year, $180 million contract extension. He regained some of his old zip as the season progressed and looked like classic Verlander in the postseason. This April he's a tick up from where he was last April: 92.9 mph, according to Baseball Prospectus, whose PITCHf/x Leaderboards provide all the velocity numbers in this story.

The largest April 2013-to-April 2014 drop belongs to Houston's Scott Feldman, whose fastball is down 3.73 mph. Not surprisingly, he landed on the disabled list this week.

Second on the list is a more puzzling case, because …

1. Justin Masterson relies on his fastball about as much as any starter. Last April, no pitcher threw more fastballs than Masterson's 448. His 240 four-seamers averaged 93.76 mph. His 208 sinkers burrowed in at 91.63 mph. Considering how unique he is – Masterson throws only fastballs and sliders, and two-pitch starters are rarities – he relies on velocity for effectiveness.

This season, no pitcher has thrown more fastballs than Masterson's 379. Here's the problem: His four-seamer is down 3.6 mph and his sinker is missing 2.59. Of the 105 starters who pitched last April and this April, Masterson's average fastball velocity this year of 89.42 mph ranks 87th – behind soft tossers Kevin Slowey, Dillon Gee, Kyle Kendrick and Joe Saunders, and 3.35 mph behind where it was last season.

Masterson swears he's not hurt. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway pointed to mechanical issues after Masterson's second start. Either way, he's throwing nearly twice as many sinkers as he does four-seam fastballs, a demonstrable change from last April, when an uptick in velocity gave him the confidence to blow four-seamers past left-handers especially. As …

2. Jorge De La Rosa can attest, velocity makes you a different pitcher. Whether it makes him better depends on his ability to harness it. De La Rosa is on the opposite end of the scale from Masterson: the biggest April-over-April gainer, throwing 1.81 mph harder than he did last season.

It hasn't translated yet. De La Rosa's ERA is 6.38, and his command problems (11 walks in 24 innings) have negated the benefit of increased strikeouts (25) and left him with a quintet of short outings: one lasting six innings, one five innings and the other three 4 1/3.

Still, one of De La Rosa's fastballs hit 96.7 mph, a ridiculous number for a left-handed starter and the hardest pitch he's thrown since July 2010. The velocity was slow to come back after his Tommy John surgery in 2011, but it's unlikely to go anywhere. Only one left-hander throws harder. Not Gio Gonzalez. Not David Price. It's …

3. Chris Sale, who saw the second-biggest velocity leap before landing on the disabled list with a strained flexor mass. Sale's fastball, already one of the game's hottest, sizzled at 94.09 mph this season, a number bested only by nine right-handers.

Like Verlander last season, Sale is proof April velocity can be rather misleading, especially on the low end. Pitchers tend to gain heat as the weather warms, and by May 2013, his fastball jumped more than 1 mph. It did the same in June and settled in the mid-90s for the rest of the season.

Sale's DL stint could end as early as Friday. An MRI showed his ulnar collateral ligament looked fine, so the White Sox may not have to slow-play his rehab. His velocity coming off the DL is worth watching, especially by those who argue between Sale and …

4. David Price as the American League's best left-handed pitcher. While Price's velocity is not yet a concern, it is trending down a worrisome path: 1.55 mph slower than last April.

Compared to others, Price is the sort of pitcher who stands to survive in spite of his fastball potentially losing its oomph. Already he has reimagined himself as a pitcher twice in his short career. He arrived with two pitches: a monster four-seam fastball and vicious slider. In his third season, Price pocketed the four-seamer for rare situations, grew into a sinkerballer, scrapped the slider and opted for a curveball and cutter. Now he's throwing his fastball less than ever and relying more on a changeup that over the last two seasons has grown into a distinct weapon.

Though Price's 4.04 ERA may look bad, his 40-to-4 strikeout-to-walk rate over 35 2/3 innings is near-unbeateable. The biggest question is whether the six home runs allowed are an anomaly or a trend because hitters are empowered to attack his fastball. Three of the six homers have come off fastballs, with a pair against his cutter and one on a changeup. Price 3.0 remains a work in progress, much as …

5. Yu Darvish 2.0 is. One of modern baseball's great wonders is how data shows us the reinvention of pitchers in real time, and some of the more fascinating subjects are Japanese pitchers who arrive in the major leagues with a suitcase full of pitches and, year by year, winnow them down to a more manageable arsenal.

Take Darvish. His player page shows eight distinct pitches: four-seamer, sinker, changeup, slider, curveball, cutter, split-fingered fastball and slow curveball. The method to his madness is unclear from the numbers; all that's evident, frankly, is that he's mad.

Most of his rookie season, for example, he threw his cutter about one in every eight pitches. Then, in September, his usage spiked to more than 46 percent. In May of last season, Darvish threw his slider and cutter more often than either of his fastballs before abruptly changing course in July. By August, he was essentially a two-pitch pitcher: four-seamer 45 percent of the time and slider 40 percent.

This year? Darvish's slider may have grown to the point where it's fooling the PITCHf/x algorithm, which categorizes most of his sweeping breaking balls as curveballs because they also come with nearly half a foot in vertical movement. His sinker is a show-me pitch, as are the splitter, change and slow curve . Even though its velocity is down 1.17 mph from last April, Darvish's fastball is by far his most popular pitch these days, thrown 49.6 percent of the time. It's that and the curve/slider/slurve, and that's plenty, thanks very much. Raw stuff growing into something refined is a beautiful thing to watch, as we're learning with …

6. Garrett Richards developing into a potential frontline type as a 25-year-old. He's actually throwing 1 mph harder than last season, when he wielded among the fastest fastballs in the game. Only Royals rookie sensation Yordano Ventura sits at a higher velocity than Richards' 96.78 mph. Behind him: Jose Fernandez (96.29), Wily Peralta (95.96), Stephen Strasburg (95.32) and Trevor Bauer (94.82 in a spot start, and sitting there as he whiles away at Triple-A for another start or two before Cleveland brings him up and unleashes him). 

Should Richards figure out how to command the strike zone, potential no longer will serve as an antecedent to frontline. For now, he is the guy with insane arm speed and not enough of an idea where the ball is going. Richards' 14 walks in 25 innings will not lead to sustained success, even if he continues to induce more than 50 percent ground balls and strike out nearly a batter an inning.

He is a monstrous talent, and if he could learn from …

7. Andrew Cashner that filthy stuff and control are not mutually exclusive, he could grow into the legitimate ace presence Cashner casts these days. Toward the end of last season, Cashner moved away from his four-seamer and leaned heavily on a sinker that combines velocity and movement in a fashion no legal pitch ought. The thing zooms like Ryan and moves like Maddux. It's like Ubaldo Jimenez's fastball the year he went 14-1, always on the precipice of 100 mph while performing an illicit dance.

As Cashner toiled in a relief role for San Diego upon his arrival in a trade for Anthony Rizzo, executives questioned the wisdom in dealing a likely everyday player for a bullpen guy. If his health were that in question, why target him in the first place? San Diego's plan – build his arm strength, transition him into the rotation, unleash him – worked out well thus far, with Cashner's logging 175 innings last season and coming out better than ever this season.

Longevity, as with every pitcher, is the ultimate concern. And even those who achieve it like …

8. CC Sabathia are ever vulnerable to the vagaries of the arm. Since Baseball-Reference.com started keeping track of pitches in 2000, only Mark Buehrle has thrown more than Sabathia's 43,906. Everyone else in range has seen their fastball velocity crater, from Barry Zito to Livan Hernandez to Tim Hudson to Halladay. A.J. Burnett's is down 1.37 mph from last April and Bronson Arroyo's 1.3. Wear and tear in baseball is very, very real, the sort of thing that makes long-term pitching contracts so risky, and Sabathia is a prime example.

Like Price, he is the sort who through guile and intelligence could weather it. Forever a four-seam specialist, Sabathia is nearly a 50-50 split between four-seamers and sinkers this season. He's offering his changeup more frequently, and a slider that he has forever called a cutter is actually resembling one more than ever, with a shorter, tighter break.

Though just a five-start sample, the early returns on Sabathia are good, in particular the 56.7 percent ground ball rate. A new reliance on his sinker hasn't given …

9. Jered Weaver quite the same results yet. Weaver experienced the worst velocity drop-off last April, losing more than 3 mph, and while he has gained three-tenths of a mile per hour back this spring, he is the slowest right-handed pitcher in baseball, non-knuckleballer division.

Accordingly, Weaver is relying far less on his four-seam fastball, throwing it about 20 percent of the time and the sinker about twice as much. Not only is his ground ball rate of 32.2 percent still one of baseball's lowest – only Aaron Harang, Hector Santiago and Darvish cause fewer – home runs are flying out at a greater rate than at any point in Weaver's career. It could be a small sample, could be a bad luck, could be plenty of things. It also could be a reckoning for a pitcher whose success long has depended on deception and command already and who may well need to find another trick up his sleeve to thrive. At least …

10. Justin Masterson still has his ground ball prowess. More than 60 percent of batted balls skim the ground, a bonus if Cleveland's awful infield defense can pull itself together. While Masterson's funky delivery may not carry the vapor trail it used to, it still can play in the major leagues.

The timing, of course, is terrible for him. Masterson, 29, is a free agent this offseason. He wanted to re-sign with Cleveland for three years and more than $50 million, which sounded like a reasonable deal. The Indians said no, and the velocity numbers give a better sense why.

Already Masterson had his vulnerabilities: a limited repertoire, troubles against righties, a delivery with more parts than a Rolex. The ball oozing out of his hand in spring training instead of jumping caused Cleveland to pump the breaks and offer the sort of deal (reportedly three years, $45 million) they had to know he would turn down.

Hope is far from lost. Callaway rescued Jimenez's mechanics and added 3 mph to his fastball midseason last year. He helped Bauer rediscover himself. Now he's got two projects: rookie Danny Salazar (down 2.5 mph from last September) and Masterson. In 2012, Masterson slumped in April, too, and by September his four-seamer clocked in at 94.78, nearly a 3-mph gain from the season's first month.

He's got time. He can fix it. And he wants to badly. Because unlike a closer in Philadelphia, Masterson understands: We care about velo so much because it matters.


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