Pitching by the Numbers: Slower velocity

Velocity is a wonderful thing for a pitcher. But there’s evidence that extreme velocity leads to greater injury risk. Simply put, these flame throwers defy the physics of the human anatomy, but usually not for long.

Conversely, then, the slower you throw, the less your injury risk, even though throwing a baseball repeatedly at any even quasi-major league speed is a very stressful and thus risky act. Unfortunately, results often track velocity. So poor velocity often leads to poor results.

But what about the guys who prove they don’t have a need for speed? Let’s look at all of the pitchers with the lowest fastball velocity, sorting by strikeout rate, while also looking at percentage of fastballs thrown and the other averages that count in our leagues – ERA and WHIP.

First, though, a hat tip to colleague Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus for his article on why some pitchers don’t get injured. He noted that the average fastball velocity of the five pitchers who have gone the longest time without a DL trip is relatively low – 88.2. I note this peer-reviewed medical paper that neatly summarizes the point: “A statistically significant association between maximum pitch velocity and elbow injury was noted in this study, providing further support of existing theories about injury in baseball.”

So, in sum, the low-velocity, high-results guys should be expected to give us lower injury risk. What’s not to like about that? Of course, such guys are hard to find. However, many owners red flag them waiting for below-average results to flow from their below-average velocity. I instead would put stars next to their names.

Player FB% FBv ERA WHIP K/9
R.A. Dickey 13.3% 83.4 2.15 0.89 9.2
Adam Wainwright 44.2% 90 4.56 1.35 8.6
Johan Santana 59.0% 88.4 2.76 1.09 8.5
Shaun Marcum 28.4% 86.8 3.39 1.17 8.4
Erik Bedard 52.9% 89.3 4.57 1.48 8.4
Colby Lewis 54.6% 87.9 3.51 1.08 8.1
Chris Capuano 56.6% 88.1 2.62 1.12 8.0
Ian Kennedy 66.5% 89.9 4.26 1.33 7.9
Tommy Hanson 55.2% 89.8 3.70 1.33 7.9
Dan Haren 39.3% 88.8 4.86 1.41 7.5
Ryan Dempster 48.1% 89.4 2.11 1.03 7.3
Aaron Harang 61.9% 89.6 3.51 1.42 7.0
Jered Weaver 63.1% 88.1 2.13 0.94 6.9
Carlos Zambrano 43.3% 89.9 4.14 1.36 6.7
Bruce Chen 38.6% 86.1 4.83 1.25 6.5
Trevor Cahill 61.6% 88.8 3.63 1.30 6.5
Ryan Vogelsong 55.6% 90 2.26 1.11 6.3
Jason Vargas 59.4% 88.2 4.31 1.17 6.2
Mike Leake 42.4% 89.6 4.01 1.27 6.1
Paul Maholm 43.7% 87.7 4.62 1.35 6.0
Bronson Arroyo 32.6% 87.2 4.06 1.26 6.0
Randy Wolf 50.3% 88.3 5.83 1.57 5.9
Joe Saunders 71.4% 88.9 3.44 1.38 5.9
Wandy Rodriguez 55.0% 89.1 3.54 1.24 5.8
Tommy Milone 46.6% 87.7 3.73 1.19 5.6
Ricky Nolasco 46.8% 89.7 4.62 1.33 5.6
Kyle Lohse 54.5% 89.4 2.80 1.12 5.2
Barry Zito 32.5% 83.7 3.84 1.40 5.0
Mark Buehrle 35.1% 84.7 3.48 1.15 4.9
Derek Lowe 66.2% 88.0 4.43 1.58 3.0

Dickey’s numbers are ridiculous. He’s a very good bet now to win the coveted pitching Triple Crown – leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts (assuming a Stephen Strasburg shut down). But he throws only 13.3% fastballs. Still, not a lot of stress on that arm if you are lucky enough to own Dickey in a keeper league. One of my favorite stats of the year is number of innings knuckleballer Phil Niekro threw from his age 38 season on (Dickey is in his age 37 season): 2,644 – that’s more than Roy Halladay has so far in his career.

Wainwright’s velocity is in line with career averages, roughly. I’d be a buyer for him right now in all formats, too. You never know about Santana’s health, but I’m bullish that he can continue as he’s not putting undue strain on that surgically repaired shoulder. Bedard is off two MPH from his 2009 levels. Maybe that’s the reason for his troubles. Remember, velocity is relative to the pitcher, not other pitchers. I’d avoid him.

Lewis was on our bad list due to his homers allowed. But everyone has a weakness and he’s otherwise a very good bet, as long as you can accept that his ERA will always lag his WHIP.

All the sharps are selling Capuano at a discount, but I’d be buying. I think they are outsmarting themselves here.

Haren has back issues, which are very hard to correct and thus for us to project. Avoid him. But Weaver seems over his, though his K-rate doesn’t seem to support those averages. Can’t advise selling someone who has been so steady for so long, however. Dempster is really good, though wins will be problematic if he remains on the Cubs. But that seems unlikely, so why not buy now?

Of the remaining guys, as long as you don’t have a strict innings cap, Buehrle and Lohse are worth owning. Maybe the silent H’s are the key. But their ERA and WHIP are useful and their league/park environments and track records suggest they can remain helpful in all formats. Lohse probably will post those Buehrle numbers going forward though. But what’s wrong with that?