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Mound Musings: Changes in Velocity

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

As we grind toward the end of the dog days of summer, we know one thing about pitchers – they are tired. The simple act of throwing a baseball in an overhand motion 85-100 miles per hour is an unnatural act in itself. Doing so 3,000 or more times in sixth months (not even counting throwing between starts, warm-ups, pickoff moves, etc.) has to wear on a guy. Many have broken down (sorry Nationals fans), while others are probably hanging by a thread. Still others are actually seemingly getting stronger. One way to measure how a pitcher is feeling could be in his velocity. If a pitcher is throwing harder recently than he has all season, it could be theorized he's getting stronger as the season grows older, or perhaps he's simply leveraging improved mechanics. All else equal, I'd certainly rather roster a pitcher on my fantasy team who is throwing harder than losing velocity as compared to prior months. Let's look at a few pitchers in each bucket this week.

THROWING HARDER

PITCHER AUGUST MPH SEASON MPH VARIANCE
David Price, Rays 95.9 94.4 1.5
John Danks, White Sox 92.7 91.6 1.1
Ted Lilly, Dodgers 87.6 86.5 1.1
Edwin Jackson, White Sox 95.1 94.1 1.0
Zack Greinke, Royals 94.3 93.4 0.9
David Bush, Brewers 87.3 86.5 0.8
Kyle Davies, Royals 93.0 92.3 0.7
Randy Wolf, Brewers 88.9 88.3 0.6
Derek Lowe, Braves 89.0 88.4 0.6
CC Sabathia, Yankees 94.1 93.6 0.5
Gavin Floyd, White Sox 92.9 92.4 0.5
Jered Weaver, Angels 90.5 90.0 0.5
Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles 93.1 92.6 0.5
Scott Baker, Twins 91.9 91.4 0.5
Tim Hudson, Braves 91.8 91.3 0.5
Felix Hernandez, Mariners 94.4 94.0 0.4
Mark Buehrle, White Sox 86.2 85.8 0.4
Matt Cain, Giants 91.9 91.5 0.4
Francisco Liriano, Twins 94.1 93.7 0.4


David Price is obviously the pitcher who jumps out here, as that is a significant increase in velocity. It made me wonder what he's trended on a month-by-month basis, and here it is:

April: 92.8
May: 92.8
June: 94.6
July: 95.3
August: 95.9

Incredible, and a trend that has to plateau in September one would think. In perusing the RotoWire notes on Price, there was no mention of any sort of mechanical judgment, so for now we'll simply chalk this up to Price maturing and being very, very good. Just as important as the velocity-related improvement is that Price's command has generated more ground balls this year, and despite an occasional lapse in command, he has driven last year's 3.8 K/9 down to 3.6, with my expectation that further improvement is likely going forward. I'd have a hard time imagining him outside of my top 10 starters in next year's drafts.

Francisco Liriano is interesting as well, as at the pinnacle of his career in 2006, his fastball averaged 94.7, and his August rate is not too far from that mark. In looking over the great data at FanGraphs, his slider is very near the elite form he showed that year as well, and his GB/FB ratio has doubled (0.98 to 2.05) over last year. When I see him pitch, I don't see quite the Johan Santana in his prime stuff as I did four years ago, but it's a pretty reasonable facsimile.

Given the disparity in salaries of the principals, the deal involving Edwin Jackson and Dan Hudson pushes me to prefer the Arizona side of that deal, but you can't argue that Jackson has been quite effective as well - after a 7.0 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9 with the D-backs, Jackson has improved those marks to 11.1 and 2.0 respectively. While the normal sample size caveats apply, perhaps we're seeing a new baseline here, one that correlates closely with the elite prospect status Jackson showed with the Dodgers. Remember, this was a guy who beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday in his big league debut. I've observed Jackson closely over the years, and while the velocity is nice, his fastball is straighter than most and it hasn't been a plus pitch. What is working for him this year is that his changeup appears more effective (supported by FanGraphs data) and it's a pitch he's using more in comparison to the past two years. Interesting RotoWire player note on Jackson recently: he just became the first White Sox pitcher to record back-to-back double-digit strikeout games since 1985. I'm not sure who did that for the Sox, but the name Tom Seaver comes to mind, or perhaps Brian Bannister's dad.

I admit I've had a “thing” for Kyle Davies for some time. He's a former top prospect in the Braves' organization and he's still just 26 and apparently still throws hard. Davies has also seen his BB/9 drop from 4.8 to 3.9. I don't play in an AL-only leagues (invites please), but if I did, I'd probably own this guy given his pedigree and velocity.

Felix Hernandez and increased velocity? That's just not fair. Same with Jered Weaver and CC Sabathia for that matter. With Cliff Lee's recent slide, Sabathia may be the favorite to win his first AL Cy Young trophy.

For Zack Greinke, he's clearly not the guy he was last year, with a 3.75 xFIP vs. a 3.14 mark a year ago when he came home with hardware. Still, for the year, he's allowing fewer line drives, generating a higher GB%, and walking about the same number of hitters per nine innings. Mix in a fastball that is showing more velocity as of late, and I'm quite optimistic about what we'll see from Greinke this month.

Ted Lilly's increased velocity since coming to the Dodgers is nice, but is it really a factor in how well he's pitched in his new and former uniform? Not so sure there. What I am sure about is that the dysfunctional Dodgers would be well-served by offering Lilly a two or three year deal.

Seeing Jeremy Guthrie on this list was a surprise to this writer. Guthrie has a 2.51 ERA after the All-Star break versus a 4.77 pre-break mark, so he's right in line for a strong finish and perhaps a winter mulit-year offer to act as a stabilizing force in a rotation that is expected to include Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton.

LOSING VELOCITY


PITCHER AUGUST MPH SEASON MPH VARIANCE
Tommy Hanson, Braves 91.9 93.0 -1.1
Jon Lester, Red Sox 92.3 93.2 -0.9
Justin Verlander, Tigers 94.5 95.4 -0.9
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays 92.7 93.5 -0.8
Brian Matusz, Orioles 89.2 90.0 -0.8
Chris Volstad, Marlins 90.3 91.1 -0.8
Dallas Braden, Athletics 86.1 86.8 -0.7
Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies 95.5 96.2 -0.7
Colby Lewis, Rangers 89.4 90.1 -0.7
Brett Cecil, Blue Jays 89.7 90.3 -0.6
Brett Myers, Astros 89.0 89.5 -0.5
Kyle Kendrick, Phillies 89.4 89.9 -0.5
Roy Oswalt, Phillies 92.3 92.8 -0.5
Livan Hernandez, Nationals 84.1 84.5 -0.4
Shaun Marcum, Blue Jays 86.6 87.0 -0.4
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 92.2 92.6 -0.4
Ricky Romero, Blue Jays 90.4 90.8 -0.4
Tim Lincecum, Giants 90.9 91.3 -0.4


It's certainly no surprise to see Tim Lincecum on this list given his recent struggles. That said, I'm not quite ready to write the two-time 26-year-old Cy Young winner off. While I can see myself ranking the likes of Clayton Kershaw and David Price ahead of Tim Lincecum on my 2011 cheatsheets, Lincecum's .329 BABIP plays some part in his struggles, though the lack of velocity and increasing walk rate are troubling. I'd certainly buy low here, though if someone offered me say, Clay Buchholz straight up for Lincecum (particularly in a keeper league), I think I'd actually hesitate.

Tommy Hanson has allowed 10 runs over 10 innings in his last two starts, but is there really anything to worry about here? Not really considering the data above does not include Wednesday's start, one in which he tossed seven shutout innings against the Mets. Hanson is still a stud in my book, and while this year has proven that any pitcher is subject to major injury, I'll remain optimistic here despite the decreased velocity.

Kyle Kendrick and less "oomph" on his fastball? Yeah, not a good sign there.

Colby Lewis has fascinated me all year. After taking a 6.71 MLB ERA to Japan in 2008, Lewis returned stateside after going 26-17 with a 2.82 ERA in 55 games the last two seasons for the Hiroshima Carp with an impressive 369:46 K:BB ratio in 354.1 innings. We don't have a lot of data about how success in Japan translates to the U.S. for pitchers over age 30, but it's worked for Lewis and the Rangers, who look like geniuses after inking him to a two-year $5 million deal over winter. Since the All-Star break, Lewis is just 1-5 with a 3.99 ERA, but a 58:16 K:BB in 56.1 innings indicates a bit of bad luck despite the decrease in velocity. Still bullish on Lewis.

Pretty interesting seeing Brian Matusz on this list considering Matusz was 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in August after entering the month 3-11 with a 5.46 ERA. Is less (velocity) sometimes more? That seems rather simplistic, but perhaps letting off a bit on the fastball has allowed Matusz to focus more on improving his command. If that's the case, it's worked, as the talented southpaw posted a 1.7 BB/9 in August versus a pre-August mark of 3.7. He's clearly maturing as a pitcher, and despite the 89.2 mph fastball and the division in which he's pitching, I still like him quite a bit headed into 2011.

I still don't think the Blue Jays have enough offense or top-of-the-rotation types to compete in baseball's toughest division, but a rotation that begins with Ricky Romero, Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil is a great start. I really like what GM Alex Anthopoulos is doing in Toronto, but I find it a bit odd that all of the aforementioned starters appear in this section. Then again, is that any more odd than Jose Bautista this year? Morrow is getting shut down due to an innings limit after his next start, but come 2011, this is a unit I'll have my eye on.

Ubaldo Jimenez's struggles to reach 18 wins can't be attributed to a slight dip in velocity as much as simple regression to the mean. No, he had no chance at 30 wins despite reaching 10 wins before the calendar turned to June. In August, however, Jimenez was just 1-3, though his ERA was a still-solid 2.83. Jimenez though did see a dip in velocity and along with it, a bump in his line drive rate from 13.3 percent in July to 21.7 percent last month. That said, the list of pitchers I'd prefer the rest of the way over Jimenez is a very short one.

With Manny Ramirez gone, Matt Kemp struggling and Russell Martin falling off the face of the earth, Clayton Kershaw and Andre Ethier have become the collective faces of a seemingly-crumbling franchise. Kershaw's velocity may be down a tick, and considering he's already right at last year's innings count, some fatigue is to be expected. Kershaw has seen his K/9 drop from 10.2 to 8.1 pre-break/post-break, but considering his five consecutive quality starts and two double-digit strikeouts game in his last three starts, it's hard to be anything but bullish on young Clayton.