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Impact of diminished velocity

4/10/2013

Diminished fastball velocity is not a death sentence.

Oh, you might disagree if you're a Roy Halladay owner, having watched him surrender a 14.73 ERA, .353 batting average and three home runs in his first two regular-season starts, following a spring training in which he had a 6.06 ERA, .323 BAA and three homers allowed in six turns. In those two regular-season outings, he has averaged 89.3 mph with his fastball, cutter and sinker combined; he averaged 91.5 mph with those pitches in 2010-11, when he won the National League's Cy Young award (2010) and finished the runner-up (2011).

The danger of the Halladay lesson is latching onto a singular aspect of his struggles, which ties to a statistic much more readily available today than, say, five years ago. Velocity readings have become all the rage in baseball -- and therefore fantasy baseball -- and with them comes the risk of misinterpretation.

This is the time of year in which fantasy owners are most apt to overreact, seeking something -- anything -- to explain their pitchers' early struggles. In some cases, velocity readings are relevant. But to make sweeping, league-wide judgments on the numbers is foolish; every case is individual and many such examples don't bear any worry whatsoever. As is, the league-wide numbers illustrate that average fastball velocities tend to be lower in April:

For two individual examples why fantasy owners shouldn't rush to panic, let's flash back to 2012, when Felix Hernandez averaged 91.0 mph with his fastball during an April 7 start, his second of the year, after reported 89-90 mph numbers from his first start on March 28 in Japan (our pitch-tracking tool didn't include this game). Hernandez's owners were wild with panic over the readings, but after April 7, he managed 20 quality starts, a 2.98 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 210 strikeouts in his final 31 turns. Oh, and by the way, he averaged 92.1 mph in those 31 starts, more than 1 mph beneath his 2011 average (93.2).

Clayton Kershaw, meanwhile, suffered the largest season-opening-outing velocity drop of any top-50-ADP starting pitcher in the past three years, his 89.2 mph average last April 5 more than 4 mph slower than his 2011 average (93.3). There was, however, an explanation: He was battling the stomach flu, which ended up limiting him to three innings and 39 pitches. After that date, Kershaw managed 25 quality starts, a 2.56 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 226 K's in 32 games. His velocity was effectively back by start No. 2: He averaged 92.8 mph on April 10.

That's not to say that every pitcher follows the Hernandez or Kershaw path. To make this a more comprehensive study, consider that in the past three seasons, 47 starting pitchers selected among the top 50 at their position suffered an average fastball velocity drop of at least 1.0 mph in their first starts of the year (comparative to the prior year's average). Twenty-six of those starters finished within 20 spots of their ADPs -- 15 of them either matching or exceeding it.

(In the chart below, "Prev mph" represents the previous year's average fastball velocity, "ADP" is the player's average draft position in that season and "PR" is the individual's Player Rater finish in that season.)

Meanwhile, 18 relief pitchers selected among the top 20 at their position suffered an average fastball velocity drop of at least 1.0 mph during the first week of the year (fantasy's Week 1, compared to the prior year's average). Ten of these relievers finished within 15 spots of their ADPs -- three of them exceeding it.

Incidentally, to dig deeper, seven of the 65 pitchers above -- starters or relievers -- averaged at least 2.0 mph beneath their prior-year averages in both their first starts/first week of the year and for the month of April in total; yet three of those seven finished within 10 spots of their ADPs.

What all this tells us is that every pitcher's story is different, and each suffering a velocity drop must be examined individually. So let's do that today, addressing some of the more notable examples so far in 2013:

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees (92.2 mph average in 2012, 89.6 in 2013 debut): His 2.6 mph average fastball velocity drop during his first start raised many red flags for fantasy owners and analysts, but many of those people aren't considering the context. Sabathia, who was coming off October elbow surgery, was kept on a lighter schedule than usual this spring; his two starts and 10 innings pitched represented his second fewest of any spring training (he missed the 2005 exhibition season with an abdominal injury). He also historically exhibits lower velocity -- and poorer rotisserie stats -- in April than in future months; he averaged 92.6 mph in April 2010, 92.6 mph in April 2011 and 91.8 in April 2012, compared to 93.1 mph overall in those three years combined. I agree with colleague Eric Karabell's assessment of Sabathia's "struggles;" and any concern related to Sabathia's past workloads, offseason operation or 2012 velocity drop (92.2 mph) was already accounted for in my No. 17 ranking of him among starting pitchers.

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers (94.2 mph average in 2012, 91.8 in 2013 debut): Push the panic button with Scherzer, who recorded 135 of his 231 strikeouts with his fastball last season, if you wish. I'll counter that he has shown a history of mediocre velocity in April -- he's in the above chart twice -- and in his career, he has a 4.86 ERA in April and May, compared to 3.43 from June through September. Scherzer's "velocity woes" could create quite a buying opportunity, even if they extend four or five starts into his season.

John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers (96.1 mph average in 2012, 94.1 in first week of 2013): The charts above do demonstrate that a velocity drop is a bit more disconcerting for a reliever than for a starter, especially if you account for the quick hook many managers have with closers. Axford's 2.0 mph decline is perhaps the most troubling, because he needed to start the year hot in order to recapture his manager's favor following a disappointing 2012. But in his case, it's not necessarily velocity that's at the root of the problem -- his location is just as problematic. Though sample sizes contribute to this number, Axford has left his fastball up in the zone 8 percent more often thus far in 2013. Location was an issue for him in 2012, as well, so there's every reason to believe his won't be an overnight fix.

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (94.1 mph average in 2012, 91.0 in 2013 debut): This isn't intended to inspire a panic, but the fact remains that Verlander's 91.0 mph average on April 1, followed by 91.4 mph on April 7, represented his lowest average fastball velocities in any start since 2009, the first season ESPN's pitch-tracking data was charted. And it'd be largely irrelevant if not for two things: One is that Verlander's annual fastball velocity was in a three-year pattern of decline, and the other is that he has amassed a major league-high 762 1/3 innings pitched (playoffs included) the past three seasons combined. In his defense, his numbers in those April 1 and 7 starts were fine -- 2.19 ERA and 1.22 WHIP -- but his performance bears watching in the coming weeks, being that there's not a substantial difference in value between a top-2 and top-10 fantasy starting pitcher.

Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers (93.9 mph average in 2012, 91.4 thus far in 2013): He's not going to get every call like Monday's game-ender, and any cause for alarm with his velocity drop is that it harkens memories of his early 2011, when he was fresh off Tommy John surgery. In the first two months of that season, Nathan was only 3-for-5 in save chances with a 7.63 ERA and 1.70 WHIP, his average fastball velocity 91.3 mph in those 17 appearances, before he returned to the disabled list with a flexor strain. Now 38, Nathan warrants more attention than in the past, though thus far his rotisserie stats have been fine and he faces little immediate competition for saves in the Texas Rangers' bullpen. No reason to panic.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers (91.7 mph average in 2012, 90.1 in 2013 debut): His radar-gun readings so far this year aren't the greatest concern; it's that they were down last season that put them under more scrutiny. Gallardo averaged 92.6 mph in 2011, 91.7 mph in the first half of 2012 and 91.6 mph in the second half of 2012. His strikeout rate has also slipped slightly in recent years; by percentage of batters faced it has gone from 25.7 percent (2009) to 24.9 percent (2010) to 23.9 percent (2011) to 23.7 percent (2012), and through two starts he has an 11.3 percent K rate this season. Of any of these pitchers, he most belongs on a "watch list."

And what of Halladay himself?

He's yet another example of a pitcher with whom radar-gun readings don't tell the entire story. Command is the larger concern: Halladay's walk rate -- calculated as a percentage of total batters faced -- has gone from 3.8 percent in 2011, to 5.6 percent in 2012, to 14.6 percent in his first two starts of 2013. (His walk rate was also 12.0 percent during spring training.) And Halladay's cutter, his signature pitch, has resulted in a .750 batting average and two home runs.

Halladay's struggles have extended to the point where he might need a DL stint to return close to his old form, and they're the reason for his precipitous drop in this week's rankings. There's every reason to panic with him.

But to again be clear: They are not only related to velocity, nor should velocity be hailed as the example by which all other pitchers should be judged in that department.

Relief efforts

Three bullpens are either on the verge of or have already undergone a change at closer, including the aforementioned John Axford's own Milwaukee Brewers. Axford's struggles have opened the door for Jim Henderson, who, after a spring in which he posted a 5.68 ERA and 9:6 K-to-walk ratio, has managed four consecutive scoreless appearances including his first save on Monday.

Though Henderson's minor league track record -- 3.31 ERA, 2.15 K-per-walk ratio in Double-A; 4.01 ERA, 1.71 K-per-walk ratio in Triple-A -- makes him appear a mediocre choice to close, he at least deserves credit for a month-by-month improvement in terms of his command. He averaged 2.43 K's per walk last August and 3.83 K's per walk last September, has six K's compared to zero walks thus far in April, plus possesses one of the better sliders among current big league relievers. Henderson might yet possess the skills to hold this gig for several weeks -- if not the entire year -- meaning the Brewers can afford to shy from Axford, allowing him to work through his problems in middle relief.

The Kansas City Royals' closer role could be a wide-open one, after Greg Holland afforded four walks, four hits and four runs in his first three appearances of the season. Like some of the relievers discussed earlier, his average fastball velocity has also dropped comparative to 2012; he has averaged 94.9 mph, after averaging 96.0 mph last season. In Holland's defense, he began last season similarly poorly -- his ERA 11.37 last April -- but the Royals can't afford the luxury of patience with him in a high-profile role considering their multitude of alternatives.

Kelvin Herrera has the most natural closer "stuff," having averaged 4.10 K's per walk with a 1.92 ERA during his minor league career, then 3.67 K's per walk with a 2.35 ERA for the Royals last season. He notched the save on Sunday, and might receive the next chance, as Aaron Crow's appearance at closer on Monday was more a product of Herrera having previously worked back-to-back days. Fantasy owners might want to scoop up Herrera, who has top-10-closer stuff if granted the gig.

Finally, as hinted last week, the Chicago Cubs made the long-overdue move to demote Carlos Marmol from their closer role, installing Kyuji Fujikawa during the weekend. Though Fujikawa endured a rocky outing on Saturday, his track record of strong command in Japan makes him a worthy top-20 fantasy closer.

TOP 150 PITCHERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. Starter- and reliever-specific rankings are in the "Pos Rnk" column, and can also be seen at this link: Position Rankings.