April to May Velocity Risers and Fallers
Velocity is the No. 1 predictor of future success for a pitcher
- Eno Sarris
It sounds reductive to make so much of a pitcher’s velocity. We have so many amazing stats and data at our disposal and yet we’re supposed to care the most about velocity? I find it refreshing. It’s such a simple number to look at and it can tell us so much about the health of a pitcher and whether their mechanics are sound.
Certainly this article isn’t going to tell you that Jose Urena should be better than Clayton Kershaw moving forward just because he throws 5 MPH harder. It’s more about relative velocity as FiveThirtyEight has shown us that a pitcher’s velocity changes can be a key indicator to an upcoming “hot” or “cold” streak. I want to use this info to examine certain pitchers that might be forgotten about and see if this velocity change could be leading to better or worse things to come.
It’s important to not make too much of this info though, as it’s natural for velocity to change over the course of the season.
Fastball speed for an average major-league pitcher starts at its lowest point in early April, rises by about 1.0-1.5 mph to a peak in the month of July, and declines gradually thereafter.
Mike Fast, “Do Spring Speeds Matter?”
It shouldn’t be surprising if you’re seeing someone you like with a small velo boost since the start of the season. Lots of pitchers have had a small boost but having a big boost already happen by the end of May can be intriguing, especially since they might not be done gaining velocity.
And to the opposite end, losing velo at this point in the season isn’t a death sentence. Patrick Corbin lost a ton off his fastball last May and it turns out he was just fine the rest of the way. His success after such a big velocity loss isn’t exactly normal though and I think it’s worth monitoring the pitcher’s that show up on the ugly side of this data. Perhaps it’s just a blip or natural regression but it could also be a sign of an underlying health issue.
I think it’s important to keep up to date on velocity as a lot is made of pitcher’s velocity in the first few starts of the season and yet things can quickly change as the season deepens. The opinions you make in mid-April often stick in your head much more than they should even as the results start changing.
Not the most exciting name to pop up at the top but what can you do? Nova hasn’t been good in years and he has the worst ERA(6.24) and FIP(5.49) of his career. Further on the downside, he has pulled off the never-coveted “Earned Run Straight Draw,” with five different starts allowing earned run totals of 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
Ragging on him aside, he’s always been a fastball first guy(throwing it over 60% of the time in his career) so this velo boost is very important to his skillset. He has looked better his last three times out(3.32 ERA) and it’s a pretty easy prediction to say his ERA will fall.
Odorizzi is one of the big pitching surprises of the season. His sparking ERA(2.16) isn’t exactly matched by his peripherals(4.47 xFIP) thanks to a likely unsustainable BABIP(.238) and HR rate(5.6%) but his velocity goes a long way in confirming his performance so far. He’s throwing as hard as he has in his entire career and it’s made his fastball nearly unhittable with a 13.0 pitch value and .248 wOBA.
The exit velocity on his fastball is a ridiculously low, 85.0 miles per hour, and gives some hope that the low BABIP and HR rate are being earned. If he can keep this velocity I expect his really fantastic season to mostly continue.
Just wrote 1,500 words on Bumgarner’s new velocity, so I’ll just leave it at that.
I think this is a classic example of a velocity boost being an example of a player simply regaining health. Skaggs has had lots of arm issues in his career and his early season velocity dip coincided with two Spring injuries(ankle and elbow) that he was dealing with. He didn’t have a normal Spring Training because of these injuries so his April should probably be ignored.
Skaggs appeared to be breaking out in the second half last season(before yet another injury screwed with his September). Skaggs has had some really rough starts this season, even as his velocity increased, but his last three starts have seen an elite 23% K-BB rate. He could be figuring things out and it just remains to be seen whether he will ever have long enough stretches of health to fully breakout.
Boyd is another great story from the 2019 season and him appearing high on this list was pretty shocking to me considering how great he pitched in April. His velocity had actually been down since the beginning of 2018 and only in May did he finally begin sitting around 92 like he was in the first couple seasons of his career. Boyd’s fastball has been a key to the strikeout pitcher that Boyd has turned into. He’s seen an increase to his spin rate along with the recent velo spike and it’s helped him improve his swinging strike rate on the pitch.
Boyd’s breakout has been helped by increased slider usage, as well, and it’s turned him into basically a two pitch guy. His curve and changeup usage have both dropped this year down to 5% each. I worry about two-pitch pitchers and their ability to get deep into games. Surprisingly Boyd has been really good the third time through the order with a 3.13 FIP and a ridiculous 25% K-BB rate.
2018 Pitch Usage
2019 Pitch Usage
It will be interesting to see if he is able to continue that success late in the games as the league begins to adjust to a Boyd more reliant on two pitches.
One of the biggest stories in the first few weeks of the season was the mysterious start to Chris Sale’s season. His velocity chart paired with his rolling ERA should explain where the concern came from and also explain why he’s one of the biggest velocity gainers even with a May velocity that is still well below his 2018 velocity.
Chris Sale had a pretty remarkable May, as his velocity jumped back up to less concerning levels while he produced an otherworldly 37.3% K-BB rate. That alone should tell you that Chris Sale is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, maybe even the best. But he’s still having an issue with hard contact. Even in May his Hard Contact rate and HR rate were higher than normal and are both career highs over the entire season.
Chris Sale should be Chris Sale the rest of the way but his velocity is still important to watch as his velocity fluctuations have correlated pretty well with the best and worst versions of himself.
Berrios has had a weird season. He was sitting 91 for most of April but still carried a strong 21.3% K-BB%. Then his velocity jumps up immediately in May and his K-BB% falls to 15.3%.
The return of his velocity is obviously a good sign for the rest of the season but I think his inconsistencies come more from his curveball. It’s his best swing and miss pitch but sometimes it just disappears on him. Players are slugging .480 on his curveball this year and May saw the lowest swinging strike rate(9.78%) for his curve for any month since his disastrous rookie season.
I don’t expect his curveball to be bad all season and the fact that he has a 3.27 ERA without his best strikeout pitch is encouraging on its own. His fastball is back and now his curveball needs to follow.
There are a lot of pitchers off to great starts on this “fallers” list and Minor is definitely one of them. Even after a terrible first outing where he gave up 6 earned runs he has a 2.74 ERA. Minor has a very intriguing fastball(99th Percentile Spin Rate) and it’s by far the biggest piece of his usage pie(42.4%) so velocity fluctuations are important. But Minor has 3 other pitches that he throws over 10% of the time that help mitigate any fastball issues he may be having on a start to start basis.
The worry with Minor is that he doesn’t have the ability to go a full season. He missed all of 2015 and 2016 with a labrum injury and spent 2017 as a reliever. He hasn’t thrown 160 innings since 2013 as last year he threw 157 innings in his return to a starting role. Last season he impressively gained velocity throughout the summer months and was still sitting near 94 in September.
This velocity loss could easily be a useless blip in a successful season but his injury and workload history leaves me concerned.
A popular breakout pick going into this season, Rodriguez has mostly disappointed on a surface level. His ERA is over 5 but his FIP(3.60) and xFIP(3.90) are basically identical to last season. Of course, identical isn’t what people were hoping for in 2019.
His start to the season was fairly encouraging even with the bloated ERA because he was getting loads of swinging strikes. In May, however, the whiffs dropped across his arsenal. His fastball saw the biggest issues as it got only 6% whiffs in May, after 13% in April and 12% last season. The fastball velocity is an issue that isn’t isolated to this May as his May velo was down 1.2 MPH over last May.
The encouraging sign from Rodriguez is the continued improvement of his command. This is his 4th straight season with a lowered walk rate. Also his BABIP(.345) and LOB%(66.5%) are both far off from his norm and suggest some positive regression is coming. I’ll go back to what his peripherals say in thinking that the big breakout isn’t happening this year but he should probably have similar numbers to his plenty serviceable 2018 season, even without 2018’s velocity.
Major breakout this year from Smith but he came back down to earth just a bit in recent weeks(4.42 FIP in May) and the velocity loss could be a factor. Smith has been a swinging strike machine this season as all three of his pitches have increased their SwStr% over last year. Even as his fastball slowed down a half tick in May, he was still getting whiffs with it. Perhaps a good sign except that hitters slugged a robust .519 on his heater in May after slugging just .283 in April. His fastball has still rated out as a well above average pitch even after getting hit harder in May.
A theme with a lot of these velocity fallers is that their velocity was down at the start of the season and has only dropped further. Smith is that story again as he is throwing a full tick slower than he was at this time in 2018. That’s not a great sign for a pitcher that is coming off a shoulder injury that cut his 2018 season at only 77 innings. We’ve never seen a full season from him and he may still be building back his shoulder strength.
German burst on the scene last year for the Yankees piling up whiffs with his above average curveball that he throws more than his fastball. German has continued that recipe in 2019 and his curve has been even better getting 21.5% whiffs and allowing a .191 wOBA. It’s quickly turned into one of the best pitches in the game and it’s success is built off of his ability to throw his heater at the top of the zone. The Yankees have become known for their high fastball approach in recent years to play off the same eye level as the curveball. Look at where German has been getting whiffs on these two pitches this season.
That is beautiful and I can practically see the Rob Friedman pitch overlay gif in my dream.
Now for the weird part. His velocity is obviously down this season. May was down a half tick from April and April was down a full tick from early last season. His fastball is paying a price too as it’s giving up a .361 wOBA(.304 last season).
Because I’m so slow at getting this article out he has already had a June start and he was pumping his fastball faster than at any point this season. He averaged 94.8 and he got 29% whiffs on just his fastball the other night. It was his shortest start of the season though as he failed to get through four innings. So just like basically everybody else in this article, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the season unfolds.