San Francisco Giants: Why Are the Power Pitchers Losing Their Velocity?

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San Francisco Giants: Why Are the Power Pitchers Losing Their Velocity?
Sarah Glenn/Getty Images
Tim Lincecum's average fastball has dropped four mph since 2008.

Over the past two years there is a disturbing trend in the San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff, one that is seemingly going unnoticed.  Multiple pitchers, who made it to the big leagues as power pitchers, are losing velocity on their fastball at an alarming rate.

The first, and obvious casualty was their ace Tim Lincecum.  This case has been documented, but he isn’t the only one consistently losing mph every year.

The idea of conserving energy, and becoming more of a pitcher rather than a thrower is a great skill, and one that a lot of pitching coaches direct their focus towards, including Dave Righetti.

But the ability for a power pitcher to be able to reach back and hit mid to upper 90s when he needs it is one of the most valued assets in the Major Leagues, and one that seems to be fading much quicker for Giants pitchers over the past few years.

In 2007 and 2008, Lincecum’s first two seasons in the big leagues, his fastball averaged 94.1 mph, but he could reach back and hit 97 when he needed it.  A year later in 2009, Lincecum won his second consecutive Cy Young award, going 15-7 with a 2.48 ERA, even though his average fastball had dropped to 92.4,  although he could still hit 96 or 97 when he needed it.

The following year, Lincecum led the Giants to their first World Series title in San Francisco averaging 91.3 with his fastball, topping out at 95 or 96.  That included a horrible stretch in August where he was winless for the month, going 0-5 while his fastball consistently registered between 88 and 89 mph.

In 2011 Licecum’s fastball actually increased a full mph in comparison to 2010, but in 10 starts this year, Lincecum’s fastball is averaging 90.1 mph, four mph less than the just three and half years ago.  Even more disturbing is that the ability to reach back and hit 95 or 97 mph has completely disappeared.

Lincecum’s body type and pitching motion have been well documented, and many believe both are responsible for the dramatic drop in velocity.

Unfortunately that doesn’t explain why the same thing is happening to Matt Cain.

From 2006 to 2007, Cain’s first two full seasons in the big leagues, he averaged over 93 mph on his fastball, and would routinely hit 95 or 96 on the radar gun.

By 2008-09, his average fastball had dipped a full mph, and over the past two years, it has dipped another mph, with his average fastball in 2011 registering at 91.2 mph.  So far this year, Cain’s average fastball has been 90.7 mph through nine starts,

Brian Wilson and Santiago Casilla are two Giants relievers who have experienced the same decline.

Wilson, who consistently hit 98 or 99 mph from 2008 to 2010, officially averaging between 95.8 and 96.6 mph, dropped a full two mph in 2011.  His average fastball last year was 94.3 mph, and his best challenge fastball usually hit 95 mph, occasionally touching 96.

Norm Hall/Getty Images
Matt Cain's fastball velocity has also steadily declined.

Casilla consistently registered between 98 and 100 mph in relief during the 2010 season, his first with Giants, officially averaging 96.6 mph in the 52 games he appeared in.

Last season, Casilla was used in 49 games, and his average fastball had dropped three miles per hour, averaging 93.6 mph.  Even more dramatic, the ability to hit the 98 to 100 range had disappeared, usually topping out at 96 mph.

In comparison, Justin Verlander’s first full season in the big leagues in 2006, his average fastball was 95.1 mph, and he routinely hit between 98 and 100.  Over the past three seasons, Verlander has averaged 95 or better with his fastball, and he still registers 98 to 100 on a regular basis.

Ten years ago CC Sabathia was in his second year as a starter with the Cleveland Indians.  His average fastball was 92.3 mph, followed by 92.8 in 2003, and 93.8 in 2004.  Over the past two years, Sabathia’s average fastball has been 93.5 and 93.8 mph.

The same is true for Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett.  From 2002 to 2004, Halladay’s average fastball was 92 mph while Beckett averaged 93.5 mph.  From 2009 to 2011, both pitchers remained constant as Halladay’s fastball continued to average 92 mph (92.6, 92.6, 92), and Beckett’s was right at 93.5 (94.3, 93.5, 93.1).

Halladay has experienced a drop in velocity this year, but has also been battling a sore shoulder and yesterday was officially placed on the DL with a shoulder strain.  Also, this is Halladay’s 15th season in the big leagues, a noticeable drop in velocity is more explainable, if not expected.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Santiago Casilla is another casualty of decreasing velocity.

Even a small-bodied pitcher like Roy Oswalt, was able to keep his velocity relatively consistent for most of his career, as he averaged 93.7 and 93.1 in 2002 and 2003 respectively, and then averaged 93.1 mph in 2009, followed by 92.6 mph in 2010.

Many closers throughout the league have also remained consistent over the same years.  Jonathan Papelbon’s average fastball from 2006 to 2007 was 94.3 mph.  In 2010 his fastball was up to 94.9 mph, and last year his average fastball went up again to 95 mph.

Heath Bell has remained incredibly consistent, registering an average fastball velocity of 94 mph in 2006, 94.7mph in 2007 and then 94 mph in both 2010 and 2011.

Kerry Wood, who came into the league as a flame-throwing starting pitcher in 1998, battled arm injuries and ended his career this month as a reliever.  Even with the injuries, Wood’s average fastball was between 94 and 95 mph every year from 2002 to 2005, and 2010 to 2012.

Probably the most impressive consistency for closers over the past 15 years has been Mariano Rivera.  Definitely the gold standard in results, Rivera has also remained consistent with the velocity of his fastball, and his signature cut fastball .  From 2002, his eighth season in the big leagues, and 2008, his 15th season, Rivera averaged between 93 and 94 mph with his fastball.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Mariano Rivera, the gold standard in closing games.

All of which makes the steady drop in velocity for the Giants power pitchers even more troubling.

Lincecum showed improvement in his last start, but is finding it increasingly more difficult to pitch out of jams without an electric fastball.

We’ll have to wait until next year to see if Wilson can come back from his second Tommy John surgery and regain his 97 to 98 mph gas.  Casilla, his replacement in the closer role, has increased his average a little bit from last year to 94.3 from 93.6, but his ability to hit 98 or 99 mph is still missing.

So far this season, Casilla has 13 saves in 14 chances, with a 1.23 era, so no one is complaining, but where did his A+ fastball go, and why such a big decline so fast?

It’s even more curious why Lincecum and Cain’s decline in velocity would happen in the prime of their careers.

For the moment, it’s only an issue for Lincecum, hence he is receiving all of the attention regarding velocity, but what if Cain lost another mile or two on his fastball?  Could Cain be an effective pitcher averaging 88 or 89 mph with his fastball?

More importantly, what can the Giants do so that Cain and Lincecum not only retain their current velocity, but recapture some of the electric heat that made them one of the best one-two punches in the major leagues.

(All of the stats on average velocity come from www.fangraphs.com)

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