What do the Boston Red Sox' Josh Beckett and the New York Yankees' C.C. Sabathia have in common? They are both MLB pitchers who have seen a decline in their average fastball velocity this season.
A decline in average fastball velocity can have an adverse effect on some pitchers and have little-or-no effect on others. Why is that the case? Many times it comes down to how much command and movement a selected pitcher has. A pitcher who relies on velocity for effectiveness will tend to struggle once he loses his speed advantage.
Let's look at five pitchers who have had their fastball take a proverbial summer vacation.
It has been a season full of frustration for Boston Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett. The perennial AL Cy Young candidate has struggled this season posting a 4-7 record with a 4.14 ERA. Many have attributed his struggles to his fastball—or lack thereof.
One person who has observed Beckett's struggles this season is teammate Jon Lester—who gave his take to Alex Speier of WEEI Boston.
"Everybody has to evolve. You’re not going to have that [high-90s] stuff for your whole career. You’re not going to see that anymore because obviously the steroid era is over," Lester told WEEI earlier this year. "You’re not going to throw 95-plus for your whole life. Everybody has to adapt and figure out new ways that work for you."
According to fangraphs.com, there is some validity to the assertion that Beckett has lost some zip off his fastball. Since 2007, Beckett has seen his average fastball velocity drop from 94 to 91. A loss of fastball velocity also affects other pitches such as changeups and curveballs as there isn't the same amount of pitch speed differentiation.
Why has there been such a drop in velocity? One explanation could be injury, as Beckett has battled a sore shoulder throughout the season. He is currently on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
One player who has seen a drop in velocity this season is Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. His numbers are quite pedestrian as he has posted a 3-5 record with a 3.52 ERA in 14 starts this season. Things may be looking up for Hernandez as he posted a strong outing against the San Francisco Giants on Sunday—leading the Mariners to a 2-1 win.
Hernandez told the Seattle Times that he felt he had a better command of his fastball during his seven inning, seven strikeout effort against the Giants on June 17.
"I was commanding my fastball today and that was the key," Hernandez said. "When I command the fastball, then the breaking ball becomes better. The problem has been the fastball. I feel pretty good."
Hernandez' fastball has seen a dip in velocity this season, according to fangraphs.com. His fastball is averaging around 91.8 this season—a drop from 93.4 in 2011. According to the Seattle Times, Hernandez' fastball was clocked in the 93-95 mph range during his start against the Giants on Sunday.
Why the spike in velocity? Will this continue? One of the probable causes for Hernandez' loss of velocity could be a sore back he has been dealing with this season. We'll have to keep an eye on Hernandez and see whether or not the back troubles that plagued him earlier this month return.
It has been one of those seasons for San Francisco Giants starter Tim Lincecum. The two-time NL Cy Young award winner has posted an abysmal 2-8 record with a 6.19 ERA so far this season. His numbers have been so bad that some people have suggested that Lincecum should be moved to the bullpen, as recommended by our own Dan Mori.
Lincecum summed it up best in a New York Times article after his latest loss to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday, lamenting on his struggles.
“But the way I can word it best without alleviating any responsibility off myself—which is what it is, it is me, when it comes back to it—is everything that can go wrong is going wrong,” said Lincecum.
Are Lincecum's struggles due to a drop in velocity? According to fangraphs.com, this assertion would seem to be correct. His velocity is down almost two mph from his average recordings in 2011—90.4 compared to 92.2. More alarming is the fact that his velocity is down four mph from 2008—when he won his first of two back-to-back NL Cy Young awards.
Could injuries be a factor here as well? According to Giants manager Bruce Bochy, injuries are not a factor, as he told SFGate.com.
“He’s healthy. He feels good,” Bochy said. “I know the results haven’t been great for Timmy, but you see too many good signs. At this point the best thing is to let him fight through this. If we felt differently, we’d do it.”
The Giants should keep an eye on Lincecum and consider all options. A trip to the bullpen may be the right remedy for his struggles.
When the Cleveland Indians traded for Ubaldo Jimenez at the 2011 trade deadline they were hopeful he could anchor the staff for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for the Indians, Jimenez has not lived up to those expectations this season as he has posted a 6-5 record with an 5.00 ERA.
Has Jimenez been bitten by the lack-of-velocity bug? It seems so, at least according to Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal who relayed a quote given by an opposing scout on Jimenez.
“His fastball was 89-91 [mph],” the scout said. “He might have touched 92 once or twice, but his slider was flat. He also looked like his mind was somewhere else. I haven’t seen him like that in two years.”
Indeed, it seems Jimenez' velocity is down this year. According to fangraphs.com, Jimenez is throwing his fastball at 92.3 mph, down from 93.9 in 2011. What is more alarming is that he has lost almost four mph from his fastball since 2009.
Does this spell doom for Jimenez? Not quite! Pitchers like Tom Galvine and Mike Mussina had to adapt to their own losses of velocity toward the tail end of their careers. Jimenez may need to start pitching more—rather than trying to blow everyone away with gas.
A loss in average pitch velocity doesn't always equal failure. Just ask New York Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia—who has lost some speed off his fastball this season but has still posted a respectable 9-3 record.
According to fangraphs.com, Sabathia's average fastball velocity has gone from 93.9 mph in 2011 to 92.3 mph this season. His average fastball velocity has not topped 94 mph since 2009. He has averaged between 92-93.5 mph for the past five seasons. That fluctuation has not stopped Sabathia from winning 85 games over that span.
So, is the drop in velocity statistic really that important? It really depends on the pitcher you are profiling. A pitcher who relies on movement and location is apt to be a bit more immune to periodic fluctuations in average pitch velocity. A pitcher who relies on speed alone will be greatly affected.
Sabathia knows the importance of pitch location—as he told the NY Post in an article posted before the start of the season.
“It’s always a worry for me,” Sabathia said. “Everything I do is based off of my fastball and it’s not where I want it, but there’s no reason it won’t be there Friday (Opening Day).”