How Did Superstar Pitchers Recover from April Velocity Declines in 2012?
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Over the next few weeks, you're going to be hearing a lot about scary, scary radar gun readings that spell doom for your favorite star pitchers.
But when you hear about these radar gun readings, how scared should you actually be?
Bill Petti of FanGraphs would advise you not to worry too much about low velocity in April. He's done a number of studies on velocity, including one last July in which he concluded that pitchers losing velocity in April "isn't insignificant" but is also "less worrisome" relative to velocity losses in other months.
I don't have the mathematical know-how to even dare to contradict that conclusion, but I was curious to see if velocity struggles from last April ended up being a sign of things to come for a select few superstars.
If you'll follow me this way, we'll take a look back at a group of 15 pitchers.
Note: Stats within courtesy of FanGraphs.
Notes on Velocity
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The first question you may have is exactly where the following velocity readings are coming from.
The answer: Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs.
BIS data offered me two advantages. I found it easier to split the data up by month, for one, and BIS also makes things easier by tracking four-seamers, two-seamers and sinkers all under one umbrella.
My understanding is that BIS velocity data isn't quite as accurate as PITCHf/x data, but Petti noted in his article that "BIS fastball velocity data has a correlation of roughly .97 with PITCHf/x velocity data," which is good enough for our purposes here.
For what it's worth, I did go and cross-reference the data I compiled with PITCHf/x data featured on BrooksBaseball.net. What I saw was that the exact numbers differed, but the patterns in velocity from month to month were the same.
Now then, let's really get to it this time. We shall proceed in order from the smallest April velocity drops to the largest.
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Jered Weaver had an excellent season by any measure in 2011, posting a 2.41 ERA and logging 235.2 innings.
The heck of it is that Weaver didn't do it with his best fastball. His fastball velocity tumbled from an average of 89.9 miles per hour in 2010 to an average of 89.1 miles per hour in 2011.
So something was already up with his velocity heading into 2012, and the trend continued.
You can see that the drop in April was very slight from where Weaver was in 2011, but he then saw his velocity dip in May and generally stay in the 87-mph range straight through the end of the season.
It's worth noting that Weaver was sidelined for a little while in June with a back issue. The extra rest may have been what led to his velocity spike in July, but he couldn't sustain it.
It's also worth noting that decreased velocity didn't hurt Weaver. He saw his strikeout rate decline to a rate below 7.0 per nine innings, but his command remained sharp and he pitched his way to a 2.81 ERA. His plate discipline data shows that he also had the highest swinging-strike percentage of his career.
The conventional wisdom is that you don't need to throw hard in order to pitch, and Weaver can vouch.
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The 2011 season was Madison Bumgarner's first full campaign in the big leagues, and it saw him impress with a 3.21 ERA and an even more impressive 2.67 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
He did that with a fastball that averaged 91.7 miles per hour, which was up from the 91.3 miles per hour he averaged with his heater in a small sample size in 2010.
In April of 2012, his heater sank below that mark.
You can see that, unlike Jered Weaver, Bumgarner's heater immediately started gaining velocity back in May and he got about to where he was in 2011 by the time August rolled around.
But then came a sharp decline in velocity in September, which coincided with Bumgarner's lowest strikeout percentage since April. His injury database on Baseball Prospectus lists absolutely nothing, but it's fair to wonder if he was simply fatigued.
Either way, it's not like Bumgarner had a bad season. Despite his sluggish finish, he still posted a 3.37 ERA over 208.1 innings.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Ricky Romero in a superstar discussion?
He's out of place now, but you have to remember what things were like after he logged a 2.92 ERA over 225 innings in 2011. He looked like a budding ace.
Romero's average fastball velocity in 2011 was 92.1 in 2011, up from 90.8 in 2010. That's a pretty significant jump, and Romero was unable to sustain it in 2012.
Romero's average fastball velocity in April was about a mile per hour off where it was in 2011, and he never really got close to where he was in 2011.
What's more, you can see that Romero took to throwing his heater less and less after April and May. That's a tell-tale sign that his confidence in it was shot.
Down velocity, however, was only one of Romero's issues in 2012. His PITCHf/x data says he was throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone, and he was also getting hitters to swing at fewer pitches outside the zone.
When that happens, you get a declining strikeout rate, an increasing walk rate and a big ERA.
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Now we get to look at an entirely different sort of case study.
Most pitchers live off their fastballs, but Dan Haren's heater was really a secondary pitch in 2011. He threw his cutter about 48 percent of the time, compared to a rate of about 35 percent for his fastball (i.e. his "other" hard stuff).
His cutter averaged 85.3 miles per hour in 2011. His other hard stuff averaged 90 miles per hour. But in 2012...
April saw Haren's cutter velocity drop 0.7 miles per hour from where it was in 2011, and his fastball velocity dropped 1.2 miles per hour. Instead of building velocity in May and beyond, he more or less stayed where he was before dropping off even more at the end of the year.
Haren, however, didn't get a fair shot at finding his usual velocity in 2012. He developed back issues in early May, and those issues stuck with him for much of the year.
The end result was a 4.33 ERA that was brought about partially by the highest HR/FB rate of Haren's career. Hitters were having an easy time driving the ball against his diminished stuff.
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I'm guessing you're surprised to find Justin Verlander on this list. Totally understandable, seeing as how his average fastball is something like a million miles per hour.
To be exact, it was an even 95 miles per hour in 2011, a year in which he compiled a 2.40 ERA over 251 innings.
It was not more of the same in 2012.
An average heater for Verlander last April was 1.2 miles per hour slower than his average heater in 2011, a pretty significant drop. To boot, he didn't budge much higher than that the rest of the year.
Not until September, that is. That's when Verlander broke out the big fastball again, and it helped him post a 1.93 ERA in six starts.
That Verlander was able to kick up his velocity in September suggests that he was just pacing himself in the five months before. That fits what we know about Verlander, as he'll pace himself with his velocity in a start before dialing it up when he needs it later in the game.
Besides which, an average fastball of 94 miles per hour is still really good. Verlander was one of only five qualified pitchers who lived in that neighborhood in 2012.
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Yovani Gallardo enjoyed something of a breakthrough season in 2011. He pitched over 200 innings for the first time, posting a 3.52 ERA and striking out nine batters per nine innings.
But the following April...
Gallardo's fastball velocity in April was 1.3 miles per hour off from where it was in 2011. He peaked in May, but then declined again in June and didn't budge much the rest of the season. In the end, he posted an average fastball velocity about a mile per hour off from his 2011 velocity.
A couple of concerning things coincided with Gallardo's velocity loss. He didn't get his usual amount of swings-and-misses, and he also saw his HR/FB rate take a hike to 14.9 percent.
Through it all, the good news is that Gallardo's ERA barely budged, and he still gave the Brewers 204 innings. Down velocity or no, he was still pretty good.
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You knew this one was coming, right?
Roy Halladay was superb in 2011, pitching 233.2 innings and compiling a 2.35 ERA. He even broke new ground with an 8.47 K/9.
Halladay did it primarily with a cutter that averaged 90.8 miles per hour and additional hard stuff that averaged an even 92 miles per hour. The disclaimer, however, is that his cutter had averaged 91.4 miles per hour and his hard stuff had averaged 92.6 miles per hour in 2010.
So heading into 2012, the warning signs were already faintly in the background.
Halladay's cutter and his other hard stuff experienced significant drop-offs in April, but he did make strides with his velocity in May. He may have been on his way to recapturing his velocity.
We'll never know. Halladay ended up on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, and he didn't have the same zip on his cutter or other hard stuff after returning. He had a 3.98 ERA at the time he went on the DL, and he managed just a 4.93 ERA the rest of the way.
Halladay's zip didn't return to him during the spring, nor did it return to him in his 2013 debut on Wednesday. It doesn't look good for the Doc.
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Anibal Sanchez quietly put up big numbers in 2011, posting a 3.67 ERA and establishing a new career-high with a 9.26 K/9.
Sanchez also established a new career best with his fastball. An average heater for him that year checked in at 91.7 miles per hour, topping his previous career best by almost half a mile per hour.
Sanchez's average fastball in April was 1.4 miles per hour slower than his average heater in 2011. It's possible that he was still being hindered by some right shoulder soreness that he experienced in camp (see Baseball Prospectus).
No matter. Sanchez's velocity took a big hike in May and didn't stop there. By the end of the season, he was throwing harder than ever before.
You'll also notice that Sanchez wasn't throwing that hard that often, as he was going to his fastball less and less in the latter half of the year. That might have played a part in his velocity increase.
Whatever the reason, Sanchez ended up with a 3.86 ERA and then helped his cause in free agency with some killer postseason performances.
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Johnny Cueto achieved star status in 2011 with a 2.31 ERA over 156 innings pitched, and he was able to do that largely because of a hard fastball.
But then in 2012...
Cueto's velocity in April was close to two miles per hour away from where he was in 2011. Quite the drop, that.
But that drop didn't last for long. Cueto started building his velocity again in May and was right about where he was in 2011 by the end of the year.
Though Cueto was unable to get his total average velocity back up to where it had been in 2011, a 0.7-mph drop in velocity can be forgiven, seeing as how he logged 61 more innings in 2012 than he did in 2011. The fact that he posted a 2.78 ERA was nice too.
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For the most part, Josh Beckett's 2011 season was a good one. He had a 2.54 ERA at the end of August before running out of gas in September.
Beckett averaged 93.1 miles per hour with his fastball in 2011. That's a very good fastball for most pitchers, but for him it was probably a sign of things to come. He had averaged 93.5 miles per hour with his fastball in 2010, and 94.3 miles per hour in 2009.
April of 2012 brought further trouble.
Beckett's fastball in April was 1.7 miles per hour slower than his average fastball in 2011. He did manage to add some velocity in June, but it went away immediately and kept declining the rest of the year.
Also, his velocity spike in June is not what it seems. Beckett was limited to only three starts that month thanks to a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a couple weeks.
By midway through August, Beckett had a 5.23 ERA. He was spared further disaster by the trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the National League. He didn't recover any zip in Dodger blue, but he did finish strong with a 2.93 ERA in seven starts.
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Felix Hernandez took a step back in 2011 after winning the American League Cy Young in 2010, but he was still one of the league's better pitchers with a 3.47 ERA and 233.2 innings pitched.
King Felix did warn that he was losing some zip off his fastball, however, as he saw his average fastball velocity decline from 94.1 miles per hour in 2010 to 93.3 miles per hour in 2011.
The trend continued into April of 2012.
For the first two months of the 2012 season, King Felix's fastball was about two miles per hour slower than it had been in 2011. The going was particularly rough in May, a month that saw Hernandez post a 5.92 ERA in a span of four starts.
But then his velocity came back with a vengeance in June and he kept building it the rest of the way. By the end of the year, he was pretty close to where he was in 2011.
King Felix also enjoyed one of the most dominant stretches of pitching we saw last year, compiling a 1.40 ERA and holding hitters to a .444 OPS in 14 starts between mid-June and late-August.
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Here's the guy everyone's worried about after what happened on Opening Day, and even Bill Petti thinks that CC Sabathia's velocity issues are worth watching.
Sabathia's heater averaged 93.8 miles per hour in 2011, a year in which he posted an ERA of an even 3.00 over 237.1 innings.
That velocity went away immediately in 2012.
Sabathia's average heater in April was a full two miles per hour slower than his average heater in 2011. He did find some velocity in May and was consistent through the rest of the year, but he never even sniffed where he was with his velocity in 2011.
But like Dan Haren and Roy Halladay, Sabathia didn't get a fair chance to recover his lost velocity. He was sidelined by a groin problem in July and then by an elbow problem in August.
Credit where credit is due, Sabathia still gave the Yankees 200 innings and ended the year with a solid 3.38 ERA. And though his lack of velocity contributed to a bad case of gopheritis, he helped his cause by cutting down on his walks and increasing his strikeouts. His 2012 season could have gone a lot worse.
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Here's where things get really ugly.
Tim Lincecum followed up a relatively mediocre season in 2010 with a fine season in 2011, posting a 2.74 ERA over 217 innings. Part of the reason he was able to do that was because his fastball velocity got back to around where it was in 2009, as an average Lincecum heater in 2011 was 92.3 miles per hour.
You know what they say about things that go up, though. They must go...
Lincecum's average fastball in April was 2.5 miles per hour slower than his average fastball in 2011. He did manage to gain some zip in May and June, but then his velocity turned right back around again and headed the other direction.
You can also see that Lincecum was shying away from his fastball more and more by the end of the season, making it fair to wonder, just like with Ricky Romero, if the velocity loss killed his confidence.
Lincecum's strikeouts didn't suffer in the end, but his walk rate, HR/FB rate and ERA sure did. He walked 4.35 per nine, saw his HR/FB rate jump to 14.6 and his ERA jumped to 5.18.
Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Vogelsong came out of nowhere in 2011 to post a 2.71 ERA over 30 appearances (28 starts). Pretty good stuff for a guy who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2006.
Vogelsong had some pretty good fastball velocity working for him in 2011, as his average heater checked in at 91.4 miles per hour.
In sticking with the theme of this piece, the velocity wasn't there in April of 2012.
An average Vogelsong last April was about three miles per hour slower than an average Vogelsong fastball in 2011. He might as well have been throwing knuckleballs.
However, Vogelsong had a good excuse. His season started late due to a stint on the disabled list with a lower back injury. Once he put that behind him, he was able to build velocity consistently for the rest of the season.
Vogelsong ultimately finished with a 3.37 ERA. Not as good as his 2.71 ERA in 2011, but plenty good enough.
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The 2011 season was of the breakout variety for Justin Masterson. He pitched over 200 innings for the first time and logged a 3.21 ERA.
He couldn't have done it without his hard stuff, in this case meaning both his regular fastball and his sinker. Combined, the two averaged 92.7 miles per hour in 2011, and he threw them a whopping 84.4 percent of the time.
The next April, it looked like all those fastballs may have done a number on his arm.
There was a difference of nearly three miles per hour between Masterson's average heater last April and his average heater in 2011.
But then his velocity came back. And back. And back. And back. By the end of the season, Masterson had matched and surpassed his average velocity from 2011.
It didn't pay off in results, though. From late July through the end of the season, Masterson had a 6.41 ERA. That had a lot to do with all the balls that were making their way through his defense, as Masterson surrendered BABIPs well over .300 in each of the season's final three months.
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We just looked at 15 notable pitchers who lost some zip off their hard stuff last April. Of the bunch, six went on to have disastrous seasons.
But that latter group of six includes Dan Haren, Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett, three older pitchers who came down with injuries and were thus denied fair shots at turning things around.
Remove them from the equation, and the only real cautionary tales among the pitchers we looked at are Ricky Romero, Tim Lincecum and Justin Masterson, and at least Masterson managed to find his old velocity as the season went along.
He also wasn't the only pitcher we looked at whose final average fastball velocity was higher than his April velocity. Of our 15, 10 others managed that feat as well.
Not that this collection of 15 pitchers represents and kind of conclusive study, but it can be taken from these guys that an April velocity loss isn't an automatic harbinger of doom.
That's something to keep in mind over the next few weeks. We saw some stud pitchers shake off bad April velocity last year, and we're going to see some more do it this year.
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