Future Outlooks for Top MLB Pitchers Dropping Velocity in 2013

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Future Outlooks for Top MLB Pitchers Dropping Velocity in 2013
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Jered Weaver's fastball has dropped more than a mile per hour in each of the past two seasons.

For pitchers, there may not be three sexier letters than M-P-H.

Miles per hour, baby.

Life in the fast lane can be fun and exciting, no doubt, but what happens when things start slowing down a little bit when the old fastball loses a tick or two on the radar gun?

There are plenty of examples from this season, but to determine just what we might expect from some of the bigger names whose heaters aren't quite as hot in 2013—see the chart at right—we need to figure out how much a missing mph (or two) has affected other hurlers in recent years.

The key is to compare these hurlers against themselves. To do so, we'll need to find a batch of big-name starting pitchers whose velocity dipped noticeably—at least one mile per hour—year over year.

Like these 12 arms...

Choosing the velocity drop to have happened in the 2012 season helps in two ways: one, it's a very recent sample, and two, it allows for comparisons both backward (2011) and forward (2013).

Here then, are how those pitchers fared in a bunch of key statistics in 2011, the season prior to the decline:

That's a pretty impressive aggregate line, right?

Even in the pitching-dominant period we're experiencing, a 3.34 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 makes for a mighty fine average for any group of 12 starters.

Now that a rough baseline has been established to help compare, we need to get an idea of how these hurlers did during 2012, the year in which the dip occurred:

What do you notice right off the bat?

How about the hike in ERA from 3.34 to 4.08—almost exactly three-quarters of a run higher.

Or maybe you picked up on the slight bumps in hits per nine (8.3 to 8.5) and walks per nine (2.6 to 2.8), which helps explain the average WHIP of these 12 pitchers going from 1.21 to 1.25.

And the last column reveals that a loss in velocity of at least one mile per hour led to a jump in homers allowed per nine innings from 0.8 to 1.1.

Some of those peripheral numbers might seem somewhat insignificant, but they're really not. For instance, a pitcher who throws 200 innings with a HR/9 of 0.8 allows only 18 homers, but a pitcher who throws 200 frames with a HR/9 of 1.1 surrenders 25 homers—or seven more over the course of the season.

And frankly, that ERA increase of 0.74 just can't be ignored.

Finally, here's what this dozen has done this season, the one after which the miles per hour dropped noticeably from a year prior:

There's good news and bad news here.

The good news is that the average stats didn't plummet nearly as much as they did from 2011 to 2012. Sure, the WHIP went up a bit (1.25 to 1.27) and the hurlers were a little easier to hit (8.5 H/9 to 8/8 H/9), but nothing else is all that different.

The bad news? Well...nothing is all that different. In other words, on average, these starters didn't get worse for a second straight year after a decline in velocity, but on the whole, they didn't return to their previous level of performance when they had a tick or two more oomph, either.

To be clear, this isn't a blanket statement that should be applied to all arms who start missing a mile per hour.

For one thing, circumstances change from year to year and from pitcher to pitcher. For example, we can't perfectly compare Ubaldo Jimenez, Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Ervin Santana and R.A. Dickey to themselves simply because they changed teams and/or leagues over the course of these three seasons.

Harry How/Getty Images
Injury probably had as much to do with Josh Beckett's 5.19 ERA in his eight starts this year as did a loss of velo.

And it must be pointed out that Josh Beckett probably spent most of this season pitching injured when he was able to make it to the mound for all of eight starts before succumbing to surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome and to help relieve the pressure on a nerve in his neck.

For another thing, it's pretty evident that some pitchers, even among those dissected here, are more than capable of pitching at a reduced speed. Like Ervin Santana, who's always been streaky but is having a bounce-back campaign. Or Felix Hernandez, who is just freakishly gifted and has turned himself into an all-around pitcher.

Then there's Jered Weaver. In addition to dealing with a few injury issues over the past season-and-a-half—some of which may be tied to his velocity falling from 89.2 in 2011 to 88.0 in 2012 to 86.9 this year—the Angels' ace has also learned to remake himself on the fly.

Working with a lesser fastball has made Weaver realize he should work with the fastball less. This is supported by the stats, too. The 29-year-old, according to PITCHf/x data via FanGraphs, is throwing his four-seam fastball a career-low 24.1 percent, while relying on his two-seamer 27.4 percent of the time and his curveball 15.1 percent of the time—both of which are career highs.

Bringing everything back around to the beginning: What does all of this mean for the pitchers in that very first chart?

Should we be worried that, say, David Price has "lost" two miles per hour on his fastball? In his case, there was that pesky, mysterious triceps injury that cost him six weeks, so even though he's been brilliant upon returning to the Rays rotation, he's one to monitor the rest of this year and into next.

And certainly, it's at least a little worrisome that Hernandez, Weaver, Dickey and CC Sabathia are repeat customers in the decreased-velocity department.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The knuckleballing R.A. Dickey's drop in fastball velocity means there's less separation between his heater and his go-to pitch.

But even those four represent a mixed bag, because even though Dickey and Sabathia are having their worst seasons in years, Hernandez and Weaver have continued to pitch well in 2013.

All of which is to say that dropping a mile per hour on the fastball from one season to the next isn't something any pitcher should aspire to. But even though our sample's stats show it's not usually a good thing, that also doesn't mean it has to be a bad thing.

Losing an M from the PH is more or less inevitable anyway. The sooner that's realized and accepted, the better the chances are that the pitcher can adjust and do just as much—or maybe even more—with less.

 

All velocity data comes from PITCHf/x via FanGraphs.

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