C.C. Sabathia isn't the pitcher he used to be. A former workhorse who was as good a lock as any player in the game for 200+ innings a year, has now been shut down by the Yankees and sent to the DL with what team doctors are calling a 'degenerative knee condition.' Even before his DL stint however, even casual fans could see that there was something different about this former stud. His ERA which had been a sparking 3.14 between 2006-2012 shot up to 4.78 last season and has been a terrible 5.28 so far this season. There has obviously been considerable talk about what has been causing this decline in performance, but one thing everyone seems to point to is Sabathia's declining stuff, and especially the loss of velocity with his once impressive fastball. Between 2008-2011 Sabathia's 4-seamer averaged between 93.6mph and 94.1mph, but starting in 2012 it's began a steady decline first to 92.4mph, then 91.3 in 2013, until finally settling in at a underwhelming average speed of 89.6mph this season.
Velocity Loss Impact for Fantasy Baseball
Now of course it's true that no pitcher is just the product of his fastball. Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle made impressive careers out of less than impressive stuff on the basis of pinpoint command and deception, but that isn't something every pitcher can do. Velocity gives a pitcher a wider margin for error. A meatball down the center of the plate is a lot harder to deal with if its coming in at 101mph than if it's coming in at 88.
Aroldis Chapman can afford to make mistakes more often than Mark Buehrle because it's much harder to square up Chapman's mistakes. As his 23.3% HR/FB rate will attest to, this is part of the problem Sabathia has been having. Hitters are just punishing his every mistake. There's also the fact that a better fastball has a domino effect on a pitcher's secondary offerings, playing up the effectiveness of his offspeed pitches because of the velocity of the fastball. Altogether while it's true that you don't need a great fastball to be a successful big league starter, it does make the game much easier... and conversely much harder when it starts to slip away.
Pitchers With Velocity Losses in 2014
Now of course Sabathia isn't the only player to be coming into the new season with a fastball that feels slower than last year. Many pitchers in fact have shown a marked decline in fastball velocity so far this season, and it's this decline, as well as it's implications for what fantasy owners can expect going forward, that I'd like to look into a bit in this article. Part of this decline is just a fact of the early season. The good people over at Fangraphs have shown that pitchers historically tend to throw about 0.7-0.8mph slower in April and May than they do in August. As Dave Cameron showed in one article he penned for Fangraphs entitled “Stephen Strasburg and Early Season Velocities”:
“Last year , by month, average four seam velocity from PITCHF/x [was]:
A larger velocity decline however can be the sign of something more - either an injury, an issue with the pitcher's mechanics, or the simple fact that pitchers lose velocity as they age. Below are some of the pitchers who have experienced the most dramatic declines in fastball velocity between this season and last. It's my hope that by examining their stuff and their situations, we can better predict what fantasy owners can expect from these arms going forward. Because of the early season effect on velocity, I've restricted this list to just the pitchers who have lost over 1 mph or more on their fastball.
2013/2014 Velocity: 93.1/90.4 (loss of 2.7mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 9.5/9.5, 24.3/21.6, 17.8%/16.8%
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.45/4.31, 3.35/3.65
Comments: Masterson has lost the most velocity of any pitcher in the major leagues so far and it's not surprising that in trying to work around this he's had some hiccups in his starts. He's lost almost 3 points on his strikeout rate and has been much more homer prone this season than in season's past. Unless we see some real uptick in his numbers, he's a player I'd shy away from outside of good matchups. There are probably better options out there if hes facing a top 15 offense.
2013/2014 Velocity: 93.0/90.5 (loss of 2.5 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 7.0/9.2, 15.9/16.9, 20.7/22.0
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.62/4.38, 4.23/3.67
Comments: Remember what I said about sometimes velocity loss being the precursor for injury? Perez it seems will be ending his season as he prepares for Tommy John surgery in the upcoming weeks. It's too bad.
2013/2014 Velocity: 95.9/93.7 (loss of 2.2 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 7.1/9.2, 30.8/26.8, 25.8/22.3
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.12/5.65, 3.16/4.06
Comments: When a young pitcher who relies on a dominant fastball loses some of the edge on that fastball at the same time he experiences some command problems and a dip in his strikeout rate, bad things usually follow. And it's plain to see that bad things have in fact followed for Danny Salazar. He doesn't look anything like the dominant young starter we saw at the tail end of last season, and while I'm no where near ready to give up on him long term, I'm afraid he's going to need to get back some of that edge on his fastball or make some dramatic improvements in the effectiveness of the rest of his arsenal if he's going to be what we all hopped he'd be in the preseason.
2013/2014 Velocity: 93.4/91.2 (loss of 2.2 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 7.3/7.8, 17.2/ 14.2, 18.4/22.4
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.26/3.22, 3.60/4.14
Comments: Morton is another player who has seen an across the board dip in his overall numbers as his velocity has declined between seasons. While it would be unfair to blame all of his struggles on his velocity loss the fact of the matter is none of his numbers look good so far this year. Unless I see an uptick in some of his underlying numbers, he's very much a matchup guy for me. Start him against the Cubs, but run for the hills when the As come into town.
2013/2014 Velocity: 94.0/92.3 (loss of 1.7 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 8.7/8.5, 23.6/21.2, 15.3/17.1
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.17/3.02, 3.20/3.99
Comments: I liked Tyson Ross a lot coming into this season and honestly I still do. While a lot of his success so far is predicated on a low home run allowed rate, he also has the secondary stuff and the home park advantage that should produce a pitcher with a somewhat below average homer rate. As long as he can keep his strikeout rate above 20% and continue to produce the way he has been, I'd continue to trust Ross against most offenses. There's also always the hope that some of that velocity will come back as the season progresses, but even if it doesn't I still think he can be a useful arm going forward.
2013/2014 Velocity: 91.3/89.6 (loss of 1.7 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 7.2/4.8, 19.3/23.0, 22.3/22.1
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 4.78/5.28, 4.10/4.76
Comments: I went into Sabathia's case at length earlier so I won't rehash it here for you guys. Check the intro paragraphs if you're interested in him.
2013/2014 Velocity: 88.9/87.2 (loss of 1.7 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 4.3/4.3, 21.1/17.9, 21.9/21.3
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 4.67/2.84, 4.09/2.97
Comments: The key to Dan Haren's success in recent years has never been his fastball. It's been his pinpoint command, the strength of his secondary stuff, especially his cutter and splitter, and most importantly the health of his back. While I'm not overly worried about Haren's velocity loss, I am concerned over the reports that I've been reading of him already experiencing “minor back tightness.” If you're an owner I'd monitor his situation carefully. The wheels on this bus have fallen off before and they can do it again.
2013/2014 Velocity: 92.1/90.4 (loss of 1.7 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 10.3/10.8, 25.0/20.2, 19.8/25.0
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.30/4.02, 3.43/4.27
Comments: Remember how everyone was flipping out last year in the second half because Ubaldo had regained some of the lost life on his fastball and was dominating the admittedly poor offenses he was facing from the All Star Break on? Well that's gone now. The velocity is back down, the walks are as high as ever, the strikeouts are down, the line drives are up, and his ERA is back to being just north of 4.00. I was never a big Ubaldo fan in the preseason and I'm still not. He's a matchup guy at best.
2013/2014 Velocity: 93.3/91.8 (loss of 1.5 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 6.7/7.7, 28.7/31.6, 19.0/20.6
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 2.90/2.04, 2.74/2.80
Comments: I love Max Scherzer. Look at that strikeout rate and just gape in wonder with me. If this is what he can do with a mile and a half off his fastball, here's to hoping it never comes back. He is now what he was last year: a studly stud.
2013/2014 Velocity: 89.3/87.8 (loss of 1.5 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 4.6/10.9, 15.3/16.0
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 4.75/4.88, 5.06/4.54
Comments: Velocity loss aside, you really shouldn't be using Danks outside of a very deep league. He's not a terribly good pitcher.
2013/2014 Velocity: 94.8/93.6 (loss of 1.2 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 7.2/7.6, 19.2/18.3, 19.1/24.5
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.22/5.16, 4.07/3.44
Comments: Archer has been terrible so far this season, and that ineffectiveness has been largely due to spike in his Line Drive rate that you see above. It's hard to get by with a K% under 20% and a LD% of almost 25%. I don't really see a reason he should continue to struggle going forward though. Remember that on average .8mph of fastball loss comes back as the season progresses, so Archer's 'true velocity' loss could be as little as 0.4mph. It could be even lower if he gets more back than average. He still has the secondary stuff that made him such an impressive prospect and he's still backed by one of the best defenses in baseball in a very good pitchers park. For now I'd play the matchups with Archer but I could easily see him getting back to a point where a top 15 offense doesn't automatically mean bench time for this young arm.
2013/2014 Velocity: 92.4/91.3 (loss of 1.1 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 8.4/11.0, 26.1/19.1, 19.2/25.6
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 3.30/3.13, 2.80/4.35
Comment: AJ Burnett is the perfect example of a sell high candidate. He's lost about 1mph on his fastball because he happens to be pitching through a sports hernia at the moment. Every single one of his underlying numbers are trending in the wrong direction and there's a point and a half difference between his ERA and FIP. How he's had the remarkable success he has had so far is a mixture of commendable perseverance and grit on his part as well as a very large dose of good fortune. If his underlying numbers stand pat the way they are, which they should do as long as he's pitching hurt, I wouldn't expect anything lower than a 3.50 ERA going forward. Sell now.
2013/2014 Velocity: 91.6/90.5 (loss of 1.1 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 5.7/3.5, 19.3/16.9, 21.1/28.7
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 4.32/3.22, 3.53/3.08
Porcello's bread and butter has never really been a dominant fastball, and in terms of real velocity loss he probably hasn't lost much off of it going forward. Instead his issues are largely tied to the spike in his LD rate and bad fortune on balls put in play. He doesn't strike many guys out, but he limits his walks remarkably well to offset this. If you're going to take a lottery ticket on Porcello it's all tied to the hope he figures out his contact problems, and I have to believe that a LD rate of 28.7% is pretty unsustainable for a guy with his track record. For now though he's a matchup guy, albeit one with upside considering his potential.
2013/2014 Velocity: 91.1/90.0 (loss of 1.1 mph)
2013/2014 BB%, K%, LD%: 5.9/9.4, 17.6/18.9, 22.5/23.4
2013/2014 ERA, FIP: 4.89/4.08, 4.63/4.14
Comments: In our standard game, Hernandez isn't really relevant outside of the most perfect matchups. The minor velocity loss isn't the issue with him. He's just not very good.