Early Season Velocity Update

During the first month of the season, you seemingly couldn’t watch a game without seeing a pitcher throwing at reduced velocity to what he’d shown in the past. Between Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Justin Masterson, and Roy Halladay, MLB had a long and distinguished list of starters who weren’t throwing as hard as they had in prior years. However, April is known for the lowest temperatures of the season, and colder weather is historically associated with lower pitch speeds, so there were reasons to think that many of these pitchers would find their fastballs again as we got closer to summer.

And, as expected, many of the reduced velocity guys in April have been throwing harder in the first three weeks of May. Because we’re still called FanGraphs, let’s illustrate these gains with graphs.

CC Sabathia:

Sabathia’s following the same trend as last year, when he started the year in the 91-94 range before getting it back to the mid-90s during the summer. After averaging 91.7 with his fastball in April, he’s up to 92.7 in May, and given what we saw from him last year, it’s probably not long before he’s sitting above 93 again.

Justin Masterson:

While Masterson hasn’t exactly figured out his command issues yet, his fastball is at least coming back to life, which can only help him in his continuing battle to get left-handers out. While a BABIP spike has hidden his improvement from a results standpoint, everything is pointing in the right direction for Cleveland’s ace – his walk rate went down, his strikeout rate and groundball rates went up, and he went back to keeping balls in the yard. While he’s not pitching as well as he did last year, he’s at least shown some signs of getting back closer to what he was last year, and the guy throwing 90 MPH meatballs in April is becoming more of a distant memory.

Roy Halladay:

While the Phillies ace raised some eyebrows with 88 MPH fastballs in spring training – and then carried that over to the regular season – his fastball has returned to normal fairly quickly. While PITCHF/x is now classifying all of his fastballs as two-seamers instead of four-seamers, his average velocity in May has been 91.3 MPH (up from 90.3 MPH in April), not far off what his four-seamer was clocked at in 2011. His strikeouts have returned with the velocity spike as well, and you can probably hold off on writing any obituaries about Halladay’s dominance – he’s still fantastic.

Along with those three, Neftali Feliz (up +1.3 MPH from April), John Danks (up +1.1 MPH), Phil Hughes (up +1.2 MPH), and Ryan Vogelsong (up +1.0 MPH) have all seen their velocity return closer to prior levels, easing concerns about their early season fastballs – if not, in Danks’ case, about his ability to get people out.

Not every April fastball laggard has seen his fastball come back in May, however.

Tim Lincecum:

Lincecum’s struggles have been the focus of much attention, and the calendar hasn’t brought him much help as of yet. His fastball is up ever so slightly, going from 89.8 in April to 90.1 in May, but that’s a small enough difference to not be overly meaningful, and his command is still missing in action as well. He’s still getting a lot of strikeouts due to his change-up, but without the ability to throw his fastball for strikes, he’s continuing to fall behind too many hitters and simply not perform up to his own standards. He’s lost velocity and gotten it back before, so perhaps there’s still a resurgence coming, but Lincecum is clearly not what he used to be.

Felix Hernandez:

Unlike the other pitchers profiled here, Felix’s velocity in May is actually even lower than it was in April, and even further down than it was a year ago. Because his change-up and breaking pitches are so good, the loss of velocity hasn’t had much of an impact on King Felix, but it will be interesting to see if he can continue to dominate if his fastball keeps going south. To put his velocity in context, Felix’s fastball in May came in at the same average speed as teammate Kevin Millwood. Fastball speed isn’t everything, but it is something, and I’d imagine the Mariners would be happier if Felix started flashing 95 every once in a while.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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