Javier Vazquez’s Fastball Is Probably Not Coming Back

As RJ noted yesterday, the Marlins gave Javier Vazquez $7 million for the 2011 season, hoping for another rebound season after a switch back to the National League. Vazquez’s career peripherals are quite good, and he was one of the game’s best pitchers in 2009 with the Braves, so there are reasons to think that it is a reclamation project worth taking on. There’s also this:

Vazquez has been losing his top end fastball for several years, but last year his velocity fell off a cliff, averaging  just 88.7 MPH, down from 91.1 in 2009. While it is impossible to lay his struggles entirely on his missing fastball, it seems likely that his inability to get his high heat past hitters was directly responsible for a large part of his problems in 2010. As a guy who pitches up in the zone and gets a lot of flyballs, the ability to miss bats is crucial, and Vazquez simply couldn’t get hitters to swing through his primary pitch last year.

Any hope for Vazquez to return to prior form has to begin with the idea that his velocity will return to previous levels, or at least bounce back enough to allow him to succeed with the same gameplan he has used throughout his career. And, unfortunately for Vazquez and the Marlins, history doesn’t suggest that is likely.

For reference, here’s a list of starting pitchers who experienced velocity drops of 1+MPH from 2008 to 2009, and their corresponding 2010 “bounce back” velocities.

Ervin Santana: 2008 – 94.4 MPH; 2009 – 92.2 MPH; 2010 – 92.5 MPH
Tim Lincecum: 2008 – 94.1 MPH; 2009 – 92.4 MPH; 2010 – 91.3 MPH
Chris Young: 2008 – 87.2 MPH; 2009 – 85.8 MPH; 2010 – 84.7 MPH
Ross Ohlendorf: 2008 – 92.5 MPH; 2009 – 91.2 MPH; 2010 – 91.3 MPH
Aaron Cook: 2008 – 91.0 MPH; 2009 – 89.7 MPH; 2010 – 89.5 MPH
Dana Eveland: 2008 – 90.1 MPH; 2009 – 88.8 MPH; 2010 – 88.1 MPH
Oliver Perez: 2008 – 91.2 MPH; 2009 – 90.0 MPH; 2010 – 88.1 MPH
Brett Myers: 2008 – 90.1 MPH; 2009 – 89.1 MPH; 2010 – 89.3 MPH
Kevin Slowey: 2008 – 89.9 MPH; 2009 – 88.9 MPH; 2010 – 89.6 MPH
Jered Weaver: 2008 – 89.9 MPH; 2009 – 88.9 MPH; 2010 – 89.9 MPH

The list is not a pretty picture for Vazquez optimists. The three guys who experienced similarly sized velocity drops didn’t get any of the prior oomph on their fastballs back, and in the case of Lincecum and Young, velocity continued to erode. The only two guys who got back near their previous levels are Slowey and Weaver, who had the smallest loss of velocity to begin with.

It doesn’t get much better if you go back to the pitchers whose fastballs went missing in 2008, either. Scott Olsen, Rich Harden, Daniel Cabrera, Chris Young (again), and Randy Johnson all suffered significant drops in their average fastball and have never gotten back to what they used to be. There are a few positive examples in that sample, as both Justin Verlander and Yovani Gallardo now throw harder than they used to after losing something in 2008, but they’re both significantly younger than Vazquez with workloads a fraction of what he has been put under in his career.

Vazquez has thrown over 42,000 pitches in his big league career, throwing 200 or more innings every year from 2000 to 2009 with the exception of 2004, when he threw 198 innings. He might only be 34 years old, but he has the mileage of a pitcher nearing 40. Given his career workload, I wouldn’t bet on Vazquez’s fastball ever coming back. And if it doesn’t, well, the Marlins just risked $7 million in the hopes that he can teach himself how to pitch without his main weapon. That’s a pretty substantial risk for a team that isn’t exactly rolling in money.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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