The Pirates and Their Continuing Search for Velocity

On May 12, 2015, Pirates relief pitcher Arquimedes Caminero
reached 103 mph in the ninth inning against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, according to Brooks Baseball. The pitch was the fastest thrown by a Pirates pitcher in the PITCHf/x era.

Four days later at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Gerrit Cole hit 101.8 mph.

The pitch was thrown with the greatest velocity by a pitcher drafted and developed by the Pirates under general manager Neal Huntington.

While the average fastball velocity has increased in the majors each year during the PITCHf/x era to a record 92.6 mph last season, the Pirates have consistently outpaced the industry’s velocity gains under Huntington.

In Huntington’s first full year as the club’s general manager in 2008, the Pirates’ average fastball was 90.9 mph, ranking 19th in the majors. In 2015, when the Pirates amassed 98 wins, the club led the majors in average fastball velocity (94.0 mph). The Pirates became the first team to average 94 mph for a season, only to be topped by the Yankees this past season (94.1 mph). The Pirates finished second in baseball in average fastball velocity (93.4 mph) in 2016, according to the FanGraphs leaderboards.

pirates-velocity

This trend is no accident. The Pirates have hunted velocity.

They have sought it out in trades and free agency, and they have targeted it – and tried to project it – in the draft. The underlying reason they have valued it more than the industry?

“[Velocity] gives you a larger margin for error,” said Huntington when I asked him about the velocity preference when writing for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Ninety-four [mph] that runs and gets too much of the plate has much more margin for error than 88 [mph] that runs and gets too much of the plate.”

And there might be something to trying to create as much margin for error through velocity as possible. From 2009 to -16, teams with top-10 average fastball velocities accounted for 35 of MLB’s 74 playoff berths.

There are always preferences when evaluating pitchers and the Pirates have given velocity a priority when exploring the free agent and trade markets.

The Pirates have earned a reputation for rehabbing pitchers. The common thread of most projects they target? A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez all possessed above-average velocity. The same can be said of Caminero, Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio and others. At the deadline, the Pirates traded their closer Mark Melancon for perhaps the second-hardest throwing lefty reliever in the game in Felipe Rivero. The Pirates even looked for velocity at the end of the baseball world, finding John Holdzkom hitting the upper 90s at Sioux Falls Stadium in the independent American Association in 2014. Later that summer, he was in the Pirates bullpen.

The Pirates were able to help Burnett, Liriano and Volquez lessen their command woes. They were able to get buy-in on pitch type and location to improve performance through their ground-ball plan. The Pirates have prized velocity in part because it is something that cannot easily be taught or gained. It is in large part a physical gift, though strength-and-training advances and specialized throwing programs have helped some pitchers – none perhaps as dramatically as Steve Delabar who went from substitute teaching to averaging 94.7 mph in 2011 with Toronto.

The Pirates went away from their preferred model last winter in trading for Jon Niese and signing Ryan Vogelsong, though hard-throwing arms Feliz and Nicasio did meet their velocity standards. The Pirates went away from their model, Huntington said, in part because the club can ill afford to limit its market, and the industry has begun to value players more similarly. In large part due to pitching deficiencies, the Pirates missed the postseason last season after three straight trips to the NL Wild Card game.

To create a consistent pipeline of quality, high-velocity arms the Pirates have also sought out velocity in the draft.

While the 21st-century arm is thought to be adversely affected through a flawed amateur-development process that includes too many showcase workouts, too much year-round throwing, and too much effort to max out for radar guns (see: Tommy John surge), it has resulted in a generation of arms that throws harder then any preceding it.

At the Pirates’ spring-training minor- and major-league clubhouses in recent years, it seemed as if the club either had an assembly line producing long-limbed, right-handed pitching prospects or was mistakenly drafting Division I tight ends.

On sun-soaked back fields, there was the 6-foot-5 Nick Kingham, 6-foot-6 Jameson Taillon and 6-foot-7 Tyler Glasnow. Taillon and Glasnow debuted last season.

The Pirates made an uncommon commitment to drafting prep arms in the 2009-11 drafts, spending 22 of their first 30 picks in those drafts on pitchers, 17 being prep arms. The Pirates were searching for future aces before they were future aces. The Pirates were also hunting for velocity.

The Pirates chose Taillon’s arm – he hit 99 mph as a high-school senior – over Manny Machado in the 2010 draft.

With the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the Pirates selected Cole, who was touching 100 mph at UCLA. But four rounds later they selected Glasnow, who couldn’t hit 90 mph at his Southern California high school. The Pirates drafted velocity (like Cole and Taillon) but they successfully projected it with Glasnow.

In the spring of Glasnow’s junior year, Pirates area scout Rick Allen watched Glasnow top out at 83 mph in high-school games. Other scouts left Glasnow’s starts early to beat Southern California traffic. Allen stayed.

By 2014, Glasnow was touching the upper 90s and rocketing up prospect lists.

“What our guys have taught me, basically, is, ‘Let’s go out and find guys we can mold.’ It doesn’t have to be the perfect delivery, but if it’s workable and the kid is athletic… we can probably make him better. It’s really a great job by our player development staff,” Allen said back in 2014. “The size, 6-foot-7, the loose arm and being just 17 at the draft, you just dream on it.”

Chad Kuhl is another success story from later in the draft, a ninth-rounder out of Delaware in 2013 who was touching 97 mph at the major-league level last summer.

The Pirates were one of the first believers in the power of pitch-framing, and the rest of the industry has adapted. The Pirates were one of the first clubs in the NL to embrace defensive shifts at a systematic level. Now shifts are a ubiquitous part of the game. Competitive advantages in a copy-cat industry can quickly evaporate. But sustaining a velocity edge requires draft and development, and with Taillon and Glasnow having arrived — and Kingham and others in the pipeline — perhaps this advantage the Pirates can better sustain.



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