Vazquez and Velocity

Perhaps no pitcher over the last decade has relied more on his fastball velocity than Javier Vazquez.

He isn’t a pure flamethrower averaging 94-95 mph on the gun and batters aren’t typically mystified by the separation between his heater and offspeed offerings. But when his velocity drops he turns into a pumpkin. Certain pitchers can lose velocity and remain effective. Tim Lincecum loses four or five miles per hour and pitches better

Vazquez loses 1-2 mph and suddenly resembles sub-replacement level dreck. From the beginning of last season through June 2011, his velocity dropped significantly and the results were predictably poor. The narrative that Vazquez had nothing left was perfectly fueled. He wasn’t posting solid peripherals while simultaneously being victimized by the luck dragon. He legitimately pitched poorly and looked washed up.

None of this is necessarily strange except when considering that his velocity somehow returned in the middle of the season. Since that point, Vazquez looks like his vintage self, and doesn’t look anywhere near done.

Having passed the 2,500 strikeout milestone this season, and continuing to pitch effectively, Vazquez might still pitch another few solid seasons and march towards the 3,000 strikeout holy ground. He would become the Johnny Damon of pitchers in a sense, a player whose stats certainly fall in line with previously established Hall of Fame benchmarks, but who doesn’t really feel like an all-timer.

Vazquez is having one of those gambler’s fallacy seasons. The fallacy directs gamblers to avoid thinking that extreme results in one area will automatically result in an extreme set of opposite results, evening everything out. In baseball the topic gets broached with respect to regression. It’s easy to conflate the actual meaning of regression and the idea that a good player stinking up the joint is suddenly going to turn on auto-correct.

But instead of performing at his established true talent level, he’ll go past that to compensate for the suckitude early on. Well, Vazquez’s season resembles the latter more than the former, even though the velocity uptick is directly attributable to the turn-around. Take a gander at the following data points:

Full 2010 w/Yankees: 6.9 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 5.32 ERA
Through Jun 11 2011: 6.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 7.09 ERA

The ERA estimators all spat at his work as well. This wasn’t the Javier Vazquez of old, whose ERA tends to exceed estimators due to an established and poor track record of success with runners on base. That Vazquez still pitched well. This was a Vazquez who struggled to get batters out, who didn’t miss bats anywhere near as frequently, and who walked batters at an uncharacteristically high rate.

After allowing seven earned runs on June 11 his ERA rose to 7.09, its high point of the season, and the point at which the Marlins organization and fans across baseball wondered when he might call it a career. Then, the velocity returned, and so did positive outcomes. Since that fateful June 11 start, Vazquez has the following numbers: 101 2/3 innings, 8.2 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.21 ERA.

In the same span, Roy Halladay has an 8.6 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 2.32 ERA in just 11 more innings thrown. Just some reference for Vazquez’s recent surge.

Per Michael Barr, Vazquez threw his four-seam fastball 40 percent of the time from the start of the season through June 11. The heater averaged 88.8 mph. Last season with the Yankees, it averaged 88.7 mph, but he threw the pitch 53 percent of the time. Perhaps he thought it best to go with more offspeed pitches as the season began to stave off the decline associated with his drop in velocity. It clearly didn’t work.

But what did work was getting that velocity back. Also according to Barr, from June 11 until now, Vazquez threw his fastball 53 percent of the time, and the pitch averaged 91.1 mph, right in line with his career. Velocity returned, results followed suit.

Vazquez serves as another illustration of how easy it is to prematurely render someone finished. Over the last several seasons we have considered David Ortiz washed up and finished at least twice. In the following season — both times — he hit like David Ortiz. And he can still rake. The same for Carlos Delgado, whose .258/.333/.448 in 2007, at age 35, made him appear finished. The following season he hit .271/.353/.518, and followed it up with 26 games at .298/.393/.521 in an injury-riddled 2009 season. His career ended due to injuries, not an inability to hit as many pegged in the Mets’ collapse campaign.

The major difference between Delgado/Ortiz and Vazquez is that the former tandem still showed signs of decent offense. The results weren’t necessarily pretty but the underlying data suggested they weren’t completely done. Vazquez, however, showed absolutely no signs of turning things around. In that regard, it wasn’t really premature to suggest he hang up his cleats. Mid-30s pitchers who lose 2 mph on their heaters seldom get that velocity back. Whether it was the end of a lengthy dead-arm phase, rejuvenated spirits and increased health, or pulling the plug on an experiment reducing velocity to preserve his arm, Vazquez began to throw harder, and by direct extension, pitch better.

Vazquez is one of the most confusing pitchers in baseball history, but at least he gives us an easy puzzle to solve: when his velocity goes, so do his results.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


15 Responses to “Vazquez and Velocity”

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  1. verd14 says:

    I actually had a bet that Javy wouldn’t reach 100k by the end of the season with a friend and it looked like a shoe in around early June. Can’t believe he turned it around, and I hope that he did it naturally.

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  2. Telo says:

    Something I like to do with pitchers is to look at their grouping on the game charts page:

    2011: http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxg.aspx?playerid=801&position=P&season=2011&date=0&dh=0

    2010: http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxg.aspx?playerid=801&position=P&season=2010&date=0&dh=0

    2009: http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxg.aspx?playerid=801&position=P&season=2009&date=0&dh=0

    Open up all three of these links in tabs, and make sure they scrolled to the same position. Then click between them. It gives you an idea of how much more of less each pitch was breaking in each year.

    While I agree with you that pure velocity is a factor for every single pitcher, and his FA surely benefited from his increased velocity, were seeing a drastic difference in his two breaking balls. He was simply floating his SL and CU in 09, despite throwing them at a normal velocity. Considering the fact that by pitch LWTS these were the biggest culprits for his demise in pinstripes, I think there is more to the story.

    Correlation (FA velocity) may not imply causation here. I’m betting that he could cut it as pretty a good pitcher with a 89MPH FA, as along as he was really spinning his CU and SL.

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    • Telo says:

      “He was simply floating his SL and CU in 09” should be ’10 obviously

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    • Telo says:

      Another interesting pitcher to do this for is Josh Beckett. And it Dave Cameron is going to owe me 5 dollars because because his ROS Babip is going to be under .280. He is burying his curveball like vintage Beckett, and his cutter is pretty much elite. Great cutters have tiny babips. Not sure about CU, but I’m guessing they are lower than average too.

      You can paypal me, Dave.

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    • Telo says:

      No response to compelling evidence in direct opposition of the thesis of the article… k.

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      • phoenix2042 says:

        people would be much more likely to respond to this interesting argument if you didn’t post things like that last one: “No response to compelling evidence in direct opposition of the thesis of the article… k.” just thought i’d let you know how to get your (actually pretty good) point across in a way that fosters lively, respectful debate, rather than inciting indignant snubbing.

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  3. I am in no way saying you took from my article (not many viewers over at the site) but I wrote on this very subject two days ago here: http://mlbdirt.com/2011/09/12/javier-vazquezs-new-approach/

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  4. baumann says:

    I like the “pulling the plug on an experiment reducing velocity to preserve his arm” explanation, which seems to coincide with Jonathan’s look at the situation. It might be nice to look at a game-by-game pitch selection post-June-11 and see if there’s a gradual increase in his four-seamer usage and velocity, or if it happened immediately. If it’s immediate, it seems that a particularly awful start and rumors of an imminent release could cause him to say “f— it” and resume throwing harder.

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  5. Still can’t believe Javy is the leading K man among active hurlers.

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  6. phoenix2042 says:

    i find the whole velocity thing to be really sketchy. how does a guy magically regain 2mph on his heater after having it be down for almost 300 innings? i mean was there a report of different mechanics? different mindset (more of a reliever: throw harder for shorter time)? or is there actually no explanation for his increased velocity? i mean if an aging pitcher could just flip a switch and say “i feel like pitching faster from now on” i figure that most of them would do it. i’m not going to cry “PEDs,” because that’s simply too easy and convenient an explanation, not to mention hard to do undiscovered given the frequent testing. it just seems odd that a mid-late thirties pitcher suddenly gets their velocity back after being down for over an entire season.

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  7. plain_g says:

    the next great baseball movie: how javy got his groove back.

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  8. david says:

    what team is he even on these days?

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