Velocity Trends and Pitchers to Watch in 2013

I’ve written quite a bit this year about pitcher aging — specifically, trends in velocity loss for pitchers. There are two general findings that I want to revisit today and apply to pitchers from 2012; the predictive power of velocity loss in July and end of season velocity, and the impact of losing velocity in one season on next season’s velocity.

First, a pitcher’s velocity will tend to vary throughout the year. Trying to get a read on whether a pitcher is having trouble velocity-wise during a season is difficult if you simply compare to last year’s overall velocity. So I compared a pitcher’s velocity in each month to their velocity the previous year in that same month and found that pitchers who lose at least 1 mph of velocity in July are 13.7 times more likely to finish the entire year down at least 1 mph.

Second, 91% of pitchers that do finish a season down at least 1 mph compared to the previous season will lose additional velocity the following season (average decline of 1.6 mph), with only 7% regaining some (but, likely, not all) of that velocity back.

With the close of the 2012 season, I checked back on how well July-over-July velocity trends predicted full season declines as well as which pitchers ended the season losing over 1 mph off of their fastball.

Using PITCHf/x data, I calculated the average fastball velocity for all pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched this year and last year and that had the same role each year (i.e. pitchers needed to be either starters or relievers in both seasons to control for artificial velocity changes). For the fastball calculation, I included four-seam, two-seam, sinkers, and cutters. I then compared the average velocity for each pitcher, year-over-year.

Of those pitchers that were down at least 1 mph for the month of July compared to last July, 55% finished the season down at least 1 mph. Compare that to only 2% if they were not down at least 1 mph from last July. That means pitchers that were down at least 1 mph in July were 23 times as likely to finish the season down, more than–but in line with–the overall finding earlier this year (13.7 times as likely). If we just isolate to starting pitchers (>=150 IP in both years), the likelihood jumps to 42 times (86% versus 2%).

The amount of difference from July-to-July is also quite predictive of the year-to-year difference we see. Again, staying with just starting pitchers this season, the July-to-July difference in velocity explained about 70% of the variance in velocity difference, year-to-year (compared to ~60% in a larger study from 2003-2011). We would expect some relationship, since July velocity helps make up yearly velocity, but July is only one of six months that make up overall velocity. So, if you are looking for one, July velocity variation does appear to be a solid proxy for how a pitcher will finish the season.

Now that the season is over, here is the list of the 40 pitchers whose fastball velocity declined at least 1 mph from last season (I’ve included a few pitchers that lost -.9 just as a reference):

Pitcher FBv2012 FBv2011 Diff FBvJuly2012 FBvJuly Diff Role Injury Type Total Days Missed
Tim Hudson 87.7 90.2 -2.5 86.7 -4.0 S back 26
Roy Halladay 89.4 91.2 -1.8 89.2 -1.9 S back 50
Tim Lincecum 90.3 92.1 -1.8 90.5 -1.2 S
Josh Beckett 90.7 92.3 -1.6 90.5 -1.6 S shoulder 18
Jeremy Affeldt 91.5 93.0 -1.5 91.5 -2.2 R knee 15
Bartolo Colon 90.1 91.6 -1.5 90.6 -1.2 S oblique 15
Sean Burnett 89.9 91.4 -1.5 90.3 -1.4 R
Tommy Hanson 89.6 91.1 -1.5 89.8 -1.1 S back 17
Sergio Romo 87.7 89.2 -1.5 87.6 -1.6 R
Erik Bedard 89.2 90.7 -1.5 89.8 -1.4 S
Clay Hensley 85.7 87.1 -1.4 85.4 -1.7 R groin 15
CC Sabathia 92.3 93.7 -1.4 92.4 -2.0 S hip/elbow 37
Kenley Jansen 91.8 93.2 -1.4 91.2 -2.4 R
Barry Zito 82.3 83.8 -1.4 82.8 -0.8 S
Jered Weaver 87.7 89.1 -1.4 88.0 -1.1 S back 22
Ubaldo Jimenez 92.6 93.8 -1.3 92.9 -1.3 S
Bobby Parnell 95.8 97.1 -1.3 96.1 -1.5 R
Jonny Venters 93.7 94.9 -1.2 93.2 -2.5 R elbow 16
Matt Belisle 90.8 92.1 -1.2 90.7 -1.3 R
Everett Teaford 90.3 91.5 -1.2 89.8 -2.8 R abdomen 25
Brandon League 95.2 96.4 -1.2 95.9 -0.8 R
Joel Hanrahan 95.8 97.0 -1.2 95.4 -1.4 R
Derek Holland 92.9 94.1 -1.2 92.7 -1.6 S shoulder 31
Mark Buehrle 83.3 84.5 -1.2 82.8 -2.3 S
Edwin Jackson 93.4 94.6 -1.1 92.9 -2.4 S
Matt Lindstrom 94.6 95.7 -1.1 94.4 -1.9 R finger 47
Jonathan Papelbon 93.8 94.9 -1.1 93.8 -1.2 R
Matt Thornton 94.7 95.8 -1.1 94.7 -1.0 R
Alex Cobb 90.0 91.1 -1.1 90.1 -1.2 S
Ervin Santana 91.7 92.7 -1.0 91.9 -0.7 S
R.A. Dickey 83.0 84.0 -1.0 83.4 -1.0 S
Ryan Dempster 89.6 90.5 -1.0 89.3 -1.8 S quadriceps/lat 37
Yovani Gallardo 91.7 92.6 -0.9 91.5 -1.6 S
James McDonald 91.7 92.6 -0.9 91.8 -1.2 S
Felix Hernandez 92.4 93.3 -0.9 92.6 -0.4 S
Vinnie Pestano 91.7 92.6 -0.9 92.9 0.0 R
Rafael Betancourt 91.3 92.2 -0.9 91.5 -1.0 R
David Robertson 92.1 93.0 -0.9 92.4 -1.1 R oblique 33
Doug Fister 88.9 89.8 -0.9 88.4 -0.8 S intercostal/side 47

Role refers to whether the pitcher was a starter (S) or reliever (R) in both 2011 and 2012. I’ve also listed whether the pitcher sustained an injury in 2012 and how many total days they spent on the disabled list (courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman).

Looking at the list, Tim Hudson jumps out as one of the bigger concerns heading into next season. Hudson’s velocity has been fairly consistent, year-to-year, since 2008, never once increasing or decreasing by more than .8 mph. This year, however, the 36-year-old experienced a decline of 2.5 mph. And while Hudson did manage to post solid numbers this year (once again posting a sub-100 ERA- and FIP-), his strikeout rate declined almost 4.5% to 13.6%–his lowest total since 2004.

Hudson’s velocity was down consistently in each month in 2012 compared to the same time last season. However, Hudson did miss 26 days with a back injury in April and it’s possibly this injury lingered throughout the year. Either way, a velocity drop of that magnitude for a 36-year-old pitcher should not be ignored. Ninety-one percent of pitchers in their thirties that suffered at least a 1 mph velocity loss lost additional velocity the following year–a rate 1.5 times that of pitchers in their thirties that didn’t lose at least 1mph.

The Braves feature another front-line starter on the list; Tommy Hanson. 2012 represented Hanson’s second straight season where his fastball declined by more than 1.5 mph. Hanson declined to an average velocity of 91.1 in 2011 and all the way down to 89.6 this past season. That is not the trend one wants to see for a 25-year-old righty.

A number of other high-profile starters litter the list.

Earlier this year I argued that we are starting to see evidence of CC Sabathia‘s decline, most notably because of the velocity drop he suffered this year. At that time, Sabathia’s velocity was down over 1 mph from the previous June. CC subsequently spent time on the disabled list for a hip strain from June 25 through July 17 and again for elbow soreness in August. Those trips could explain some of the velocity loss, however he’s was never tracking to his established velocity.

If you take Sabathia’s average monthly velocity from 2009-2011 and compare it to last year it’s clear his problems began well before June (note the y-axis is truncated):

Sabathia ended April with an average velocity of just under 92 mph. Compare that to an average April velocity of roughly 93 mph the previous three years. Time on the disabled list likely explains why his velocity never increased the way it general does as the season progresses (cresting in July), but now that CC is heading to see Dr. James Andrews about his elbow the question will be whether he needs surgery to correct what appears to be an existing issue–albeit one that had not impacted his velocity in this way before. The Yankees should be concerned. From 2009-2011, Sabathia generated -20.5 runs per 100 fastballs clocked at less than 92.5 mph. This year, Sabathia generated 21.9 runs per 100 fastballs clocked under 92.5–virtually all of his fastballs. Sabathia still put up solid numbers in 2012 (ERA- 81, 23.7% K%, 5.3% BB%), but his HR/FB rate jumped to 12.5%–highest in his career. Eighteen of his 22 home runs allowed came on fastballs (82%). The previous three years? Only 56%. All great pitchers must adjust to reduced velocity at some point, but those adjustments typically take time.

The Phillies’ Roy Halladay suffered a 1.8 mph drop during his age-35 season. Halladay started April down 1.8 mph (89.1) from the previous April (90.9), and while his velocity did increase going forward it was only by the slightest of margins. Before Halladay suffered a back strain that landed him on the disabled list at the end of May, his fastball averaged 89.5 mph. After he came off the disabled list in July his velocity averaged 89.3–essentially, no improvement. Like Hudson, Halladay is on the wrong side of 30. So, despite a phenomenal work ethic, it’s likely that Halladay’s velocity won’t simply bounce back with the benefit of an off-season.

Tim Lincecum and Josh Beckett are two pitchers I previously identified as at-risk pitchers when it came to velocity this year and both finished down over 1.5 mph from last year. Lincecum’s velocity has been declining for some time now, but this year the drop was greater than we’ve seen recently and didn’t appear injury-related.

Beckett, who turned 32 this past season, saw his fastball decline 1.6 mph and hovered around 91 mph the entire year. Since 2008, Beckett’s biggest drop was previously .8 mph between 2009 and 2010. That previous dropped could be tied to a back injury that cost Beckett significant time. In 2011, Beckett’s velocity declined again, but only by .5 mph. This year, Beckett again spent time on the DL, but for a shoulder issue. Between the shoulder injury, age, and the significant drop and it’s possible Beckett’s average velocity next year drops into the low 90s-upper 80s.

I could spend another 2000 words writing about each of the pitchers on the list, but then my editor would kill me. Suffice it to say that these kinds of velocity drops warrant serious attention. There are a number of things that can cause these drops and may explain them away as episodic and isolated to last season, but the overall relationship between losing this much velocity and future velocity loss appears pretty clear–one typically follows the other.

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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.

31 Responses to “Velocity Trends and Pitchers to Watch in 2013”

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  1. Max says:

    Love this. Can we get an article on which pitchers gained the most velocity this year?

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  2. Irrational Optimist says:

    I’m surprised by Felix’s (relatively) small loss. I would have thought he lost much more watching him a couple times in the season (but little past June). He must have been close to average in July-Sept to make it average out ok.

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  3. Mr Punch says:

    The impact of velocity loss on overall performance presumably varies according to the extent of the pitcher’s reliance on the fastball – devastating for Beckett, apparently less so for Dickey.

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    • JRM says:

      Right. The two biggest things that matter:

      1. Fastball reliance. (<50% fastballs=not that important.)

      2. Handedness. Lefties can eat more velocity loss than righties.

      These articles are tremendous. I'd suggest putting them behind a very expensive paywall to prevent my stupid leaguemates from reading them (or having someone read them to them, explaining the hard words.)

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  4. Ex Deo says:

    I feel as though there’s a need to include that some of the guys on that list suffered through injuries that, while not landing them on the DL, could have hampered their performance. Sean Burnett with the bone spurs in his elbow, Kenley Jansen with the continued heart problems, etc.

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  5. Chris from Bothell says:

    I wonder if there’s data to spot those pitchers who seem to be changing their style to compensate for overall loss. Call it a “Craftiness Index” that goes up as their FB velo goes down.

    The CI would factor in things like getting better at location, changing speeds more, mixing pitches more, using changeups or curves more as out pitches, changing overall batted ball profile over time, etc.

    I’m sure someone smarter than me about how each of those components works (i.e. pretty much everyone) can opine on how much sample size you need to determine when something is noise vs. something that is indicative of deliberate changes and an actual skill involved.

    Maybe it’s something one can only look at fairly late in a pitcher’s career, as opposed to spotting it close to around the same season that FB velo goes down…

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  6. bcp33bosox says:

    Neat stuff! Love reading about this topic…

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  7. Brian says:

    Tommy Hanson isn’t a red flag, he is a red flag store. Braves should try to trade him for whatever they can get. He has major arm surgery in his future.

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    • diegosanchez says:

      They did well in that department with Jurrjens

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      • Atari says:

        Here is another example of the old adage, you can never have enough pitching. Last season the Braves were trying to unload starters, they had such an abundance of pitching. This year?

        Tim Hudson – Injuries, huge velocity decline, drop in performance.

        Tommy Hanson – Injuries, huge velocity decline, drop in performance.

        Jair Jurrjens – Ditto. Demoted to the minors.

        Arodys Vizcaino – Injured. Traded to Chicago. A relief pitcher now it seems.

        Julio Teheran – Not writing him off, but he didn’t pitch like people expected. Before the 2012 season he was considered by many the top pitching prospect in baseball. Many expected him in a major role on the major league roster at some point in 2012. Instead a 5.08 ERA in Triple A this season.

        Randall Delgado – He probably met or exceeded expectations. Average to slighly below average performance as a rookie. Not too bad for a rookie.

        A lot of frustration but maybe that should be balanced out by Kris Medlen pitching like the best pitcher in baseball when he was inserted into the rotation, Mike Minor turning his season around in the second half, and Paul Maholm stabilizing the rotation at the deadline. Anyways, I don’t think anyone is arguing the Braves have too much pitching now.

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  8. lemonjello says:

    Wouldn’t this calculation be thrown off if the pitcher changed their pitch mix? Presumably a pitcher who starts throwing fewer 4-seamers and more 2-seamers, sinkers, or cutters would see a drop in average velocity even if their 4-seam velocity remains constant. I’m not saying this is necessarily the explanation for any or all of these cases, but it’s hard to tell unless you break it down by fastball type. Is there a particular reason why you lumped all the fastballs together?

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  9. Dan says:

    Outstanding work.

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  10. Duck says:

    Interesting stuff.

    Im also interested in pitchers who saw their ‘velocity increase, particularly Rick Porcello.

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  11. dave says:

    Any thoughts on Dan haren? Although his cutter only lost .8 from last year, the rest of his pitches were down at least 1mph.

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  12. Baltar says:

    I noticed a bunch of Giants on this list. Does this indicate trouble for next year?

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  13. brian fawcett says:

    Hopefullly next we’ll see those whose velocity increased, yes?

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  14. Yikes, that loss for Jered Weaver does not look good.

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    • shoewizard says:

      yeah, he didn’t have much to give in the first place.

      Major collapse candidate for 2013

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      • Eric Cioe says:

        Agreed. There is no good reason a guy under 30 who broke in throwing 90-92 should be struggling to hit that now on his fastest pitches. It happened to Lincecum.

        Yes, they both have quality enough offspeed pitches to probably still have success, but it’s never a good sign to lose so much gas so young.

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  15. Madoff Withurmoni says:

    I’m not sure if this makes sense for any of the other pitchers, but in the case of Parnell, wasn’t it something that was intentional as the Mets consciously traded some velocity for more command in an effort to make him more of a complete pitcher instead of a thrower? Argument could be made he ended up having his best season to date because of this too.

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  16. Dean Travers says:

    How about rather than looking at velocity drop–look at pitchers whose fastball values were down the most?

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  17. Doug B says:

    As a Brewer fan Yovanni Gallardo on the list surprised me. His K-rate is the same as last season. The only problem he seemed to have is his control reverted back to his earlier seasons. Perhaps he just tried a different type of fastball more often in 2012 emphasising movement over velocity? I suppose this could be the case for a lot of guys.

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  18. Bill says:

    Can you look at the Chris Tillman case a bit more carefully. He did have such a big decline from his first appearance back in the bigs that it’s strange . I’m curious as to why he stayed so effective, regardless. In the past, lost velocity was his undoing.

    My personal pet theory is that he developed his use of a change-up and his excellent curve.

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  19. Rufus R. Jones says:

    I think the Royals’ Danny Duffy had a velocity increase this year, prior to his heading to the DL for Tommy John surgery.

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