If I had to distill the core purpose of FanGraphs down to a two-word remark, I’d assert that the purpose is to “answer questions”. Given a third word, I’d assert that the purpose is to “answer baseball questions”. That’s really what we’re all doing here; that’s really what we’re all doing almost all of the time. Many of the questions we try to answer here are important, in a baseball sense. They’re questions like “is this player good?” and “is this player going to be good?” and “why is this player good?” Other questions are less important, like “how many players bunted for doubles in the 2012 regular season?” I specialize in examining the unimportant questions, and today we’ll tackle another.
The goal is expressed in the headline: I want to talk about who’s going to throw the fastest pitch in the upcoming baseball season. There’s no trophy for the achievement (yet), and the fastest pitch might not even go for a strike, but we’re a people who love us some fastball velocity, to the extent that we dress it up with fancy words like “velocity” instead of simpler, more accurate words like “speed”. Surely, a player would be honored to know if he threw the league’s fastest pitch in a season. Pitchers like velocity, too. We all think velocity is important, so let’s talk about the pitch with the most velocity.
As a necessary part of talking about 2013, we first have to talk about 2012. According to PITCHf/x, this was the fastest pitch of the 2012 season:
That’s Kelvin Herrera, throwing to Don Kelly on April 17. The fastball is in the books at 102.8 miles per hour. That’s tops by one-tenth of a tick. However, the pitch was thrown in Kansas City, and Kauffman Stadium has a long history of slightly inflating PITCHf/x velocities. I’m not a PITCHf/x expert, but Herrera’s best fastball on the road was 100.6 miles per hour. At home, he threw 23 better fastballs, including 14 at or above 101. I’m inclined to believe an adjustment needs to be made, and so I’m inclined to believe Herrera didn’t actually throw 2012’s fastest pitch.
Right behind Herrera at 102.8 is Aroldis Chapman at 102.7. And there’s also Aroldis Chapman at 102.6. Those pitches:
Those were actually consecutive pitches to Starlin Castro on August 11. If you sort all 2012 pitches by speed, Herrera’s up top, and then Chapman occupies spots two through six. It’s my belief that Aroldis Chapman actually threw 2012’s fastest pitch, which is the least surprising thing you’ve heard today, including your own alarm clock which you set yourself.
The next pitch, incidentally, was a curveball, taken for a called strike three. Justin Verlander isn’t real. He isn’t a real thing. And here’s Bobby Parnell against Yan Gomes on May 20, with a fastball also clocked at 101.5 miles per hour:
And those are the five pitchers who, at some point in 2012, threw fastballs recorded at at least 101.5 miles per hour. The first thing we have to do when looking ahead is to look back, so it stands to reason that, when thinking about 2013’s fastest pitch, we need to start with 2012’s fastest pitchers.
All right, that’s our foundation. Chapman, last year, probably threw baseball’s fastest pitch. However! While Chapman might once again close, the Reds haven’t yet decided whether he’ll spend the year in the starting rotation. Chapman as a starter would work with reduced velocity, of course, because he’d have to pace himself instead of putting everything into everything. I still think of Chapman as the odds-on favorite to throw 2013’s fastest pitch, because he might close out of the gate, or because he might go back to relieving midseason if starting doesn’t work out. Hell, maybe as a starter, at some point he’ll just reach back for gas. But Chapman isn’t a lock, here, opening things up to other contenders.
Herrera is a contender, as he’ll continue relieving for the Royals, but we can’t trust his inflated home velocities unless PITCHf/x makes a correction. Cashner throws a fastball not unlike Chapman’s, but Cashner also is getting stretched out so that he can start for the Padres. Cashner as a starter would also have to pace himself, and while Cashner, like Chapman, might not work out over multi-inning stints, our assumption right now has to be that Cashner won’t be scraping legitimate 102s. We can’t assume a return to the bullpen, given the Padres’ plans.
If you dock Herrera for PITCHf/x adjustments, and if you move Chapman and Cashner to starting rotations, then other candidates emerge. Verlander, as we all know now, heats up as he works deeper, and he throws a legitimate triple-digit fastball when he wants to. Parnell also has gas, and it looks like he’s going to close, fueling his body with adrenaline. Verlander and Parnell topped out at 101.5. But Henry Rodriguez topped out around 101. Nate Jones topped out around 101. Trevor Rosenthal topped out around 101, and he’s staying as a reliever for the time being. Carter Capps topped out around 101. Fernando Rodney topped out around 100, as did Tommy Hunter and Jason Motte. Keep scrolling and you see John Axford a little and Alexi Ogando, once.
And, of course, there’s a new guy coming up with the Tigers, with prospect Bruce Rondon slated to take over as closer. Rondon didn’t throw a major-league pitch in 2012, but:
Al Avila said he’s seen Rondon throw 103 m.p.h.: “He’s got a real good slider and people don’t realize this, he’s got a good change-up.”
— George Sipple (@GeorgeSipple) January 26, 2013
Brooks Baseball has a four-fastball sample for Rondon, averaging 102.1 miles per hour. On the other hand, that’s from last year’s Futures Game, and that game took place in Kansas City, with the Kauffman Stadium PITCHf/x system. So Rondon’s numbers are probably inflated, and he’s probably more of a 95-100 type. But the expectation is that on more than a few occasions he’ll reach triple digits.
Barring surprise, this is our pool of candidates, although I’m open to further suggestions in the comments in case I’ve missed some other minor-league reliever. It’s probably worth giving some consideration to Rubby de la Rosa. I still have to believe it’s going to be Chapman, because I’m not sold on Chapman starting games all season long. As a reliever, his arm is nearly unparalleled. But if Chapman starts all year, and if Cashner starts all year or gets hurt, this is practically wide open. Whoever wins would win by a hair, and if you leave out Chapman and Cashner, I don’t think it’s possible to identify one favorite. This could and should be a race to monitor, and perhaps by season’s end the winner might be made aware of the fact that he won something. Or, more likely, the winner will have no idea, and it won’t make any difference in anybody’s life.
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