When writing about statistics, there’s always the matter of finding the right balance between brevity and significance. Oftentimes, you’ll want to use filters, for purposes of proper analysis, and these filters show up as written qualifiers. Too many qualifiers, though, will turn off an audience, because audiences want numbers to be pretty easily consumable. It can already be difficult to try to sell numbers to readers; there’s a responsibility on the writer’s part to keep readability in mind.
You run into this all the time in baseball analysis, because there are virtually infinite ways to whittle a sample smaller and smaller. Every split is a qualifier. But some are just necessary, and there’s no other way around it. Like, with pitchers, you just have to separate starters and relievers. Starters need to be compared only to starters, and relievers need to be compared only to relievers, because they’re entirely different jobs. You’ve got marathon runners and hurdlers. What they have in common is that they throw baseballs, but they throw baseballs in different ways, and they use their bodies in different ways, and they prepare in different ways, and so they should be treated as distinct player pools. You don’t compare Aroldis Chapman to Yu Darvish. You compare Chapman to Craig Kimbrel, and Darvish to Max Scherzer. Not separating pitchers is at best irresponsible.
Some of the focus in this post will be on starting pitchers. Much of the focus in this post will be on Yordano Ventura.
Tuesday night, the Royals played an important game against the Indians, and the Royals lost it. That’s bad for them, but thankfully in time it won’t matter, because we’ll all be dead. The game was lost by the Royals’ bullpen, after the game was started by top-prospect Ventura, who was making his big-league debut. Ventura has gotten people excited, and at times Tuesday, Ventura was exciting.
Last November, Marc Hulet ranked Ventura as the Royals’ third-best prospect. Shortly thereafter, the team made a trade. Ventura stayed healthy and effective, and in July, MLB.com ranked Ventura as the Royals’ second-best prospect. People have questioned his secondary stuff, and people have questioned his command. Ventura’s still developing, and because of his profile, there’s a non-zero chance he ends up a reliever. But he has one particular standout skill. From Hulet’s writeup:
A contact I spoke with placed an 80 grade on the Dominican native’s heater[...]
Ventura is a flame-thrower. Flame-throwing is one of them sustainable skills, so Ventura’s first pitch Tuesday was 96 miles per hour. His second was 96. His third was a paltry 94. His seventh was 98. Ventura immediately put his heat on display, but he didn’t peak in the first. By velocity, he peaked in the third.
I’m just going to put a number out there: 101.9. Facing Yan Gomes, with two out in the top of the third, Yordano Ventura threw a fastball that Gameday captured at 101.9 miles per hour. It was the third of three pitches that Ventura threw in the game that reached triple digits, but his next-fastest was 100.7. Ventura beat that by more than a tick. As noted, there were two outs in the inning. There were also two strikes, and a ball, and no one on base. Ventura apparently reached back for something extra, to try to close the frame, and something extra is what he found.
You know that number is remarkable, but maybe you don’t know how remarkable it really is. Let’s look at the numbers since 2008, covering the reliable bit of the PITCHf/x era. Here are all the pitchers to throw a pitch at least 101.9 miles per hour:
Relievers. Chapman’s a reliever. Rondon’s a reliever. Zumaya’s a reliever. Feliz was a reliever when he threw these pitches. Cashner was a reliever when he threw these pitches. Ventura is the only starter in the table.
Indeed, among starting pitchers, Yordano Ventura just threw the fastest pitch at least of the PITCHf/x era. It’s important to separate starters from relievers because relievers throw harder, because they don’t have to pace themselves. I don’t know where Ventura might top out if he only had to throw one inning. I do know he topped out at 101.9, having to throw multiple innings. The next-fastest pitch by a starter was, of course, thrown by Justin Verlander, and Ventura beat him by a few tenths.
It’s not absolutely conclusive — PITCHf/x isn’t perfect, and sometimes it misses pitches, and sometimes velocity readings aren’t 100% accurate. But there’s nothing real fishy about the other pitchers’ readings Tuesday in Kansas City, so I feel all right about this. There’s a record of Verlander breaking 103 in the 2011 playoffs, but PITCHf/x was hot that day, inflating Verlander’s achievement. My sense is that Ventura set at least a recent-years record, which is pretty notable.
Or, if you prefer:
ESPN Stats/Info: Yordano Ventura 101.9 mph fastball in third inning to Yan Gomes was fastest pitch thrown by any starter in last 5 seasons.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) September 18, 2013
Ventura’s 22, and as we know, fastball velocity tends to decline with age, starting young. Ventura, also, was probably pretty amped up, trying to close an inning at home in his major-league debut. I don’t know if he’ll ever top 101.9, but this record is his until somebody beats it, and I don’t like those odds. Maybe it’s not actually his record, because of PITCHf/x misreadings or whatever, but this is the best I can do, and it’s probably right. Ventura probably owns the fastest pitch thrown by a starter of this era.
Also, that pitch was hit for a line-drive single. Ahead of Gomes 1-and-2, with two outs and none on, Ventura threw the fastest pitch thrown by a starter recently, and Gomes singled to center, just in front of a diving Jarrod Dyson. Chapman has allowed a single at 102.1. He’s allowed two singles at 102.0. It’s Ventura we find at 101.9. And for an explanation, we should consider the four-pitch at-bat:
That’s 99, 99, 98, and 102. What’s more is that it’s four fastballs all in similar locations in or around the strike zone:
Gomes knew Ventura had other pitches, even if he hadn’t seen them himself. He knew Ventura might go to a curve ahead with two strikes. And you can prepare only so much for a fastball at 102 miles per hour. But Ventura didn’t give Gomes a single different look. He threw four straight similar fastballs, allowing Gomes to get his timing, and then the fourth was the most hittable around thigh level, with Gomes drilling the ball back up the middle.
This is the other of the broken records: while a 100 mile-per-hour fastball is impressive, we all know that a big-league hitter can hit 100 if it isn’t used properly. Velocity gives a pitcher a greater margin of error, but Gomes hardly looked uncomfortable, because what actually happened was that he got a hittable fastball in a swinging count. We didn’t learn anything new about the game Tuesday. We knew that hitters can hit blazing heat, if it’s left hittable. Gomes provided a reminder, off an otherwise seemingly record-setting pitch.
One notes that Ventura generated just two swinging strikes, and two foul tips. One notes that, in Triple-A, Ventura allowed more than a hit an inning. We always figure that strikeouts follow velocity, and there is a relationship there, but it’s not perfect, what with the other considerations, and at present Ventura has some other considerations. He does still have work to do to improve. He could still end up in the bullpen. He won’t always be able to throw as hard as he can today, barring scientific miracles that appear unlikely due to under-funding. Fund science. Science could save Yordano Ventura, and lives.
You want a simple example of how major leaguers are really really good? Tuesday, Yordano Ventura threw probably the fastest pitch by a starter in at least a few years. It was hit on a line for a single. These people do things you can’t. This game is so hard.
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