Arrieta and Ubaldo: Early Velocity Observations

Sometimes us stats guys get accused of relying solely on esoteric metrics and watching nary a baseball game. Obviously, I cannot speak for everyone, but I would bet this is far from the truth. Though I am clearly not a professional scout, there are still easy things I can see on TV from a pitcher that can help us project his performance going forward. One of these is the pitcher’s velocity. We have learned that an increase of about 0.5 miles per hour in a pitcher’s fastball results in a similar gain of 0.5 in strikeout rate. Yesterday, I watched a lot of Jake Arrieta‘s start, and as I type this, I am watching Ubaldo Jimenez pitch.

Jake Arrieta

Years ago, Arrieta was one of the Orioles’ top pitching prospects and was also one of the better ones in the entire game. In High-A and Double-A in 2008 and 2009, he posted strikeout rates of well over a batter per inning, though his control was rather weak. His strikeout rates then fell dramatically upon his promotion to Triple-A in 2009 and 2010 and he went on to struggle at the big league level in 2010 and 2011. Last year, Arrieta’s season was cut short when he underwent surgery on his elbow to remove bone spurs. During spring training this year, he felt fully healthy and that he gained better control of his pitches as a direct result of the surgery. In his first start of the regular season, it was clear that this was not an exaggeration.

In 2010, his fastball averaged 92.7 miles per hour, while it dipped slightly to 92.4 last year. This season, however, my eyes bulged when I saw velocity readings consistently between 93 and 96. He was regularly throwing 94 and 95 and touching 96 every so often. His Brooks Baseball card which provides PITCHf/x data tells us that he actually averaged 94.6 miles per hour with his four-seamer. That is over two miles per hour higher than last season! To my untrained eye, it looked like a strong fastball as well, with good movement and “pop”. Though the fastball was harder than normal and looked good, it only generated a whiff rate of 1.9%, which is very low, so that’s a bit of a surprise. He also threw a nasty looking curve. If he can maintain this dramatically increased velocity and improved control, he could truly surprise. Pitching in a hitter’s ballpark in a tough division makes it that much harder, but he may well end up producing mixed league value.

Ubaldo Jimenez

We are all well aware of how disappointing Jimenez was last year. The primary culprit (aside from a high BABIP and low LOB%) was his huge drop in fastball velocity, from 96.1 in 2010 to just 93.5 in 2011. Based on reports and walk and strikeout rates during spring training, I went as far as to proclaim he will be worthless again in mixed leagues this year. As I watch him pitch against the Blue Jays, his results so far look a lot better than what I am seeing from him, as he is currently throwing a no hitter through four innings. But, his velocity is down even further from last year! His fastball has sat between 89 and 93 all game and I have not seen one pitch above that 93 mark.

Though his velocity was down last year, he still touched the high 90’s every so often. The fact that he has failed to reach even 94 is a serious concern. Of course, it’s only the first start of the season and many pitchers take a little while to get their velocity back up to a regular season level. I wouldn’t bank on it, however, and given his good results so far, I’d be rushing to sell high on Ubaldo for anything you can get.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

32 Responses to “Arrieta and Ubaldo: Early Velocity Observations”

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  1. The CHOOsen One says:

    I’ve been watching the entire game, the TV gun said that Ubaldo hit 94 a couple times so far. Also, he’s locating his curveball really well. It’s cold in Cleveland so my guess is his velocity could increase a couple MPH as it gets warmer?

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    • Hmm, guess I missed those few readings. And yeah, his secondary stuff still is good and control has been fine. But still, the velocity is down and it’s an ominous sign.

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      • The CHOOsen One says:

        It was definitely one, maybe two at 94. But I agree, I’m an Indians fan but I don’t have a whole lot of hope for Jimenez. I know last year he said his groin was hurt so his delivery was never right, but that doesn’t seem to explain such a massive drop off in velocity and performance.

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      • Stuck in a slump says:

        The stadium gun has been low over the home stand. It recorded Masterson as sitting at 89 and topping out at 91-92 and was reporting everyone at below average velocity throughout the first two games.

        His velocity is still down, but shouldn’t be down from last year.

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  2. This Guy says:

    It seemed to me like Arrieta’s velocity was mid-90s in the early innings, but dropped down to more of a low-90s range in the fourth or so. Is that what the Pitch FX info says as well?

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  3. Seth says:

    FWIW, Morrow’s fastball has not broken 94 on that gun today, either. Maybe it’s the gun?

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  4. juan pierres mustache says:

    and that’s the same gun that was reading low on everyone on thursday–seems entirely possible it’s still low

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    • Interesting. Certainly a plausible explanation. The overriding concern though is that Ubaldo’s missing velocity from last year still has not returned. If I were an owner, I would have been hoping it got back up to at lest 95 MPH, but even with a low gun, it’s clear he’s nowhere close. Truly curious what happened.

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      • The CHOOsen One says:

        It could be the gun but it could also be Cleveland… It’s cold as hell (mid-40s) the first couple games and the ball is dying in the air. Of course that applied much more to batted balls than pitchers but still, it could drop a pitcher 1-2 MPH especially after they’ve been in Arizona.

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      • yt says:

        when i checked, had him 93-95 later in the game.

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    • hoph says:

      Morrow wasn’t throwing anything above 93 (IIRC) that game either. Seems possible.

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  5. phil says:

    ubaldo’s velocity drop is not a significant issue as long as it is accompanied by good mivement, command and a lowered walk rate. i’d much rather see that than 96 and high pitch counts. i think you’re wedded to a conclusion that you can’t see past. just my opinion…

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    • Mark Himmelstein says:

      Sure, but we’re working from an established baseline–the reduced velocity from last year and this spring–and going from there. We can create hypotheticals off that, such as maybe his command or breaking pitches will improve, but we have far less evidence to make that assumption than we do that the reduced velocity will be an issue if it doesn’t change.

      The two things I’d be curious about in this start (didn’t see it) were how many first pitch and swinging strikes he got. Both marks were also career worsts for Ubaldo last year, and although it didn’t show up in his strikeout and walk rate, working behind in the count and getting fewer swings and misses could have implications for things like BABIP and HR/FB.

      I’m on record essentially making the same point Mike makes here. The way I see it is Ubaldo looks kind of like the reverse Jeremy Hellickson–a guy who appeared to be superficially unsuccessful last year based just on his strikeout and walk rates, but who might actually see his peripherals regress at least partly towards his surface numbers. On the other hand, Hellickson got plenty of swinging strikes, so although he appeared superficially “lucky,” we may see a jump in his strikeout rate, meaning that his DIPS numbers may actually move a bit towards his ERA (not all the way mind you, but instead of a sub-3.00 ERA and 4.50ish xFIP, maybe closer to 3.80 in both marks).

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  6. Mike L says:

    He ramped up his velocity against big time batters, like Bautista. I just wonder if he’s trying to be more economical. The 94 MPH pitch that I saw was against Jose and so were several of his 93’s.

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  7. 2012 says:

    What about Felix Hernandez’s velocity drop?

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    • Choo says:

      He did the same thing last season. Excessive hand wringing at USSMariner and LookoutLanding turned out to be nothing in the end.

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  8. hans says:

    Perhaps everyone should allow for a few more data points (i.e. pitched games) before making any sort of declaration. It helps to avoid egg on face, though also doesn’t quite lend itself to those who strive for being the “I told you so” type either.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    Finally, some good pitching news for the O’s! Crossing my fingers for his matchup against the Yanks.

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  10. Sam says:

    Wait. I’m confused. If the relevant radar gun “reading low on everyone” is “certainly a plausible explanation,” doesn’t that pretty much undermine your entire point? If we can’t agree that guns are standard, how can we claim to learn anything from an individual start? Or any start? Are we all getting meta-factual about something that isn’t even factual? I’ve heard of missing forests for trees, but maybe the bigger issue is building a forest from one tree. To me, a drop (or increase, for that matter) in velocity is not the real explanation for the (apparently) linear relationship between fastballs and strikeouts. I think it’s more likely that the difference between a pitcher’s fastest pitch and his slowest pitch is the better determiner of K rate. Heat alone isn’t the answer. But a loss of heat is problematic if it is not accompanied by a similar loss of heat on off-speed pitches.

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  11. rf_haymaker says:

    I’m unsure of what kind of results to expect if his velocity remains where it was today. 2010 isn’t happening again. But if he can manage to approach his 2009 numbers (slightly adjusted back for AL) I’ll be pretty happy with him as a #3 starter. I don’t have a high degree of confidence that he’ll be able to do that, but there’s a chance.

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  12. NCKLM says:

    Not to discredit Arrieta’s performance, but the Twins looked terribly “meh” at the plate, which is probably a longer term proposition for them this year. Arrieta’s velocity was no doubt higher than past, but the 4-seamer was pretty flat, as is the nature of the pitch. Better hitting teams are going to mash that pitch. Curve ball was 12-to-6 but very slow. Jake won’t benefit from week grounders back to the pitcher all year.

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  13. napster says:

    Ak!! How many of you fools have actually pitched a baseball? I venture to say, none.

    Because you are focusing on the average speed of the pitcher way too much.
    Going from 96mph to 94mph is NOT “a massive drop off in velocity” at all. In fact some major league HALL of Fame pitchers actually became better when they lost 2mph because they could then control the ball better and be able to snap off the off-speed stuff. Remember Randy Johnson, Dave Stewart, Roger Clemens. And Greg Maddux would sit between 88 and 92 his entire career, after his top speed dropped from 94 to 92 in the year 1990. By the reasoning of some of the comments above, I suppose Maddux sucked in the 1990s and 2000s.

    What matters is that the pitcher controls the fastball and off-speed stuff, the fastball has movement, and the pitcher can get a 8mph or more difference on the off-speed stuff. The pitching mechanics also matter. Is it repeatable? Does the arm motion wear down after 50 pitches?

    Saying a pitcher has lost his stuff merely his fastball dropped 2mph is ridiculous. Especially when that pitcher can still hit 94mph.

    Most of the above comments are just plain foolishness. It is true that pitchers sometimes build up their speed as the season goes on. It is also true that some guys (especially latinos) don’t loosen up as well in the colder weather. I can see Jimenez having a groin issue affect his pitching based upon his pitching mechanics. For other pitchers it would be less of an issue.

    So in sum, velocity matters but not anywhere near the proportions being made in this commentariat. A 90mph cut-fastball with late movement will earn a Mariano Rivera a trip to the Hall-of-Fame. The MLB is littered with guys who throw a straight 98mph fastball.

    It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing. Do-wop-do-wop-do-wop-do-wop.

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  14. napster says:

    The speed in seconds A 90 mph versus a 95 mph pitch calculated at 60 feet (because the pitcher doesn’t release the pitch at 60.5 feet)

    0.45 seconds versus 0.43 seconds.

    You got 0.02 more seconds.

    For a 100 mph pitch: its 0.403 seconds.

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    • napster says:

      Which is why varying the speeds matters. If you are swinging like you got 0.43 seconds, and it takes 0.47 seconds because its an 84 slider, then you swing late and ground the ball into the dirt, pop it up, or you just plain miss the ball.

      A pitcher who controls the speeds and locations and the pitches will pitch 10 years in the MLB.

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  15. Jason says:

    I also watched the CLE vs TOR game. Brandon Morrow also wasn’t throwing very hard. Think maybe the gun was off?

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  16. Josh says:

    It’s hard to use Morrow to confirm if the radar gun is off because he has supposedly been taking a bit off his fastball for better command, one start is too small a sample for either pitcher anyways.

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  17. TWu says:

    Indeed the guns at CLE seemed slow or might have been a combination of the weather and pitchers ramping up. Masterson, Romero, Morrow and Ubaldo all registered ~2mph lower across the board on their pitches.

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  18. jdog19810 says:

    dynasty league. would you trade urbaldo for any of these guys or for multiple?

    ike davis

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