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.
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.
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.