As we head into the final month of the season, teams that are out of the pennant chase can utilize the expanded rosters to give their pitchers a bit of a breather after a long five months, backing off workloads and skipping starts or shutting pitchers down entirely if need be. However, for those still in the race, these games are more important than ever, and the pitching staff does not have the luxury of taking such breaks.
In some cases, however, recent trends in velocity might suggest that giving an important pitcher a couple of days off might be in everyone’s best interests, especially if these teams want to see their hurlers at full strength for an extra month of playoff baseball.
Chris Tillman – Baltimore Orioles
When Tillman was a top pitching prospect in the minors, he was routinely throwing in the mid-90s, and profiled as a true power pitcher. However, his velocity the last couple of years has hovered around 90 MPH, and his results have been nothing short of terrible. So, when Tillman arrived back in the Majors in July and promptly averaged 95 MPH with his fastball in his first start of the season — a game in which he gave up just two hits in 8 1/3 innings — it gave the Orioles some hope that the Tillman of old was starting to reemerge. Unfortunately, with each subsequent start, that velocity looks farther and farther away.
Average fastball speed, by start:
Not surprisingly, Tillman was removed from his start last Sunday with elbow soreness, as his fastball was off two miles-per-hour from his previous start and over five from his electrifying debut in July. An MRI showed inflammation in his elbow, and it’s not clear when he’ll make his next start, but this was clearly not just a one day issue, as his fastball has been eroding all summer. The Orioles have seen what Tillman can do with a 90 MPH fastball, and it isn’t pretty — getting him back to throwing 95 on a consistent basis, even if it requires a break during a playoff push, should be priority number one.
Jered Weaver – Los Angeles Angels
Like Tillman, Weaver has been diagnosed with inflammation and temporarily removed from the rotation, as his recent performances haven’t been very Weaver-esque. Weaver’s biggest asset throughout his career has been home run avoidance, and in the first three months of the season, he was keeping the ball in the yard as always, allowing just five home runs in 82 innings pitched. Since the calendar turned to July, however, he’s allowed 12 home runs in 79 innings, and his gopheritis has the Angels concerned. And rightfully so.
Since Weaver has made 25 starts, we won’t list the average velocity for each, but will instead break his season into thirds, with his final start before going to the doctor listed separately.
First eight games: 88.4 MPH
Middle eight games: 87.8 MPH
Last eight games: 87.5 MPH
Final game: 86.4 MPH
Weaver’s never been the hardest thrower around, but the last month or so, he’s started to shift into Mark Buehrle territory. Because he pitches up in the zone, throwing 87 instead of 89 can change a routine fly ball into a home run, and with the Angels trying to run down a wild card spot, they’ll need the version of Weaver that throws 89 again for the stretch run.
Phil Hughes – New York Yankees
Unlike Tillman and Weaver, Hughes has not reported any issues with his arm, and he is still a member of the Yankees rotation. However, his velocity trends should have the Yankees watching him closely, as his fastball has also been getting slower the last month or so. From April through July, Hughes averaged 92.4 MPH with his fastball, and was pretty consistent in that range, sitting between 92-93 in 14 of his first 20 starts.
The last seven have been a slightly different story, however. His highest average velocity game was against Detroit, when he sat at 92.2 for the day. He only got his average over 92 in two other starts, and his fastball registered just 91.1 in his last start against the Orioles. Six of his nine starts on the season with an average fastball velocity below 92 have come in the second half of the year, and his two lowest have both come in the last five weeks.
It’s more of a subtle decline than we see with either Tillman or Weaver, but it is there, and the recent trends aren’t terribly encouraging. Given that his 15% strikeout rate was also a season low in August, the Yankees should keep a close on Hughes’ fastball in his start on Friday night.