The Giants Are Sneaking Into the Velocity Era

It’s no secret that, over the last several years, we’ve been seeing more and more high velocity in the major leagues. The league-average fastball keeps getting hotter, thanks to different training techniques, and thanks to different young-player development, and thanks to God knows how many other things. It’s not that everyone now can throw 95; it’s that the guys who can throw 95 are no longer thought of as freaks. Every team has at least a few of them stashed away.

The velocity trend has lifted many boats. As you can imagine, with league-wide velocity increasing, the same has been apparent on the team level. The Pirates, just as one example, have pretty clearly targeted hard throwers, and that’s just a part of their complicated plan. Not every team has participated, however. The Angels haven’t featured too many hard throwers, as Jered Weaver has taken it upon himself to counter Garrett Richards. The Diamondbacks were more finesse-y for a stretch, before picking it up last season. And the Giants have been another exception. Probably the greatest exception — no team has averaged a slower fastball over the last four years. Presumably related to that, the Giants have also thrown the lowest rate of fastballs.

Yet now they’re a team in transition. I’m not saying this is intentional, but looking ahead, the Giants are lined up to be a harder-throwing baseball team. After years of sagging velocity, the 2016 Giants could be almost league average.

To get this out of the way now: of course there’s more to pitching than throwing hard. And the Giants have been more successful than any other organization, overall, the last several seasons. I don’t think they’re targeting velocity as an end goal; maybe it’s all just a coincidence. But let’s set a line at, say, 92 miles per hour. Last year, Giants pitchers threw just 14% of their pitches at least that hard, which was the lowest rate in the league. They’ve since bid farewell to some pitchers. They’ve thrown money at Johnny Cueto. They’ve thrown money at Jeff Samardzija. Their bullpen features Hunter Strickland, but it’s also going to feature more Josh Osich. They’re still not a flame-throwing team, but the plot below shows how the Giants line up.

It’s kind of an ugly plot, but, well, I’m not a trained plotter. There are two y-axes. For 2002 through 2016, you see league-average fastball velocities, and you see the Giants’ average fastball velocities. On the other axis, I’ve plotted the Giants’ team ERA- (revolving around a league average of 100). Obviously, the 2016 season hasn’t happened yet, so those numbers are just projections, based on the depth charts and based on what the various pitchers threw a season ago. Still, something interesting is revealed.

giants-pitching

Through 2011 or so, the Giants’ team velocity matched up very well with the league-wide numbers. Then you see the divergence, with the league going up, and the Giants going down. There’s a wide separation between the Giants and the rest of MLB between 2012 – 2015, but now look at where the blue line is headed in 2016 — it almost catches back up. My early projection is that the Giants’ team velocity increases by 1.4 miles per hour over last year, and that would rank in the top 5% of all observed season-to-season team velocity increases since 2002. It’s not like the Giants have brought in a bunch of bazookas, but they’ve welcomed harder throwers and separated from softer throwers, and this is where the difference is evident. It compares well to what the Diamondbacks just went through: after throwing 90.0 as a team in 2014, last year they climbed up to 91.6. The Diamondbacks are projected to climb even further in the coming season, as this could be something the new front office prioritizes.

I estimated the Giants’ projected ERA-, and you might see a pattern there, too. Between 2009 – 2011, when the Giants had better velocity, relatively speaking, they posted a team ERA- of 88. The last four years, they’ve come in at 106, with the best mark being an even 100. This year, with better velocity, they’re projected to come in around 93, and though, again, that’s not all about the velocity increase, it’s not unrelated. The Giants are going to have a harder-throwing pitching staff, and they ought to have a more effective pitching staff. Even Madison Bumgarner has trended gradually toward throwing slightly harder and harder. Lately the Giants haven’t had a lot of pitchers with raw stuff that compares to Samardzija’s. I don’t know if this is a new leaf, but it’s at least something that’s happening.

You need a lot more evidence than this to say it shows a clear team preference. The Giants have done fairly well, all things considered, without throwing too hard, and the explanation might be as easy as, Cueto and Samardzija were both talented and available. We’ll see where the Giants go in the future, but for now, they’re going to look a little less exceptional. Velocity keeps going up all over the place, and the Giants couldn’t fend it off any longer.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Cory Settoon
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The drop from 2011 to 2012 seemed to coincide mainly with Lincecum dropping from 92.3 to 90.4 MPH. Brian Wilson’s downfall dropped them too.