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Entries in fastball velocity (5)


Checking in on Aroldis Chapman’s Fastball 

The Aroldis Chapman experiment enters its fourth (full) season in Cincinnati this spring, and if this season goes anything like the first three, the Reds can rest easy knowing the back end of their rotation will be one of the best in baseball in 2014. Since his debut on August 30, 2010, the ‘Cuban Missile’ owns a 2.40 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 40.9% strikeout rate and 77 saves – enough for seventh, fifth, second and sixth-best among relievers with 198 innings since that date. Now that Homer Bailey is sewn up through 2020, general manager Walt Jocketty now turns his attention to extending Chapman to solidify the backend of his bullpen for the prospective future.

Yet while Chapman has been one of the most dominant relievers in the game since his debut, his game hasn't come without a few shortcomings. Chapman's first three full seasons have been rather inconsistent, at least from a statistical perspective. Let's take a quick look at the numbers.

Chapman has been brilliant at racking up strikeouts, but his rocket arm has also cost him a good number of walks. The league average strikeout rate for relievers with at least 100 innings since 2011 is 22.9%, so we knew Chapman is elite in terms of punching batters out. However, his fluctuating walk rate is concerning, as the league average mark for those same relievers is 8.6%, and as we can see, Chapman has only one full season to his credit (2012) in which he posted a walk rate lower than that mark. He took several steps backward last season, adding another earned run to his 1.51 ERA from 2012. Opponents had much more success against his stuff in the meantime, posting a career-high .544 OPS against him. Consistency is king for closers, and though Chapman has been elite, there's room for improvement.

So, what's the problem? Chapman is becoming too reliant on his fastball. In his first full season with the Reds in 2011, Chapman tossed his fastball at a 79.4% clip -- fourth-highest among relievers with at least 50 registered innings that season and well above the 49.1% league average mark. During his best season to date in 2012, Chapman increased his heater use to 81.6% -- fourth-highest in the league once more and again noticeably higher than the 48.3% league average use. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound southpaw went to his fastball at a career-high 82.6% rate last season, however, which was third-most among lefty relievers with at least 60-innings.

Consequences of More Fastballs

While Chapman's fastball has maintained a steady (if not slightly increasing) velocity over the last three season, his fastball simply isn't generating the 'elite' type of results that we'd expect. His ground ball rate has plummeted incrementally from 42.9% in 2011 (compared to the league average mark of 38.4%) to 35.5% last season, which was actually below the league average mark of 35.5%.

And while opponents are putting fewer of his fastballs in play than ever before (21.5% in-play rate last season), they're doing more with those balls they do put in play, shown by a 2013 HR/FB ratio of 12.8% -- highest among relievers who threw at least 800 fastballs last season. Could Chapman's increase in zone% have anything to do with his ground ball decrease? Absolutely. Since 2008, the trend with relievers is that when you throw more fastballs in the zone, your ground ball rate tends to decrease roughly three percent with every five percent increase in fastball use.

When we think about relievers, we tend to think about the development of their secondary (i.e. non-fastball) offerings at a young age, particularly in the minor leagues (which Chapman didn't spend much time in). Often times, development of these pitches proves critical later in their careers, since fastball velocity tends to wane with age and young pitchers can't blow past batters with their heaters. Chapman seems to be going in the opposite direction in this respect; relying too heavily on his fastball, which has hampered the offering's ability to generate easy outs in critical late-game situations.


Justin Verlander's Fastball is Just Fine, Thanks

Justin Verlander is dealing yet again in 2013, punching out over a batter per inning pitched and holding a Bob Gibson-esque 1.83 ERA. Yet despite that dominance, some scouts are worried that the game's highest paid pitcher isn't making radar guns malfunction like he used to. But Verlander? He's not concerned:

"No, I know where I'm at and I feel like it's gotten a little bit better every start," the 30-year-old said before [Thursday's] game. "I threw a lot of innings last year and I was basically three weeks behind coming into spring training this year on purpose but I think it seems like for the most part our entire team has started to get better velocity wise." (Detroit Free Press)

Verlander's velocity is down. He's averaging 93.2 MPH with his fastball in 2013, compared to 94.6 MPH last year. And while he reached back for a 101.5 MPH Hellfire missile in 2012, Verlander has maxed out at 96.6 this season. Even so, Tigers fans shouldn't start puffing packs of Marlboro Reds like manager Jim Leyland just yet. Here are some reasons that Verlander's fastball looks just fine.

  • Pitchers do typically come out of the gate in April with less-than optimal velocity, Verlander included. His 93.2 MPH average doesn't look so bad when you consider that he's dealing with a blister on his right thumb, and that he averaged 94 MPH in April of 2012.
  • Like Verlander himself said, his fastball velocity is getting better by the start. He averaged just 92.4 MPH on Opening Day against the Twins. By the time he faced the Twinkies again on April 30, he was up to an average of 93.4 MPH.
  • Slower or not, Verlander's fastball is making hitters look foolish. Verlander's fastball miss rate is down a bit in 2013 (18%) compared to 2012 (20%), but batters actually have a lower slugging percentage against the pitch this season (.241) than last (.389).

With Improved Fastball Command, Felix Still King

Not since the days of Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden and Bret Saberhagen has a starting pitcher had as good of a start to his career as Felix Hernandez. But the curly-haired teenager throwing upper 90s gas who debuted with the Mariners back in 2005 would scarcely recognize the crafty 26-year-old who's set to sign a contract extension that will pay him the highest average annual salary ($27.1 million) ever for a pitcher. King Felix's fastball no longer sizzles toward home plate, but he has extended his reign with improved command of the pitch.

Hernandez's fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour at the beginning of the Pitch F/X era in 2008, a mark bested only by Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana among qualified starting pitchers. Last year, Felix's average velocity with both his four-seam fastball and sinker was 92.4 MPH -- just a tick above the 91.2 MPH average for right-handers. Yet, batters didn't really do all that much more damage against Hernandez's fastball last year (.410 slugging percentage) than they did in 2008 (.396).

How has Felix remained so effective with seemingly run-of-the-mill velocity? By hitting his spots. He's throwing fewer fastballs over the heart of the plate as he makes the transition from flame-thrower to marksman:

Hernandez's percentage of fastballs thrown over the horizontal middle of the plate, 2008-12

2008: 22.9%

2009: 22.4%

2010: 23.4%

2011: 20.3%

2012: 19.8%

MLB AVG for SP: 23.6%

Fastballs left over the middle of the plate tend to get thumped (batters slugged .502 last year) and Felix's is no exception (.525 opponent slugging percentage), so avoiding that spot is key. Few did a better job of that in 2012: Dan Haren (19.6%), Doug Fister (19.5%), Jason Vargas (19.1%), Tommy Milone (18.9%), and Jeremy Hellickson (18.5%) were the only AL starters who threw a lower percentage of fastballs over the horizontal middle of the plate.

King Felix, power pitcher, is dead. Long live King Felix, command-and-control artist.