March 13, 2015
Over the Radar 3.0
We looked at the players who have been skiing down the slopes of velocity last week, and this time we turn 180 degrees to the pitchers who are fighting the gravity of age with increased velocity.
To refresh everyone on the rules:
The sample is limited to starting pitchers who have pitched 50-plus innings and thrown 500 or more fastballs (four-seam plus sinkers) in each of the previous three seasons. In order to qualify, a pitcher must have shown a velocity-gain of at least 0.5 mph from each of the previous two seasons (so 2014 performance compared to '13 and '12), and the increase of a full-tick when compared to at least one of the seasons under the microscope. The velocities shown reflect a weighted average of four-seam fastballs and sinkers, taken from the awesome resource at www.BrooksBaseball.net, and only cover pitches thrown in the regular season at the MLB level.
Before we get to the top velocity gainers of 2014, let's see how the crowned arms of yesteryear fared in the past season.
Arrieta preceded his breakout season with the top velo of his career. He set career-bests in just about every statistical department in 2014, but his pitch velocity retreated back to 2012 levels. His average velo was still plus, sat 1.3 mph higher in 2014 than his pitch-speed from 2011, and his trend has the look of a 2013 speed-spike rather than a concerning downhill slope of radar gun readings.
Anibal Sanchez has fallen further from last year's peak than Arrieta, but Sanchez's volatile past leaves him far ahead of the pace of 2012. Sanchez has a history of shoulder-related injuries, and the fragile relationship between shoulder function and pitch velocity raises the threat level of his future performance.
Teammates Mike Leake and Homer Bailey not only retained their velocity gains from last season, but both pitchers took a baby-step forward on the velocity scale. For Bailey, it was part of an ongoing progression of increasing pitch velocity, as he maintained the tremendous jump of 2013 while further honing his delivery. There is one member of last year's class who's missing, and though a simple click of the mouse will reveal his identity, the fact that he reappears on this year's list is impressive enough to warrant a more anticipated entrance.
The positive side of the slope is less dense than its cruel cousin, with just 11 pitchers qualifying under the same set of rules that produced 23 players on the down-slope of velocity. That said, it's a massive increase from last season's five-count of qualified hurlers, and was enough to break them down into groups.
The first group is comprised of a couple of stars and a pitcher who seems light-years away from seeing sunlight. Each of these players just barely qualified under the conditions, yet the selectivity of this exclusive group makes their mere inclusion impressive.
Cole Hamels just continues to improve, honing the finer elements of his game and realizing the benefits on the back of his baseball card. He uses a 50-50 combination of hips and shoulders to create torque, and his trigger-timing improved to help Hamels to get even more out of his delivery en route to an extra half-tick of velocity.
Kluber ascended from mechanical marvel to dominant ace last season, and every part of his game improved. His two-headed slydra became a deadly weapon, he upgraded his A- mechanics to a straight A (including an unmatched foundation of 65 or better in every category of the report card), and he took home the hardware for league's best pitcher. Oh, and he added another chunk of speed to his fastball to give batters even less time to identify incoming pitches.
Turner is the ugly duckling in this group, and though a knee-jerk response might be to blame the velo spike on his first taste of the bullpen, consider that his average fastball (weighted 4-seam and sinker) with the Cubs was 93.1 mph in his final six games, all of which came as a starter.
Cobb's big increase came in 2013 but he continued the upswing last season. He continues to defy the odds, improving command despite a pirouette windup contrasted against a slide-step stretch, and upping the ante on his velocity despite torque that is essentially unchanged from the previous season. Cobb continues to simultaneously impress and confound.
Norris experienced a multi-year dip of velocity, qualifying him for the 2012 class of Under the Gun, but his pitch-speed has come all the way back, with a higher average velo in 2014 than any other season of his career.
Sale is enough of a weapon without plus velocity, so his recent gains on the radar gun have to shake the nerves of American League batters. His 2.2-mph difference from 2012 is actually the greatest 2-year velocity gain in the game (among qualifying starting pitchers), but the fact that most of his increase took place in 2013 keeps him out of the next tier. His current velocity is a far-sight short of his bullpen velo from 2010-11, but the progressive gain over the last few years is substantial.
Richards made the transition from swingman to full-time starter last season, and though most pitchers would ease off the gas when faced with a heavier workload, Richards bucked convention by adding even more fuel to the fire of his upper-90s gas. Adding to the intrigue, Richards has very poor posture at release point (I gave him a grade of 30 for posture in the 2015 Starting Pitcher Guide), and Richards serves as an example that flies in the face of hair-brained theories (by yours truly) that poor posture is connected to velocity decline*.
Kennedy was treading in dangerous waters a few years ago, with velocity that played slalom with the hard deck of 90 mph, but he made a jump last season to the highest velo of his career. The torque was not necessarily better at peak, but he was much more consistent in generating max torque on his hard stuff
Here's the guy. Happ may have been the weakest of the five velocity-hikers last season, but he is the only one to make a second consecutive appearance on the list, and this time around he has moved up to the third highest one-year jump in the game. A modern marvel, Happ has increased his velocity every season of his seven-year tenure, and last season's 1.6-mph jump was by far the largest gain of his career.
It's both easy and lazy to attribute all of McAllister's velocity boost to his transition to the pen, and though there is certainly some underlying truth to the assumption, not everyone experiences such a massive jump. McAllister's gain is nonetheless impressive, if less so than the others on this list.
McCarthy has an interesting velocity pattern. He came back from a string of scapula fractures (which cost him the 2010 season) with a couple degrees of extra heat, and he kept the fire going for three years before he turned up the dials in 2014. He looks like a praying mantis on the mound, staying tall with upright posture while the gears of rotation get to work. He is a joy to watch when healthy, but there's the rub.
(*for those wondering, the group of velocity gainers had an average posture score of 55.5, compared to a score of 46.8 for the downhill velocity skiers and 51.3 for the average pitcher in the 2015 SP Guide. Of course, this means next-to-nothing with a sample size of 11, but it's worth mentioning.)