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Examining the change in fastball velocity for Cardinals pitchers

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One thing that we should take notice of, even in April.

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s still April. Despite a weak start, your opinion of the club as a whole shouldn’t have changed too much from what it was in Spring Training. Stats aren’t very reliable at this point, because most stats take time to stabilize. For hitters, one thing that can indicate a change early on is Contact%, or the percentage of the time a hitter makes contact when he swings. Last week, we took a still early look at that.

For pitchers, changes in velocity can be very telling. It’s only one variable, but the more velocity, the more strikeouts:

Fastball velocity explains 24% of a pitchers’ strikeouts. His command, deception, sequencing, and quality of his secondary offerings are among the many other things that you can expect to be involved. A pitcher could gain in velocity, but other parts of his game could digress, making him worse overall. However, it is interesting that just one factor of one pitch can explain a good chunk of a pitcher’s ability to get strikeouts.

At the same time, it’s still early. In April 2016, the average fastball velocity was 92.2 mph. For the whole year, it was 92.6 MPH. And we have another difference to account for: they changed the way they measure velocity this year. For 2017, MLB is for the first time measuring pitcher velocity using Statcast rather than Pitch F/x. Though pitchers are probably throwing just as hard as usual, recorded velocity as a whole is up a whole MPH from last April.

So overall, we’re hoping for Cardinals pitchers to gain about half a MPH from where they’re 2016 Fastball velocity (1 MPH minus 0.4 MPH). That would indicate that their velocity was about where it was the year before. How have the Cardinals’ staff fared? First, let’s look at the starters:

Change in velocity among Cardinals

Starter 2016 FBv 2017 FBv FBv diff
Starter 2016 FBv 2017 FBv FBv diff
Michael Wacha 93.2 95 1.8
Adam Wainwright 90.3 91.2 0.9
Carlos Martinez 95.6 95.9 0.3
Mike Leake 90.6 90.9 0.3
Lance Lynn* 92.2 92.3 0.1

Lance Lynn has an asterisk by his name, because he obviously didn’t pitch in 2016. His 2015 Fastball velocity is shown instead.

As far as the starters go, things are looking okay. Mike Leake and Carlos Martinez are under where they should be, but by way too small margin to be concerned about. Lance Lynn is down a half a tick from where he should, but maybe he’s taking it slower than usual in his return from Tommy John Surgery. Adam Wainwright is throwing a bit harder than last year, so maybe he’s not quite finished being a productive starter yet.

It’s with Michael Wacha that we see a big change, and a positive one. Granted, it’s still early. Maybe the technology was just a little off in one of his starts, and this looks like nothing after another month or two of starts. However, it does make him someone to watch going forward.

Does this mean Wacha is healthier than he has been the last few years? Who knows. Does it mean he’s going to pitch like an ace on a rate basis, like he did in 2013 and 2014? Probably not. It’s encouraging though, and we could use some encouraging news from Wacha, and heck, from the Cardinals in general.

I advise you to hold onto those new good feelings for Wacha, because you might need after you look at the relief pitchers:

Change in velocity among Cardinals

Reliever 2016 FBv 2017 FBv FBv diff
Reliever 2016 FBv 2017 FBv FBv diff
Trevor Rosenthal 97.1 98.5 1.4
Miguel Socolovich 90.1 91.2 1.1
Jonathan Broxton 94.4 94.5 0.1
Matt Bowman 91.7 91.2 -0.5
Kevin Siegrist 93.3 92.7 -0.6
Seung Hwan Oh 92.8 92.1 -0.7
Brett Cecil 92.2 90.4 -1.8

Velocity was never a problem for Rosenthal, but he’s throwing harder than he ever has so far. If he can return to just the modest level of command he had before 2016, Rosenthal could be making a comeback. Miguel Socolovich is also throwing a little harder. That’s good, because the two relievers the Cardinals went into the season trusting the most are both down in velocity. It definitely puts a bad taste in your mouth when the guy the Cardinals just gave $30M to is down over 2 MPH from where you would expect him to be at this point. That goes double for those who, like me, saw the Cecil deal as a good one when it happened and when I graded the team’s offseason.

It’s not just Cecil though. Seung Hwan Oh, Kevin Siegrist, and Matt Bowman are all down a MPH or more from where they were last year. I was lukewarm on Oh repeating his strong 2016, perhaps this is just part of how he regresses from that.

Like with Wacha though, we have to pump the brakes a little bit. Even with velocity, something that we can get an idea of fairly early, there can be regression back to where they were last year. Also, fastball velocity is only one facet of a pitcher’s game. At the same time, it’s okay to be a little more optimistic about Wacha, Waino, Rosenthal, and Socolovich, and a little more pessimistic about, well, everyone in the bullpen besides Rosey and Soco.