Let’s talk about pitchers! Between Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic there’s a lot to discuss, but let’s not forget that the St. Louis Cardinals have a new pitching coach and that could lead to a whole host of interesting changes.
I already pointed out 1 specific change in my last Spring Training notebook - a new slider shape for a group of pitchers - and while I don’t have an update on that in this piece, I promise I will later because that, to me, is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen since camp opened. What I want to discuss in this piece is the uptick in velocity experienced by a number of pitchers, and then, potentially as a result of that, the change we are seeing in the stuff+ grades of those pitchers.
As I say in each edition of this notebook, keep in mind that this is a SPRING TRAINING notebook. That means we can observe things and even look into them a bit but the things I am noticing may not always turn out to be long term trends. It’s hard to get a read on things when the games aren’t as meaningful and pitchers are still getting warmed up but that’s why I want to focus on pitchers with increased velocity.
It would stand to reason that if a pitcher is pitching in a relatively meaningless warm up game that he wouldn’t have his best stuff or his highest velocity just yet. That’s not always the case as sometimes pitchers, and young pitchers especially, come out to camp and are geared up, but, to me, it’s always more interesting to see whose velocity is up as opposed to whose is down. If velocity is down, there’s a good chance that a pitcher is still loosening up but if velocity is up, that’s where things get interesting.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at some of the pitchers with velocity increases so far this spring.
Average Velocity in 2022 - 93.7 mph
Average velocity in last outing - 95.0 mph
Last season Matthew Liberatore touched 97 just 5 times in his 34.2 major league innings. In his last outing of the spring, he touched 97.4 and 97.2 while sitting 95 mph. I do want to point out that he only pitched one inning so this could be a flash in the pan but this is also Spring Training so maybe there’s more in the tank. Who knows?
What I do know is that Matthew Liberatore’s fastball needs help. Last season his sinker had a stuff+ grade of 75. But if you think that’s bad, look away because his four-seamer had a stuff+ grade of just 67.
Quite frankly, that’s terrible. There’s no other way to put it. I’ve written multiple times that Liberatore’s fastball (and inconsistent command) is what is holding him back from reaching his potential as a former (and current, according to some publications) top 100 prospect. The stuff+ grades bear that out but if he can maintain his velocity gains from his last outing, we could see a different Matthew Liberatore.
I want to point out that it takes more than velocity to make a good fastball and a 1.3 mph uptick in velocity isn’t going to bring Liberatore’s stuff+ grade close to 100. It’s a problem that he doesn’t get a ton of ride with the pitch but better velocity will at least make it a more viable MLB offering.
And that’s the key for Liberatore because he has two good breaking balls so he really just needs his fastballs to be good enough, not necessarily good in isolation.
I’m not ready to consider this something new just yet but it is certainly something worth watching.
Average velocity in 2022 - 95.2 mph
Average velocity in last outing - 97.1 mph
Yes, I’m writing about Andre Pallante again. I’m sorry I just can’t help it. He’s a fascinating pitcher to me and he is showing an uptick in his velocity this spring after showing an uptick in his velocity last spring.
In his most recent World Baseball Classic outing with Italy, Pallante touched 98.8 twice and threw the 15 hardest pitches of the game, and the opposing Cuban pitcher was no slouch (touched 96.1 mph).
As you may expect, Pallante’s increased velocity has led to a better stuff+ grade so far this spring. Last year, he had an overall stuff+ grade of 88 with his fastball at 81 and his sinker at 89. So far this spring, his stuff+ grade is 97.3.
Now, don’t look into that too much because it’s literally 35 pitches. 35. So let’s not make the mistake of acting like that is predictive because it’s not. It’s simply a grade for 35 pitches. Pallante still needs to prove that his newfound velocity is real, but if it is, this could be a sneak peak at just how much of a boost he could get from extra velocity.
This extra velocity is also key for him because, in my assessment, he is squarely on the roster bubble. Better velocity could give him the edge on the Opening Day roster.
Guillermo Zuinga is crazy! Touched 102, sat 99, and showed a devastating slider at times.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) March 11, 2023
Just an unreal performance to lead Colombia to a huge upset over Mexico.
Okay, so if you didn’t watch Guillermo Zuniga pitch for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic and you haven’t seen highlights of his outing, do yourself a favor and watch the video below. He throws some of the easiest triple digits you’ll ever see.
102 mph fastballs and wipeout sliders @Cardinals RHP prospect Guillermo Zuñiga was dominant in Colombia's win over Mexico in the #WorldBaseballClassic. pic.twitter.com/OvG8Bynpcq— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 12, 2023
If you didn’t know who Guillermo Zuniga was and you didn’t know he was a Cardinal, you would be forgiven. He signed an MLB deal with the Cardinals in the offseason and even though he isn’t likely to open the season in St. Louis (but who knows) he is definitely someone to keep an eye on.
If you want to know more abut Zuniga, I actually wrote about him in the offseason when I suggested that the Cardinals sign him to a minor league deal. I really wasn’t expecting him to sign a major league contract but his stuff is electric and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Cardinals had to give him a major league deal to outbid his other suitors.
If Zuniga ever joins the major league bullpen, he could form quite the flamethrowing trio with Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks.
Average velocity in 2022 - 91.8 mph
Average velocity in last outing - 92.8 mph
Jake Woodford is a pitcher who has been often discussed recently as he has not only seen an uptick in velocity with his fastball but has seen it across the board. It’s been a point of emphasis for him to throw his slider harder to get a tighter shape and when paired with a fastball with better velocity, that all but guarantees a better stuff+ grade for Woodford.
That has played out as you would expect this spring. Last year, the right-hander had an overall stuff+ grade of 90 and so far this spring, he’s sitting at 96.5. That’s may seem like a slight change, but for a pitcher who has always located well, that’s huge.
I also want to note that Woodford has been primarily a sinker/slider guy this spring, which is a great development since those were his two best pitches last year according to stuff+ (sinker at 92 and slider at 99). More velocity should make both of those pitches more effective.
I’m to the point where I would rather have Woodford be the team’s 6th starter over Hudson and I think I would rather have Pallante be the 6th starter than Woodford, though it’s close. At the very least I do think that Woodford can prove he belongs at the major league level if these velocity gains are real and he can stop yo-yoing between St. Louis and Memphis. Now all he needs to do is find his way to the majors as, if the season started today he probably would not be on the Opening Day roster.
Average velocity in 2022 - 94.8 mph
Average velocity in last outing - 95.8 mph
Zack Thompson is another pitcher who could really benefit from an uptick in velocity as his fastball garnered a stuff+ grade of 76 and a whiff rate of 15.5%. His curveball also gained a little extra velocity in his last outing, sitting 75.7 mph after sitting 75 in 2022.
The pitch is a bit of a slower curve so throwing it harder could help it miss more bats as its 16.9% whiff rate left a lot to be desired. There’s really not a whole lot more to say here beyond the fact that Eno Sarris’ stuff+ model likes the uptick in velocity as his overall stuff+ is sitting 87.3 this spring after sitting just 83 last year.
Thompson’s velocity has had it’s peaks and valleys throughout his professional career, so it’s nice to see that it returned to form last year after a down 2021 and may even tick further upward in 2023.
Wilking Rodriguez is the last pitcher I want to cover because I think we all heard about the flamethrower from the Mexican League who can touch 100 and then we watched him sit 94-95 in his first outing. That was certainly underwhelming, but it brings me back to my point at the beginning of this piece - pitchers ramp up in Spring Training.
That’s certainly been the case for Rodriguez as he sat 97.6 mph is his most recent outing and even touched 98.
Cardinals RP Wilking Rodriguez (rule 5) average velo by tracked appearance pic.twitter.com/bAOTAdTXzB— Jacob (@CardinalsReek) March 12, 2023
With the uptick in fastball velocity has come an uptick in every pitch’s velocity, as so often happens. And that has led to what may be my favorite pitch from any Cardinals pitcher this year - Wilking Rodriguez’s 95 mph cutter.
So far this spring, his stuff+ grade is 104.1 and that is almost certainly weighed down by his lack of velocity at the beginning of the spring. I’ve been advocating for Rodriguez to make the roster all spring (and I think most of us probably expect him to make the roster anyways) and I’ll continue to do so until his spot is clinched.
This is the third installment of my weekly Spring Training notebook. You can read the first one here and the second one here if you want to catch up on anything you may have missed. Let me know if I missed anyone with some velocity improvements and feel free to make any suggestions if there’s anything you want me to cover in my next notebook.
Thanks for reading and have a great Tuesday!