In baseball, not all fastballs are created equal
Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Brian Johnson are all highly regarded lefthanders who seem likely to open the year in the pitching rotation of the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox. Evaluators go back and forth as to which represents the best prospect, with Owens and Rodriguez alternately receiving praise as having the highest ceiling while Johnson is described as closest to being a polished, big-league ready product.
What differentiates the three to scouts?
“If you went in for a one-inning look at all three of them,” said one pro scout who covers the Red Sox, “Rodriguez is clearly the guy.”
“He throws 96,” said the evaluator.
Velocity still drives much of the discussion when it comes to fastballs and hence, to overall ability. Owens is often described as a pitcher with a No. 2 or more likely No. 3 starter’s ceiling in no small part because he works between 88-94 mph while sitting in most starts at 91 or 92 mph. Johnson might be a tick lower on the velocity spectrum, perfectly content to sit around 90 mph, but able to reach back every now and again for 94.
Rodriguez, after joining the Sox at last year’s trade deadline, sat at 92-94 mph while topping out at 96 or 97 in nearly every start. It’s easy to see his future as a three-pitch lefthander (fastball, changeup, slider) with the ability to blow gas in the strike zone by hitters, matching the profile of a potential top-of-the-rotation prototype.
Prospect projections still begin much of the time with a discussion about how hard a pitcher throws. The scouting scale still defaults for some evaluators to a discussion of miles per hour, with an average fastball for at least one pro scout being a 90 mph offering and a plus fastball being a 92-93 mph offering.
Is it reasonable to define potential and upside based on how hard a pitcher throws?
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Bob Kipper, the pitching coach for Owens, Johnson, and Rodriguez last year in Double A Portland, who will now work with the talented trio in Pawtucket. “I look at pitchability. Can the guy get outs? What does he do to make hitters uncomfortable?
“Is velocity one way to do that? Sure. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to have someone who throws hard. But can he command the fastball? Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are the best examples I can come up with, guys who didn’t have the big fastball but who commanded, created action, had secondary stuff they could use in any count to make hitters uncomfortable.”
Kipper thinks Owens has a fastball that should play at a high level in the big leagues because he avoids predictable patterns thanks to an excellent changeup and a curve that continues to develop, and, at 6-foot-6, Owens is able to throw from an angle and with a release point to confound opposing hitters.
“When [Owens is] right, he’s closer to the plate delivering the baseball. It cuts down on reaction time,” said Kipper. “A car traveling 95 mph, if I’m sitting in the street and I see it 200 yards in front of me, I see it in plenty of time and get out of the way. That same car traveling 95 mph is now 50 yards in front of me on the same road, I don’t have as much time to react.
“What’s the constant? The constant is the car traveling 95 mph. What’s the variable? When I see it. That’s how I look at a fastball. The hitter is telling you everything you need to know about your fastball. The radar gun simply picks up the speed of the ball coming out of your hand. The hitter is not trying to hit the ball coming out of your hand. He’s trying to hit the ball entering the strike zone.”
Evaluators are aware of that disparity, and so some grade not fastball velocity but fastball quality. In the big leagues, said one scout, a fastball should be judged first by its command, secondly by its movement, and lastly by its velocity. He noted that Red Sox closer Koji Uehara, who sits in the high 80s, has a fastball that would earn a below-average (45) grade on the 20-80 scouting scale based purely on velocity, but that is at least a plus (60) pitch based on its action and precision.
A straight 95 mph fastball is a bad fastball. A darting, well-located 90 mph fastball is a good fastball.
According to Fangraphs, there were nine big league starters with at least 162 innings whose average fastball velocity was 94.0 or better. None finished in the top 10 in Wins Above Replacement. While eight of the starters who finished among the top 20 in velocity finished in the top 20 in WAR, that number paled next to other categories as a marker of success.
“[Velocity] doesn’t always play. There are guys who are in Triple A and will never play in the big leagues, guys in A ball who throw 95 and will never get out of A ball. It’s not the answer. It is a part of it,” said Pirates GM Neal Huntington. “It grabs your attention. Somebody who can go out and throw in the mid-90s grabs your attention. It gives them a larger margin for error, but it is not the only factor. There is still movement, there is still command, there is still consistency, there is still deception.”
“But a 96 mph fastball that’s commanded with movement is more effective than an 86 mph fastball that’s commanded with movement.”
Interestingly, there is some evidence that pitchers can enjoy breakthroughs by stepping off the gas pedal. Jon Lester had far and away the best strikeout-to-walk rate of his career last year, with 4.6 punchouts for every walk. He also happened to have his lowest average fastball velocity (91.8 mph) since his 2008 breakthrough year.
Felix Hernandez has seen his fastball velocity decline steadily from an average in excess of 96 in 2007 to roughly 92 over the last two years, yet he has been more effective in recent years. The number of maximum-effort pitches he’s throwing has diminished; the number of quality pitches he’s logged has increased.
Meanwhile, the pitchers at the top of the hard-throwing spectrum aren’t necessarily the most successful.
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Major league pitching WAR leaders Corey Kluber (93.2 mph) and Clayton Kershaw (93.0) ranked 16th and 21st, respectively, in fastball velocity. Mark Buehrle employed a tortoise of an 83.9 mph average fastball, second slowest in the big leagues, yet he finished 21st in WAR – well ahead of flamethrowers Yordano Ventura, Wily Peralta, Nathan Eovaldi, and Zack Wheeler.
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Red Sox lefthander Craig Breslow notes pitchers like Uehara and himself have enjoyed high strikeout rates without big radar gun numbers, in large part because the spin rate of their fastballs were atypically high, resulting in hitters swinging under the pitch. (This study by former big leaguer Zach Day suggested spin rate is a better predictor of swings and misses than velocity.)
“History is littered with guys who throw 100 mph and never were consistently effective,” said Breslow. “When I was pitching well, prior to 2013 – maybe ’08, ’09, ’12 – throwing a lot of four-seam fastballs, I had a very effective four-seam fastball but it didn’t light up the radar gun. But I got a lot of swings and misses on four-seam fastballs. Speaking to some of the guys here who quantify data, I had a great spin rate. Koji, I would imagine if you looked at Koji’s spin rate on his four-seam fastball, that’s part of the reason he’s throwing 87 and 88 by guys.”
Still, in a quick look, or in deciding between two seemingly comparable talents, the siren song of radar love still often proves irresistible. It is easier to see a pitcher unleashing 99 mph comets and imagine the next Nolan Ryan than it is to look at someone throwing 88 mph and daydream about the next Greg Maddux.
“[Velocity] opens eyes. It’s the easiest thing to quantify – until we get to a point where there’s a prospect at 18 years old and the follow-up question isn’t, ‘How hard does he throw?’” he added. “Until scouting changes and guys don’t be radar guns, that’s going to be your foot in the door. That’s going to be your Yale or Harvard degree.”
Yet the foot in the door rarely offers much clarity about what happens to a pitcher once through it – a reality that contributes to the fact that ranking the Red Sox’ pitching prospects remains something of a guessing game.