If anyone could school me how to make gifs smaller, I'd greatly appreciate it.@Elpablo21
Danny Salazar on Returning from Surgery Too Soon.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Take a look at how the Indians have handled phenom pitcher Danny Salazar the past couple of years and you instantly notice they’re doing things a little differently in Cleveland. From the long recovery time to the big innings jump, Salazar’s comeback from Tommy John surgery has been on a unique timeline. Salazar is happy to get the training wheels off this year, and before opening night, he talked with me about the long road back and some of the peculiarities of his teams’ approach.
There are parts of his recovery that were fairly standard when it comes to baseball’s best practices. Most pitchers talk of using the time to hone in on their mechanics. George Kontos worked with his coaches to stay on top of the ball and raise his arm angle, which produced some great results. It turns out Salazar was doing the same thing. “Trying to stay on top” of his change-up was a real goal, especially when he recognized he was throwing harder after the surgery. He wanted to take advantage of the widening velocity difference between his pitches.
And some of the timing of his rehab schedule sounds familiar, too. “You don’t start throwing bullpens until eight months after surgery,” Salazar said. Even then, post-op pitchers throw only fastballs for about a month and then add the change-up. Like Jarrod Parker said last year, you leave the breaking pitches out of the bullpen until later when you’re coming back from Tommy John surgery. The sliders Salazar said he threw in rehab were from 60 feet, “during the throwing program,” and not at max effort, “so you don’t get hurt.”
But there was something the Indians did differently with respect the timing of his rehab. Danny Salazar‘s first game action in the minor leagues after his Aug. 1, 2010, surgery came on Aug. 3 of the next year. The surgeon told Salazar that he’d be able to pitch in “nine-to-10 months,” but the Indians had a different policy: “They always go for 12 with everyone,” Salazar says. “They give you an extra two months, just in case.”
Coming back from Tommy John surgery is tough enough. In an article for the 2013 Hardball Times Annual, Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright found strikeout and walk rates are usually 5% worse the first year back from surgery, before regressing their way back to career norms the next year. But the 28 pitchers who returned quicker than 12 months from Tommy John saw their control get worse in the second year. It’s only on the order of 2% worse, but those pitchers didn’t, as a group, get the second-year bounce in control that other Tommy John pitchers have seen. And the list of early returners is fraught with complications and setbacks: Scott Proctor, Taylor Buchholz, Jaime Garcia, Shaun Marcum, Josh Johnson, Rich Hill, Shawn Kelley, Daniel Hudson and Brandon Beachy didn’t have 12 months between their surgery and minor league return dates.
The Indians continued to save bullets and take things slowly with Salazar this spring. While veterans Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson got more than 20 innings each, Salazar totaled 10.1 innings for the entire month. “We took everything slower” this spring, Salazar says, but he pointed out that he threw five innings in his last start.
Other than the slow spring, the team hasn’t given the pitcher any indication he’s on an innings limit. The Indians are “just going to let me go this year,” Salazar said with a smile. But what about in-game pitch limits? “I hope not. Maybe the first couple games — maybe they do that — but they haven’t told me,” Salazar admitted, though he reiterated the idea he’s ready to go this year, and the training wheels are off.
And that wouldn’t be inconsistent with the approach the Indians have taken so far, really. They took it slowly in 2011, when he was returning from surgery. And 2012 only had 87.2 innings in it for Salazar. But when it was time for his innings to count in the big league standings, the Indians let him go: He threw 145 innings last year, well beyond the standard innings jump you see around the league with other young pitchers.
Salazar, for his part, seems excited to focus on baseball things — like “being a little more consistent with keeping the ball down” to avoid home runs — and not on how many innings he’ll be allowed to pitch this year. That’s the team’s concern, and it seems like they did what they could early on to make sure he could pitch as much as possible now.
That’s good, because anyone who can do this with a regular circle-change grip should continue to do so for everyone’s enjoyment:
The Return of Regular Baseball and a Monday of Miracles.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Monday featured, for the first time in 2014, a full slate of meaningful baseball, albeit with a bit of a lull in the late afternoon as the only live game for a stretch had the Rockies and the Marlins. I met a friend at a neighborhood bar a little after 5, and the bar had the game on all of its screens, and after a little conversation I found I was completely hanging on the action. Come August, I probably won’t be watching the Rockies and the Marlins, but this early in the year, everything’s interesting. And while we always know that anything can happen, there’s no cynicism around opening day. By the middle of the year, anything can happen, but we know what’s probably going to happen. In late March and early April, it’s more fun to imagine that baseball’s a big giant toss-up. That Marcell Ozuna looks good. If he hits, and if the Marlins get their pitching…
I don’t remember what most opening days are like, but this one felt like it had an unusual number of anything-can-happens. That is, events that would take one by complete and utter surprise. What are documented below are, I think, the five most outstanding miracles from a long and rejuvenating Monday. From one perspective, this is evidence that the future is a mystery and all a surprise is is a run of good or bad luck. From another, more bummer of a perspective, this is evidence that opening day doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things and come on why are you already projecting Grady Sizemore to be a five-win center fielder? Why are you already freaking out about the 2014 Blue Jays? Be whatever kind of fan you like. Just remember that baseball is a silly game, and you’ll never outsmart it.
Featuring: Greg Holland, Alex Gonzalez (the one still playing) (there is one still playing)
The Tigers had a shortstop, in Jose Iglesias. The Tigers still have a shortstop, in Alex Gonzalez. So it wouldn’t be fair to say the Tigers don’t have a shortstop at all. It would, however, be fair to say the Tigers are in a worse situation at shortstop, since Gonzalez is older than ever(!) and he projects to be one of the very worst shortstops in major-league baseball. The Tigers claim to be content with their current setup, but a whole lot of people figure they’re bluffing and that Stephen Drew is an inevitability.
In Gonzalez’s 2014 debut, he played fine defense and he hit a triple, and in the bottom of the ninth he faced Greg Holland, who is one of the unbelievable relievers within that pool of unbelievable relievers who collectively post numbers you can’t even make sense of. Holland last year had the American League’s highest strikeout rate. More than half the time batters swung at his slider, they missed. In the ninth, with one out, runners on the corners, and a tie game, Holland needed a strikeout against Gonzalez. The at-bat ended with a slider, but not in the way that you’d think.
Sure, with the shortstop at normal depth, that’s probably an out, and we don’t care about it. But the shortstop wasn’t at normal depth. Gonzalez wanted to poke a ball through to the outfield. Gonzalez successfully poked a ball through to the outfield. And that’s the story of how Alex Gonzalez has been a Tigers hero at least once in 2014, and the season is one game old. At this point, you project Gonzalez forward the same as you would’ve yesterday. But he already has one walk-off in the bag.
Featuring: Peter Bourjos, Brayan Pena
The one thing no one’s ever doubted about Peter Bourjos is his speed. There have, of course, been questions about his durability. There have been questions about his power, and about his approach, and about whether, overall, he’s good enough to be in the lineup every day. But you can’t fake good speed, and Bourjos manages to translate that speed into phenomenal range in the middle of the outfield. Bourjos is one of those defenders who’s not only good, but who’s also a pleasure to watch just play defense. Like, I’d be happy to watch a batting practice with Matt Carpenter at the plate and Bourjos out shagging. I guess you’d have to incentivize Bourjos to give a crap about batting practice. Threaten to brand him with a hot iron! Most would be motivated by the threat of a hot iron. It’s just good baseball-watching to observe Bourjos gliding around his circular defensive empire.
But there are upsides and downsides. The upside is that having great range allows a player to get to more baseballs. The downside is that having great range allows a player to have more opportunities to screw up on TV in front of family and friends and judgmental strangers.
Look at all that ground that Peter Bourjos covered! And for nothing! He should’ve just stood still if he was going to make an *** of himself. This is a little similar to runners left on base as an offense. It’s encouraging to be in the position to leave runners on base. It means you put runners on base. But most people aren’t big fans of wasted opportunities. Some would sooner there just not even be an opportunity.
Featuring: Grady Sizemore, Chris Tillman
Grady Sizemore conditioned us to be skeptical. So did all of the Grady Sizemore-like players before him. We were skeptical about him in 2010. We were skeptical about him in 2011. We were skeptical about him when he signed in 2012, and we were skeptical about him when he signed in 2013. So we were skeptical about him when he signed in 2014, and we were skeptical when early reports were encouraging. We were skeptical when he broke camp on the major-league roster. There’s every reason to remain skeptical of Grady Sizemore. Every reason, that is, except for the part where he is incredibly, naturally talented at the sport that he somehow continues to play despite so many occasions of being derailed.
How one views Grady Sizemore is independent of how one views the Boston Red Sox. Everybody has to be rooting for Grady Sizemore. We’re all pulling for him because of his own story, and we’re all pulling for him because, if Sizemore can make it back, why not Rich Harden? Why not Franklin Gutierrez? Why not the fragile players of the present, and why not the fragile players of the future? Grady Sizemore isn’t Dustin McGowan, but every fan has a McGowan equivalent. And if Sizemore plays well, then everybody wins.
Featuring: Cliff Lee, J.P. Arencibia
Now that Mariano Rivera has retired, there’s no question in my mind — Cliff Lee has the best command of any pitcher in baseball. No one is more capable of putting the baseball exactly where they want to, so, as an unsurprising consequence, Lee doesn’t walk a lot of batters, preferring instead to keep them off balance and work through quick innings. Lee’s stuff plays up because he’s just constantly on and around the fringes of the strike zone. Against Lee, you have to earn your way on. Last year J.P. Arencibia had a .227 OBP. He was so incapable of walking MLB issued a handicapped placard. As a pitcher, Lee posted one of the lowest walk rates in the league. As a hitter, Arencibia posted one of the lowest walk rates in the league. Monday in Texas, Cliff Lee walked J.P. Arencibia.
I will note that it very nearly didn’t happen:
…but it stands to reason an Arencibia walk against Lee would require certain ingredients. Making things all the more unbelievable is that the plate appearance started with an 0-and-2 count. Last year, Lee had 251 plate appearances that reached an 0-and-2 count, and he gave up four walks. Arencibia had 121 plate appearances that reached an 0-and-2 count, and he drew zero walks. J.P. Arencibia drew a walk against Cliff Lee. And he even spotted him a couple of strikes. It was Lee’s only walk of the game, and 70% of his 101 pitches were strikes.
Featuring: Adam Wainwright, Joey Votto
A lot of the talk is about how Adam Wainwright made Billy Hamilton look terrible. But then, there are plenty of people who expect Billy Hamilton to be terrible, so maybe that’s not the greatest surprise. Arguably a perfect pitcher had a relatively easy time against a mediocre bat still getting accustomed to big-league competition. The greater shock is what Wainwright did to Joey Votto in the bottom of the sixth.
On the first pitch of the half-inning, Votto popped out in foul territory. What you remember is that Votto almost never hits pop-ups. According to his FanGraphs page, he has a dozen infield flies in his whole career. Now, you’ll notice this doesn’t count as one of them. This isn’t an infield fly on Votto’s FanGraphs page, because the ball went a little more than 140 feet. But this is an infield fly on Votto’s Baseball-Reference page, which has a little more generous of a definition. Over there, Votto has 57 career pop flies. So it’s less of an unusual event, but it’s still a highly unusual event, to the extent that Votto actually remembers each of the pop flies he’s hit. Votto is probably stewing about this right now. Being Joey Votto comes with many burdens. It’s also pretty terrific, but right now it’s a little extra terrific being Adam Wainwright.
Monday, there was a whole lot of baseball. Certain predictable things happened, but a number of unpredictable things happened, some of them changing the whole course of the day. It was an odd day of baseball, and one day of more than 200. But a season is just single days linked together, and if one day can go weird, why not two? Why not three? This is the time to believe whatever you want, before the numbers start to keep you in check. So, go nuts. J.P. Arencibia walked against Cliff Lee and Alex Gonzalez beat Greg Holland. All we are here are interpreters of madness.
All Systems Go For Instant Replay On Day One.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
We didn’t learn a lot about Major League Baseball yesterday, because we couldn’t possibly have. Though it’s fun to get some actual data going on the 2014 season, the first “real” inputs we’ve seen in many months, you hardly need me to tell you that one game is nothing near a substantial sample size. Mike Trout crushed a homer, but that doesn’t make him any greater than we already thought he was. Francisco Liriano struck out 10 over six scoreless innings, but that doesn’t mean that all the concerns we had about him being productive for two seasons in a row for once are out the window. Other than the injury issues — Bobby Parnell, Wilson Ramos, Jose Reyes — we aren’t a lot more informed about baseball than we were yesterday.
That’s probably still true about instant replay, because the five calls we saw on Opening Day mean that we still haven’t seen 25 teams use the option, and will represent a very tiny part of the full amount of replays we’ll see this year. Over time, we might be able to learn a bit about which umpires get overturned the most and which managers and teams are the best at knowing when to call for it. On April 1, we don’t know that. But since this is something brand new, and this is the first we’re seeing of it in action, it’s worth exploring — if not to judge the calls, then at least to see how the still-new process worked in its first day.
1) Cubs @ Pirates
Inning: Top 5th
Situation: 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd
Call: Jeff Samardzija ruled out on back end of 1-5-4 (Neil Walker covering first base) DP
Time from end of play to decision: 02:27
Time from challenge to decision: 01:44
The first replay of the day backed up the umpire, ruling Samardzija out on a very close play in a big situation — the game was scoreless, and the Cubs had only managed to get a runner to second base twice up to that point. If Samardzija had been safe, then Chicago has Emilio Bonifacio, who had singled twice already, coming up with two runners on. With a WPA of -.142, the play ended up being tied for the third-biggest WPA swing of the day, behind only Neil Walker‘s walk-off homer (obviously) and Bonifacio getting thrown out at home in the eighth inning, although the umpire was correct here.
Despite losing the call, Samardzija praised the process:
“(The umpires) did a nice job,” Samardzija said. “It went quick and we didn’t have to sit around.”
Manager Rick Renteria was less impressed:
“I’m trying to figure out what clear and convincing evidence is supposed to be,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “So it’s a work in progress. They have a lot of people looking at those videos in New York.”
Renteria said that after the game, of course, and if he didn’t seem very thrilled by the first day of the replay, it might be partially because his team was involved in a second replay, and, well:
2) Cubs @ Pirates
Inning: Top 10th
Situation: 1 out, runner on 1st
Call: Bonifacio ruled safe on a pickoff from Bryan Morris
Time from end of play to decision: 02:35
Time from challenge to decision: 02:10
With the speedy Bonifacio on first and Junior Lake at the plate, Clint Hurdle came out to challenge a call that looked pretty clearly incorrect on the replay, and he won. In a scoreless 10th inning game, the difference between one out/one on and two outs/none on are pretty big, and what are you saving it for at that point anyway? Lake ended up striking out, depriving Starlin Castro of the chance to hit; Walker ended the game in the first plate appearance of the bottom of the tenth.
Though the play seemed clear on replay, it’s obviously not quite so easy to tell from the dugout, and Hurdle came out to discuss it before knowing for sure he’d want it looked at again:
Hurdle said he was on his way onto the field when the Pirates staffer tasked with advising the dugout whether or not to challenge a call passed word that Bonifacio was out.
“I do know that there’s no need to go busting out of the dugout right away,” he said. “You give it some time, your guy’s on it, working on it.”
That’s going to be an ongoing theme, I think, watching the manager come out to make small talk while waiting for the go-ahead from his video guys upstairs.
3) Braves @ Brewers
Inning: Bottom 6th
Situation: 0 out, bases empty
Call: Ryan Braun ruled safe on a 5-3 grounder
Time from end of play to decision: 01:50
Time from challenge to decision: 01:06
Fredi Gonzalez came out on the field to discuss it with the umpire, all the while waiting for bench coach Carlos Tosca to give him the signal.
So, Carlos, what’s it going to be?
Well, then. (Although as the Braves announcers noted, they weren’t sure at first if this meant “the call was bad,” or “don’t initiate the replay, Fredi.” I look forward to the first time a manager chooses not to challenge a clearly-winnable play because of a miscommunication from the bench.) This one was pretty straight-forward, really. Multiple replays showed that Braun was out, and since it was leading off an inning in a game where his team had the lead, this didn’t shift the WPA all that much, though it was an incorrect call that got set straight.
Braun knew it, anyway:
“I had a pretty good idea I was out,” Braun said. “For all of us, we just hope they get it right, and they did get it right. Whether we’re on the good end or bad end, I think as players all we can hope for is that they’re able to get it right.”
4) Nationals @ Mets
Inning: Top 10th
Situation: 2 out, bases empty
Call: Danny Espinosa ruled out on a 5-3 grounder
Time from end of play to decision: 02:25
Time from challenge to decision: 01:47
Here’s what we learn from this one: Not all replays are going to be exciting! Ian Desmond had already put the Nats ahead 6-5 with a sacrifice fly in the 10th, then after Adam LaRoche walked, Anthony Rendon crushed a John Lannan pitch into the stands to make it a 9-5 lead. Up by four, with no one on base, this play meant almost nothing to the outcome of the game, hence the .000 WPA. From an entertainment view, it wasn’t even a very clear replay, since it sure looked like Lucas Duda got the tag on, but not beyond a shadow of a doubt. This might have been confirmed because it was right; it might have been because they couldn’t prove conclusively that it wasn’t.
Reportedly, CitiField didn’t even inform the fans that there was a review going on, while the other parks all showed the replay, as they are now allowed to do. If there was anything notable about this one, it was Washington manager Matt Williams — in his managerial debut — introducing the x-factor of what instant replays mean to sportsmanship:
“We hadn’t used it until that point. It makes you feel a little funny because you don’t want to rub it in when you’ve just gone ahead. But we have to do that for our club in case we have another opportunity to get another guy to the plate.”
Just what everyone was hoping for: unwritten rules in instant replay.
5) Indians @ Athletics
Inning: Top 6th
Situation: 0 out, runners on 1st and 3rd
Call: Michael Brantley ruled out at the plate
Time from end of play to decision: 03:02
Time from challenge to decision: 01:10
After Asdrubal Cabrera lined a ball off of pitcher Sonny Gray, who then picked it up to throw home, this one got interesting. As you can see above, there’s absolutely no question that John Jaso got the tag down on Brantley, and it was called as such. But that’s not what Terry Francona was challenging; instead, he was going after this winter’s other big new rule, the one preventing catchers from blocking the plate.
In the meantime, Gray was throwing warm-up pitches to test his leg, while Francona was conferring with the umpires. In the end, it wasn’t Francona who called for the replay at all, since managers can’t challenge this type of play, but umpire Mike Winters:
“With the new rule,” Winters told a pool reporter, “I just wanted to confirm what I saw on the field that the catcher did not block the plate unnecessarily. … He was in fair territory. He gave the runner plenty of plate to go to, and so I just wanted to be sure.”
Jaso was in fair territory, but this is easily going to be a subjective rule that’s going to be a source of controversy. Did he really give Brantley a path to score? Did the slight movement of his left leg constitute an unfair placement? That’s getting away from one rule change and into another, but replay alone isn’t going to allow an umpire to judge intent.
Unsurprisingly, Brantley wasn’t pleased:
“I did not have a lane,” Brantley said. “As you could see, I slid into both of his legs with my shins. It’s a tough call. There’s a gray area in there, but at the same time, hopefully next time we’ll get that call.”
In a scoreless game, this ended up being a big play, because only three other events on the evening — two coming when the A’s loaded the bases with zero outs in the 8th — had a higher WPA, though the Indians would end up winning 2-0.
* * *
So what did we learn? Again, nothing conclusive, not on five plays from one day. The average from the initiation of the challenge to the umpire signaling one way or another was one minute and 35 seconds, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. Of the five plays, two were reversed. That’s great in the sense that two mistakes were corrected, and about right with the numbers MLB released last week, saying that 377 calls in the 2013 season would have been reversed — over a 180-day season, that’s 2.09 per day. Three of these five came in extra innings, which makes a certain amount of sense, since those plays would seem to have a higher impact on the outcome of a game (though not always, as the Espinosa play showed), but likely a higher percentage than we’ll see over the full year.
It’s not going to be a perfect process, and it shouldn’t be expected to be. But on day one, it fixed two mistakes. Maybe the next fixed mistake is the one that doesn’t cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game, or doesn’t help give the Indians a win that may have cost Texas a playoff berth. For now, with what little we’ve seen of it, baseball is now two mistakes lighter. It’s hard to be unhappy with that.
Stephen Strasburg and Early Season Velocities.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
With the real Opening Day behind us — sorry Astros and Yankees, you’re just late — we now have real 2014 data from almost every team on the leaderboards. Of course, besides answering trivia questions, we all know that there’s really nothing insightful to be learned from one day’s performance, and we’re not going to find useful information to be analyzed there until the samples get a lot bigger.
But there are some numbers that became useful in very short order. Strikeout rate, for instance, only has to be regressed 50% to the mean at a much lower number of batters faced than most other pitching metrics, and big changes in K% over even a few starts can prove somewhat meaningful. It’s hard to fluke your way into getting a bunch of Major League hitters to swing through your pitches, and if you’re consistently throwing pitches by people, it’s a pretty good sign for the future.
That’s still a results-based metric, though, and by definition, those have to include significantly more variables than things that do not require a response from either the opposition or the teammate. The things that we can measure the quickest are the things that are affected by as few players as possible, and ideally, only one player. For instance, a catcher’s caught stealing rate will take more time to tell us about his arm strength than simply measuring his pop time — baseball lingo for the length of time it takes him to throw down to a base on a steal attempt — because CS% also includes the pitcher and the runner as variables. With enough CS attempts, we can infer things about a catcher’s arm strength from the results, but if we have pop time, we can measure that arm strength directly, and do so much faster.
That’s one of the reasons why we love PITCHF/x data, and specifically, the velocity readings they give us. We can infer quality of stuff from strikeout rate — guys who throw hard get more whiffs, generally — or swinging strike rate, but we don’t have to anymore, since there’s a direct measurement that takes place for every pitch of every Major League game. Velocity readings don’t care about quality of opposition or the umpire’s strike zone that day, with the pitcher himself being responsible for almost 100% of the calculation. Ballpark effects — the system is not calibrated exactly the same in every single city, and there are parks that run a little “hot” or “cold” — and weather have some impact, but relative to other metrics, the outside factors have very little impact on a pitcher’s velocity readings.
How quickly do fastball rates mean something? Jeff Zimmerman noted that a starting pitcher’s velocity over three starts will usually be within 1 mph of his seasonal average velocity. Not surprisingly, velocity can be meaningful very quickly. If any stat from the first day of the season means anything, it’s probably fastball velocity. But, even knowing that, we still have to use caution when trying to draw any kind of strong conclusion from limited samples of data.
For instance, you’ve probably read today about Stephen Strasburg‘s lower Opening Day velocity; his pitches that were classified as four seam fastballs averaged just 92.7 mph, down from 95.2 mph a year ago. When asked about it after the game, Strasburg said this.
“It felt pretty good. I guess radar guns have offseasons, too. I don’t know,”
The nice thing about PITCHF/x is that the cameras don’t have to get into game shape, and there usually aren’t gross measurements errors. But that doesn’t mean the system is perfect either, so when you see a pitcher post a significantly different velocity than you’re used to, the first thing I’d suggest doing is checking the velocities of every other pitcher in the game too. If the system is producing a systematic bias, it will show up in the other pitcher’s numbers, and should be easy to spot.
Yesterday, Strasburg was opposed by Dillon Gee of the Mets, and the same system that clocked Strasburg’s fastball down a few ticks had Gee sitting at 88.3 mph with his four seam fastball, a 1 mph decline from his 2013 average. So, immediately, we know we should keep investigating, because the first flag for systematic PITCHF/x calibration error has been raised. So, let’s go to the relievers who recorded at least three outs (and pitched significant innings in the majors last year), although with the qualification that now we’re taking small sample data even smaller, as we’re looking at 10-30 pitches in most cases.
Bobby Parnell: 92.8 mph yesterday, 95.1 mph last year
Jose Valverde: 91.9 mph yesterday, 92.8 mph last year
Tyler Clippard: 92.4 mph yesterday, 92.0 mph last year
Drew Storen: 92.0 mph yeserday, 93.7 mph last year
Jerry Blevins: 88.7 mph yesterday, 89.8 mph last year
Outside of Tyler Clippard, everyone was down yesterday, and Bobby Parnell had as big a drop as Strasburg. That would normally be encouraging, as it would be a decent indicator of the system in New York just running a bit slow, except as I write this, the Mets just announced that Parnell was pitching with a partial tear in his MCL, and he’s headed to the disabled list. So, yeah, that explains Parnell’s velocity drop.
But, keep in mind, Parnell isn’t the only guy who threw yesterday and had lower than last year’s average readings, and they aren’t all headed for surgery. And that’s because it’s April, and velocity is at its lowest point in the first month of the season. Last year, by month, average four seam velocity from PITCHF/x:
Comparing April velocity to seasonal average velocity will often make it look like a pitcher’s not throwing as hard, because pitchers just don’t throw as hard at the beginning of the year as they do at the end of the year. Instead, what you want to do is compare a pitcher’s velocity from this year to the same time period last year. And, while we haven’t advertised this feature enough, you can actually do that right from our game logs.
For instance, here is Stephen Strasburg’s game log for the last 365 days, in chronological order. You can see the huge cliff between his final start velocity of 2013 and his first start velocity of 2014, but you can also go back and see what his numbers were on Opening Day last year. In this case, they’re not particularly encouraging, because Strasburg’s four seam fastball sat at 96.0 last year, the highest average he’d post all year. But, it was still worth checking, and often, you will see that the difference in a pitcher’s velocity from the same time period last year will be less than the difference between his early starts and his seasonal average from the year before.
Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that nearly every pitcher loses velocity as they age. Strasburg throwing slower shouldn’t actually be a shock; it would be a surprise if he wasn’t ticking downwards. This is just how pitcher’s age. Throwing hard is a young man’s game, which is why a 21-year-old was the hardest throwing starter in MLB yesterday. Velocity peaks incredibly early, and it is unlikely that Strasburg will ever throw as hard as he used to. That’s not necessarily a sign of injury; it’s a sign of Strasburg being older.
Now, it can be a sign of injury, as Parnell’s MCL tear shows. Lowered velocity does have a correlation with higher injury rates, and it is an early warning sign that something might be wrong. But before you draw too many conclusions from early season velocity readings, remember that park effects do exist on these readings, and that April velocities are often lower than seasonal averages. Use the tools available to check and see if a park was running hot or cold on a given day. Use the game logs to see how a pitcher’s velocity changed throughout prior seasons. And don’t overreact to one start.
Stephen Strasburg’s missing velocity might be something to worry about. Or it might be nothing. As we know with every other metric, one day’s numbers mean basically nothing. That’s less true for fastball velocity, but it’s still mostly true. Let’s give it a few more starts, and if Strasburg is still sitting at 93, then we can start to wonder what that kind of change might mean for the future.