On Max Scherzer and Saving Velocity

With the continual increases in league-wide fastball velocity each year, we’re beginning to understand that pitcher aging curves are going to change dramatically. As Jeff Zimmerman’s work makes clear, older pitchers are holding onto more of their fastball velocity and shedding usage at the same time. There’s a survivor’s bias in studying the pitchers who have accrued the most innings, but there’s something to be learned about the limits of maintaining velocity from pitchers who exemplify the modern game.

Max Scherzer is an archetype of the modern pitcher: someone who has been all gas and punchouts. But as he ages, he appears to be entering into a slow decline. He’s boosted his K-BB% rate from 23.4% last season to 30.9%, but his fastball has lost 0.6 mph (94.9 to 94.3 mph) off its average and 0.8 mph (97.9 to 97.1 mph) off its max. And while we can argue about averages, what might be most important for measuring arm health is max velocity.

The inability to reach that same kind of peak velocity matters for a pitcher who appears to be particular about it in the first place.

Let’s look at how Scherzer treats fastball velocity by count.

The violin plot here highlights the distribution of velocities, with the median marked by the dot. The 0–0 count holds close to the lowest median and the lowest tail out of any of the other counts. There’s a clear jump in all two-strike counts, but the presence of the increase in 3–2 situations tells us that Scherzer is saving the velocity, not sacrificing control for it.

Not everything is openly about counts. There’s also a desire, especially for a starter, to get through an at-bat in as few pitches as possible. What if we look at something simpler than count and see how velocity manifests on a pure usage standpoint within an at-bat?

Casting aside all assumptions of a count-based philosophy of doling out velocity, there’s a continued increase in velocity with each pitch that also shows itself in a pretty clean relationship. We know that Scherzer is someone who can ramp up his velocity to peak late in an outing, but ramping up within an at-bat appears to be possible as well. It’s not a trait unique to Scherzer, either. Cole Irvin and Trevor Bauer on average have a two mile per hour difference in their fastballs from the first pitch of an at-bat to the fifth. Scherzer comes in at 1.15 mph, which is within the top 30 of starters.

There is something that makes sense about this. We’re all aware of TTO penalties and the familiarity a hitter builds when facing a pitcher multiple times. Who’s to say a hitter doesn’t pick up that familiarity within an at-bat? Maybe that’s a thought for another time (or never), but for Scherzer, there are more direct reasons to ease on the velocity early in an at-bat.

Max Scherzer Fastball Rates by At-Bat Pitch #
Pitch # xwOBA Swstr% Swing% Zone% N
1 0.32 9.02 33.08 52.63 133
2 0.41 14.17 46.67 50.00 120
3 0.32 17.59 58.33 58.33 108
4 0.36 15.71 51.43 52.86 70
5 0.62 20.00 75.00 67.50 40
6 0.56 21.88 71.88 62.50 32
7 0.13 30.00 90.00 50.00 10
8 NaN 20.00 80.00 60.00 5
9 0.05 33.33 66.67 100.00 3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Scherzer is willing to cut back the effort on those first pitches because he knows the hitter won’t swing. We can talk about how much that first-pitch swing rate has changed over the years, but relative to the rest of the at-bat, it’s low. The goal of the starting pitcher is to get outs in as few pitches as possible, so hitters have a secondary goal of working a starter as much as possible. It’s a viable strategy, but if each hitter wants to work an at-bat to at least three or four pitches, that first pitch is there for grabs, so why not save a little off the arm if you’re a starter? That low swing rate early in the count can be seen league-wide as well.

League-wide Fastball Rates by At Bat Pitch #
Pitch # xwOBA Swstr% Swing% Zone%
1 0.43 6.05 31.56 55.89
2 0.43 10.07 46.73 54.75
3 0.41 11.03 51.56 52.27
4 0.39 10.82 52.05 53.58
5 0.41 12.22 61.63 56.37
6 0.41 10.98 69.13 57.82
7 0.40 11.57 71.65 57.86
8 0.41 10.14 71.89 60.52
9 0.53 10.16 71.48 63.67
10 0.46 17.50 75.00 55.00
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Max Marchi has done great work exploring many of the count-based, opposition-based, and situation-based breakdowns of fastball velocity, but there’s something about analyzing the macro that can make us miss the individual cases. Someone who has been around as long as Scherzer and has as many “attention to detail” type stories written about him is going to know when his fastball is one mph down or two mph up from the norm. Someone with the command he has is also going to be very aware in mechanical feel and body awareness about how much he’s putting into a given throw. How many 92–93 mph fastballs equate to one 96-mph fastball is unknown to us, but that must mean something to Scherzer.

There are arguments to be made and research to be done about the efficacy of holding off velocity in an at-bat and being selective about where you use your hardest stuff. But it’s easy to understand why a pitcher like Scherzer, who’s thrown at least 190 innings in each season from 2010 to ’19, is saving velocity within an at-bat. It does him no good to overexert when he doesn’t have to or to let at-bats go long. His velocity may be decreasing, but averages can be deceiving. What he still has, what will ease his decline, and what will be a likely roadmap for aging pitchers is an understanding of when to ration out the velocity he has.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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The Ancient Mariner
2 years ago

Looks like a return to the wisdom of Christy Mathewson, to some extent.

Cave Dameron
2 years ago