The Mariners Had to Love What They Just Saw

The World Baseball Classic is, of course, its own tournament, fully enjoyable all by itself. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll concede that we think of the regular season first. So we watch the WBC with the year ahead very much in mind. The Seattle area had particular interest in Wednesday night’s game between Venezuela and the United States, in San Diego. The US was scheduled to open with Mariners starter Drew Smyly. Venezuela was scheduled to open with Mariners starter Felix Hernandez.

Felix, at this point, is among baseball’s more intriguing unknowns. One of the best pitchers in the world is coming off the most disappointing season of his career, a season in which all the numbers went in the wrong direction. That’s typically a sign of decline, but Felix spent the winter working hard to try to regain his strength. His outing was sure to be monitored closely, and he wound up spinning five shutout innings, without a single walk. The public is forever keeping track of Felix’s velocity, and on a few occasions, he pushed his fastball past 92. There were reasons to be encouraged, as Felix blanked a strong lineup.

And yet maybe that’s missing the point. So many times, the story has been about Felix Hernandez’s fastball. In this case, the story should probably be about Drew Smyly’s fastball.

Smyly’s fastball has been in the news before, because it’s a pitch the Rays attempted to weaponize. Because of Smyly’s over-the-top delivery, his fastball barely has any drop, and the Rays recommended that he use it for whiffs around the top of the zone. The pitch has been successful up there, yet that success has mostly been a function of the pitch’s movement. Smyly has never been known for his arm strength, and his average fastball last season clocked in at 90.2 miles per hour. He’s at 90.5 over his career.

Behold Smyly’s final pitch Wednesday, to strike out Carlos Gonzalez in the top of the fifth:

The reading there might be too pixelated to see, but according to Gameday, Smyly threw that fastball at 94.4. It followed a fastball at 94.2. Smyly, as a starting pitcher, hasn’t had a pitch recorded that fast since he was a rookie in 2012. And it wasn’t just a fleeting burst, either. You know who’s hard to strike out? Victor Martinez is hard to strike out! Drew Smyly struck him out twice. Here’s one:

That one was 92.9. Smyly’s next fastball was 93.4. He threw 13 fastballs at 93 or higher. I pulled data directly from Gameday, since Brooks Baseball hasn’t yet updated to include the information. Smyly threw just 61 pitches, 39 of which seem to have been heaters. Earlier, I mentioned Smyly’s 2016 and career fastball-velocity averages. His slowest fastball on Wednesday was measured at 90.6. His slowest fastball, in other words, was faster than his previous average fastball. And his overall average fastball on Wednesday was 92.4. That would represent an increase of more than two ticks.

Smyly’s best-ever single-game average was 93.4, set on April 17, 2012. I don’t know what that was about. The game before, he was at 90.8, and the game after, he was at 90.4. Otherwise, Smyly has never shown the velocity he showed last night, and that makes it worth pointing out the limited data from an earlier appearance in the Cactus League:

That’s based on very little information, but now we can tell this isn’t a one-day blip. Based on a Smyly appearance a week and a half ago, there would’ve been reason to look for a good fastball on Wednesday as well. Sure enough, that good fastball showed up, strengthening the evidence that there’s something real going on here. I don’t know how Smyly might’ve picked up some extra zip, but he very well might’ve, while Felix was trying to accomplish the exact same thing.

For whatever it’s worth, the better velocity showed up across the board. Smyly’s cutter just averaged 87.1, up two ticks. Here it is in replay form, making a fool of Miguel Cabrera:

And Smyly threw his breaking ball at an average of 78.7, up about three ticks. Here it is getting a whiff from Rougned Odor:

The stuff, in short, was better than ever. Smyly’s results reflected as much, as he struck out eight while walking none against a terrific Venezuelan lineup. Smyly finished with six consecutive strikeouts, going through Martin Prado, Cabrera, Martinez, Odor, Alcides Escobar, and Gonzalez. He was pulled in the top of the fifth because that’s how the tournament works.

So, two conflicting things. On the one hand, I’ve pointed out data from two abbreviated appearances. It’s possible Smyly has thrown extra hard because he’s known he hasn’t had to pace himself for as long as usual. On the other hand, look at the calendar. The nearest calendar, any calendar. It says it’s March! Or it’s wrong. It’s March. Pitchers everywhere are still building up their arms, after a fairly restful offseason. Research has indicated that, on average, fastballs are slower in the first couple months. This could all just even out. And Smyly’s velocity boost isn’t exactly subtle.

I examined starting pitchers from the past decade who threw at least 50 innings in consecutive seasons. There are 46 examples of pitchers who increased their average fastballs by at least a mile and a half. The average increase of the group is +1.9mph. The average ERA- improved by 15 points. The average FIP- also improved by 15 points. I should note that in the overall sample, looking at all the pitchers, the average ERA- got worse by five points. The general rule is regression. The pitchers who’ve found better velocity have countered that, and then some.

Which is very much intuitive. As people are always quick to remind, there’s more to pitching than velocity, but velocity’s pretty useful. Faster stuff, obviously, gives hitters less time to react. It also implies better, smoother, and/or more consistent mechanics. The transfer of energy is probably more efficient. Which could mean better location. Better everything. Getting better means you’re better.

Every spring, there are stories about velocity gains and velocity drops. Last spring, there was talk about Miguel Gonzalez losing his fastball, and the Orioles cut him. The White Sox grabbed him, and his fastball was fine, and he ran a sub-4 ERA. We can never know anything for sure when we’re working with such limited information. But at the very least, you can consider Drew Smyly’s stock on the rise. In the past, he’s dealt with significant shoulder problems, and one can imagine how that might’ve sapped his stuff. One can also imagine how strengthening said shoulder could introduce a new level of heat. Wednesday, when Felix was on the mound, observers kept one eye on the radar gun. Yet it was Smyly’s velocity that hogged the spotlight. I’m not sure the Mariners could’ve asked for a better pair of starts.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

As a Tigers fan, I hate what I just saw in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

The Truthmember
6 years ago
Reply to  IHateJoeBuck

I hate Joe Buck too.