Velocity and the Remaining Free Agent Pitchers

Baseball has an obsession with velocity.

Most scouts employ radar guns which are particularly useful on the amateur trail, at minor league ballparks, and in spring training.

Since PITCHf/x went online in every MLB stadium in 2008, baseball, for the first time, enjoyed a uniform standard in velocity measurement. At places like FanGraphs, we often search for increases and decreases in velocity to explain something about a player’s performance.

Some teams like the Yankees and Pirates have placed a premium on velocity relative to other clubs, as I wrote earlier this month.

Velocity has increased at the MLB level every year since PITCHf/x has tracked pitches with average fastball velocity reaching 92.6 mph last season. At the amateur level there is a focus on velocity at showcase events and in travel ball, velocity is what in part allows pitchers to be drafted in the early rounds of the June draft. When visiting a pitcher’s profile page at Perfect Game, velocity readings are displayed and placed in the context of a player’s peer group. For an example, here is Dylan Bundy’s PG profile.

So perhaps it is no surprise that on the eve of February, the month in which equipment trucks depart for southern spring training destinations and pitchers and catchers report, that of the free agent pitchers that remain unsigned – and there are a number of them – the majority are soft-tossing pitchers.

Now, this was a historically poor free agent class for pitching. So the names in the table below are not elite arms, but they were still among the top free agents according to this comprehensive CBSSports free agency tracker. According to the list, among the top 65 overall free agents there are 12 arms remaining unsigned, and 11 of those pitchers possess fastball velocity below the league average.

Starting pitchers’ fastballs averaged 92.1 mph last season, and relievers averaged 93.4 mph. In relation to their designations as starters or relievers, all the pitchers listed in the following table possessed below-average velocity.

A Velocity Bias Against Remaining FA Pitchers?
FA rank (CBS) Pitcher Avg. FB velo 2016 ERA – 2016 FIP- fWAR projection FIP projection
10 Jason Hammel 92.0 92 108 1.7 4.31
34 Doug Fister 87.0 113 110 1.4 4.53
37 Sergio Romo 85.8 67 82 0.5 3.80
41 Travis Wood 90.4 71 97 0.1 4.14
45 Jon Niese 89.3 139 112 0.0 4.32
48 Joe Blanton 91.2 63 137 0.4 3.82
50 Boone Logan 93.1 75 73 0.1 3.47
53 Jake Peavy 88.9 140 111 0.4 4.71
54 Colby Lewis 87.3 85 112 1.1 4.8
55 Jorge de la Rosa 90.1 112 120 1.3 4.54
57 C.J. Wilson 90.3 (2015) Did not pitch Did not pitch 0.9 4.30
58 Jerry Blevins 92.4 70 74 0.0 3.73
SOURCE: CBSSports, PITCHf/x, FG leaderboards

Fister, Blanton, Romo and Hammel also ranked among FanGraphs top 50 free agents.

Again, this is not an elite collection of arms. And I noted last week these are the types of middle-class to lower-middle-class players that teams increasingly prefer to replace with younger, cheaper pre-arbitration production.

Still, while this is not an elite collection of arms, six of the 12 arms produced ERA- better than the league average and four produced FIP- marks better than the league average lasts season.

And some 2016 comps, in teams of performance, have had an easier time finding work this offseason:

Despite posting a 124 ERA- and a 109 FIP- last season, Edinson Volquez, signed a multi-year deal relatively quickly on Dec. 1 with the Marlins.

Despite performing below league average the last two seasons, despite spending the majority of that time in pitcher-friendly San Diego, Andrew Cashner earned $10 million guaranteed for 2017 likely in large part because his above-average velocity.

Derek Holland has a guaranteed deal despite posting a 113 ERA- and 110 FIP- in 2016 perhaps because he’s displayed above-average velocity from the left side for much of his career (93.1 mph), though his fastball velocity was down last season.

On the other hand, Koji Uehara received a relatively modest $6 million despite impressive performance, when on the mound, throughout his career.

Uehara has produced at least a 15% swinging strike rate each of the last three seasons, and K-BB% rates of 28.9%, 23.7% and 28.3% during the last three seasons, recording 3.1 fWAR over that time. Yes, Uehara has durability and age concerns but he’s been effective each year when he’s pitched. The issue beyond age? His velocity is in decline, falling to 86.7 mph last season, and major league teams likely were not sure what to do with that trend and his age.

The performance resumes of Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman were nearly identical last season and have been similar since they each debuted in 2010. Chapman owns a career 31% K-BB rate and 1.88 FIP, Jansen owns a career 32.2 k-BB% and 1.93 FIP. (And Jansen has no history of off-the-field issues). But Chapman earned 7.2 percent more dollars in his free agent deal this winter. One significant difference? Chapman’s go-to, four-seam fastball averaged 100.4 mph last season. Jansen’s go-to cutter averaged 93.5 mph last season. That’s a 7.1% difference! Just sayin’.

It’s true some short-on-velocity pitchers have earned contracts including Rich Hill, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Brad Ziegler. But they are unique cases: a curveballing- and spin-rate wonder, an ageless control artist, a knuckle-ball pitcher and a submarine-style arm.

If lacking velocity, better to be unique.

While this piece is not an exhaustive study, it’s perhaps fair to to suggest that if you’re a pitcher with below average velocity you are at a disadvantage on the open market or in the draft pool.

Velocity matters. It reduces hitter’s reaction time, it increases margin for error for a pitcher. Velocity sets up swing-and-miss pitches. You can perhaps help fix command or refine an off-speed pitch, but it seems more difficult to boost velocity. While velocity is not everything, if a pitcher lacks it it’s a significant factor working against them as we’ve seen this offseason.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

It does appear that there’s a bias against low-velo guys this off-season. I feel like there are a lot of useful FA’s left and it’s February tomorrow. From my memory, most of those type of guys are gone at this point in the year.