For Dodgers and Their Rivals, Velocity Is Always a Wild Card

Rich-Hill
(Mandatory Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Here’s a history lesson (I will keep it very short, I promise).

Way back in the 1930s, there was an outstanding St. Louis Cardinals pitcher named Dizzy Dean. Dean was a great pitcher, racking up 120 wins, 970 strikeouts, 19 shutouts and 30 saves while averaging a ridiculous 306 innings per season from 1932 to 1936. He led the league in strikeouts four consecutive seasons. Dean won 30 games, the National League’s Most Valuable Player award and the World Series in 1934.

Anyhow: in 1937, Dean kicked a comebacker in the All-Star Game and broke a toe. He came back from the injury too soon and promptly blew out his arm. Dean got by on guts and guile in 1938, but was out of baseball by 1941.

That’s the end of the story.

In baseball, when it goes, it can go fast, especially for pitchers. There have been plenty of stories about guys whose heat disappears. In recent years, Tim Lincecum, an old Los Angeles Dodgers nemesis whom Our Guys scouted this season, comes to mind. Justin Verlander’s average fastball velocity sank close to 93 miles per hour in 2014, coinciding with the darkest point in his career, before things turned around for him. Jake Arrieta’s diminishing velocity may have been a key factor in scaring off free agent suitors, until the Phillies took the bait.

And, of course, there are the stories coming out about our old friend and current enemy Zack Greinke, whose heater is currently in the mid-80s and not coming around as fast as the veteran righty had hoped. The Diamondbacks’ $34 million hurler has been battling groin issues, but he’s also 34, his fastball has nosing downward for several seasons and he’s pitching in a hitter’s environment. At least one of his seasons in Arizona have already been a disappointment, and things aren’t getting any easier in 2018.

Consider what Eno Sarris wrote at FanGraphs:

It’s not easy to figure out what went wrong for Zack Greinke in 2016. Sometimes pitchers have trouble with breaking balls in the dry desert air, and his slider did have a relatively down year by pitch type values that season. But his slider only got slower in 2017, and gave up harder contact (while getting more whiffs), so his recovery was not all on the slider. In fact, his fastball generally got slower, and his pitching mix remained relatively unchanged. Mostly, he started throwing a bit lower in the zone, and stopped throwing changeups to right-handers. It was enough to get more whiffs and return to grace, but the questions linger. 

On the other hand, former Dodger Yu Darvish is now throwing 98 m.p.h for the Cubs after leaning too heavily on his slider in 2017. Darvish, however, didn’t use an elevated four-seamer often enough last season which, as MLB.com’s David Adler aptly explains, is the classic rising-fastball, blow-em-away pitch that aces like Verlander and Max Scherzer throw. The fastball does not giveth if one does not taketh, and it’s one more reason Yu didn’t fit in on a team that loved throwing high heat.

“I think the Dodgers are the best team at elevating fastballs and breaking balls down,” Willson Contreras told The Chicago Tribune earlier this spring. “It’s hard to hit an elevated fastball.”

Lack of a fastball isn’t the end of the world. The Dodgers’ Rich Hill averaged 89.2 m.p.h on his speedball last season, and he was a fairly effective pitcher, winning 12 games and posting a 2.6 wins above replacement. In fact, he threw the fastball dramatically more often in the second half of the 2017 season, and had excellent results—thanks in large part to his above-average command. He’s projected to have a similar season in 2018, rugged outing versus the Royals.

Houston’s Dallas Keuchel is another ace who throws around 90 m.p.h, but his two-seamer has great movement, as John Harper of The New York Daily News notes. Keuchel’s inability to stretch the radar gun won’t keep him from being a hot commodity in the free agent market after the 2018 season.

On Thursday, Bill Shaikin wrote that “None of the Dodgers’ projected starters had an average fastball velocity that ranked in the top 50 in the major leagues last season, according to Fangraphs data among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. The average velocity ranged from 92.7 mph (Clayton Kershaw) to 89.0 mph (Rich Hill).”

And yet we’re not so much worried about speed as we are health and durability. We know Kershaw can pitch—we don’t want him to hurt his back. We know Hill, Ryu and Maeda can get guys out—we don’t want them to re-aggravate old injuries, or need to come out midway through the fourth inning.

After all, an amazing fastball is also no guarantee of success. Sandy Koufax famously struggled for the first half of his career until he learned the art of control. Walker Buehler—the Dodgers’ latest ace of the future—threw 100 m.p.h in his MLB debut and has been right around the century mark this spring, but will marinate in the minors to start the season.

There’s a magic to the fastball that’s unmistakable. When I saw Buehler pitch in Washington last season (and get hit around, unfortunately), the crowd oooed and ahhhed at the gaudy digits on the scoreboard. No one did the same when, say, Hill came to town. The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani was brutal again on Friday, lit up by the Rockies for seven runs in less than two innings, but no one’s going to give up early on a guy who can throw 98 m.p.h—even if he gets his teeth kicked in this season.

With the season finally visible on the horizon, velocity will stay top of mind. How does Kershaw’s velocity look? He had a September start that sent up some serious red flags about his velocity and command before straightening it out—until, of course, the fourth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. How does Kenley Jansen’s fastball look? How about Ryu, who finally started getting his heater back late last season? Will Julio Urias come back with the speed that made us blink during his brief, but occasionally awesome, time with the club?

Seasons are made and broken at the speed of a four-seamer. Looking forward to it once again.

 

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