Written by: Matthew Haines
It has seemed that for years, pitching gurus and players alike have been arguing over this same question. On one end of the spectrum, we have Kyle Hendricks, a dominant pitcher with minus velocity, yet with outrageous movement and pinpoint accuracy, he gets the job done. On the other end, we have guys like Josh Hader, Aroldis Chapman, Nathan Eovaldi, I can go on. These players, while also having their fare share of command and movement profiles, can dominant a game simply through offering up a fastball that is simply too hard to hit. So the question remains, does velocity matter?
Keep in mind that this will not be an article geared towards potential professional and college athletes searching for answers as to why, or why not they are looked at. Rather, consider this article to attempt to answer a much simpler, lucid question, what is the effect that velocity has on pitcher production?
First, let’s take a quick look at how velocity has changed over the years in the MLB.
This data consists of all qualified pitchers for their respective seasons.
We begin in 2002, where average fastball velocity (Avg. FBv) began being tracked. As you can see, as the years have progressed, so have the velocity numbers. Avg. FBv has risen 4.2mph, while Peak Avg. FBv has risen 3.2. Now, these are interesting trends to look at, and from this we can deduce that as time progresses, more and more pitchers are throwing harder and harder. But how can this relate to success. To compare the relationship between production and velocity, we have to isolate production to a year by year basis and attempt to account for the ever changing offensive landscape of the game.
To best compare the relationship between FBv and production, we will be looking at how FIP changes as velocity fluctuates. To do this, let’s first compare the top 20 Avg. FBv’s of each year with the bottom 20 and analyze how production differs.
The evidence here seems pretty clear. As it stands, from this data, we always see that on average, fast throwing pitchers see better production when compared to their slower throwing counterparts. Interestingly enough, as the years go on it is found that velocity has become more and more valuable for a team, as it contributes more and more to player production. This is seen in the “Diff.” column, showing the difference between the Top 20 FBv FIP and the Bottom 20 FBv FIP. As you can see, as the years progressed, so have the differences in production from the league’s hardest throwing pitchers from the league’s slowest throwing. Yet, this does not tell the whole story. Teams are not ignoring this trend, harder throwers have better production. This is shown here:
As you can see, the differences in velos from 2002 to 2019 have actually dropped. In both of these charts, we see some interesting trends. While the difference in production has increased quite dramatically, this difference in actual velo has also dropped. This is mostly due to the slower throwing pitcher being “weeded out”, replaced with harder throwing substitutes. This is echoed in the FBv data from the bottom 20 pitchers and the rapid increase throughout the last 17 years. In the same time, while the hardest throwers are throwing harder, we are reaching what most are considering the “maximum velocity”. In essence, you can consider the rise in velocity throughout humanity as a logarithmic trend. As we continue to rise in velocity, we will get closer and closer to the feasible “limit” for a human. While it is hard to say where this limit lies, it is a safe bet to say that many people will reach 105, 106, 107, as fast as they reached 97, 98, 99. Meanwhile, if the trend continues, we will see less and less slower throwing pitchers throughout the MLB, eventually leaded to a closer and closer average velo between the Top 20 and Bottom 20 pitchers in FBv. Does this mean that pitcher like Kyle Hendricks, Matthew Boyd, or Hyun-Jin Ryu will become instinct? Probably not. However, be prepared to expect a lot more Noah Syndergaard’s in rotations in the future.
So in the end, I would like to address the previous question posed in this article. At its core, does velocity matter? According to the data, ABSOLUTELY. For this reason, I think we as a baseball community should embrace this trend. For a human being to consistently pump fastballs 95+ is not only impressive, but quite a thing of beauty. For hitters, do not worry, all indications show that adjustment will eventually come to once again “level” the playing field amongst athletes. However, once the MLB has reached the aforementioned “limit” expect more and more emphasis on other factors that help a pitcher with production such as tunneling, horizontal and vertical break, and any other of the variety of tools that make pitchers successful.