Buy These 3 Starting Pitcher Velocity Surgers

In this condensed spring training, it’s become tougher to use what we’ve seen so far to make projection adjustments. So really, the only thing I care at least a little bit about right now, besides playing time outlook, is a pitcher’s velocity. Specifically, I care more about increased velocity than I do decreased velocity. While a decline in velocity could signal that something is wrong, it’s more likely the pitcher is just gradually working his way up to his normal velocity and will be fine by opening day. On the other hand, you can’t fake increased velocity and there’s no reason for a pitcher to decide one outing to just go all out for the fun of it. I’m a sucker for velocity jumps, as it very oftentimes coincides with a major breakout. So let’s discuss three velocity surgers so far. Remember, the sample size of pitches thrown is really small, so it’s certainly possible that these averages will come down by the time opening day comes around.

Spring Velocity Surgers
Pitcher 2021 4-Seam Fastball MPH 2021 Sinker MPH 2022 4-Seam Fastball MPH 2022 Sinker MPH 4-Seam Fastball MPH Gain Sinker MPH Gain
Mitch Keller 93.8 97.3 3.5
Jesus Luzardo 95.9 95.1 98.0 97.9 2.1 2.8
Joe Ryan 91.2 92.4 1.2

The table compares each pitcher’s four-seam fastball velocity from the 2021 regular season to this year’s spring training. Since Jesus Luzardo also throws a sinker, I added a column comparing those velocities as well.

Mitch Keller

Like seriously, holy guacamole. I have been on an off the Keller bandwagon and all he’s done is drive me to tears. Just a couple of years ago, he was the Pirates’ second best prospect, ranking 34th overall. Sadly, his career has gotten off to a rocky start, to say the least. Over about a season’s worth of innings, his ERA stands at an ugly 6.02, while his SIERA is a more palatable, but still disappointing, 4.79. Walks have been a problem, and he has struggled to whiff a higher enough rate of hitters to offset the control issues.

Suddenly, spring training 2022 begins and after 35 four-seamers, his fastball is up an incredible 3.5 MPH in velocity! That’s absurd! Last Thursday, Statcast shows him maxing out at 99.8 MPH with that fastball. According to his Pitch Type Splits page, his fastball has never exceeded 98.3 MPH while in the Majors. I don’t know what he did during the offseason, but this is a totally new Keller.

Historically, his four-seamer has been nothing special from a whiff perspective, averaging a 7.1% SwStk%. His slider has been his best whiff pitch and would make for a fantastic complement to an improved fastball, while a better fastball could potentially make his curveball and changeup actually worth throwing. Both those latter pitches have generated weak SwStk% marks. The changeup, specifically, has generated the lowest SwStk% (1.6%) I’ve ever seen for that pitch type, and one of the lowest for any pitch type over a reasonable sample! So clearly there’s loads of room for these rates to rise.

Is it as simple as gaining over three miles per hour on his fastball? I don’t know, as he still needs to throw strikes. But it certainly makes him wayyyyy more interesting now, and more than just a fingers-crossed buy in NL-Only leagues. Buy him now before word spreads. Heck, I just selected him in the last of our six-round reserve draft in my 12-team mixed league, so I’m practicing what I preach.

Jesus Luzardo

Remember him?! It feels like so long ago, but he once was the Athletics’ top prospect and the fifth best overall prospect. Unfortunately, his MLB career hasn’t gone that differently than Keller’s has. Luzardo’s career ERA stands at 5.36 (versus a more acceptable 4.36 SIERA), his strikeout rate has been blah, and his walk rate has been worse than the league average. The Pirates have stuck with Keller, but the A’s shipped Luzardo off to the Marlins, where he didn’t fare any better last year despite being able to face the pitcher.

I already drafted him in LABR Mixed, because he’s exactly the type to just close your eyes and hope the light bulb goes off, as he realizes his former top prospect promise. But now his four-seamer is up 2.1 MPH and his sinker is up 2.8 MPH during spring training? Holy cow, give me all the shares!

What excites me so much about Luzardo, even ignoring this velocity spike, is that he already owns two excellent pitches. His slider has generated an elite 21.1% SwStk% during his short career, while his changeup is at 18.2%. His four-seamer has been solid itself at an 8.1% rate, while his sinker is about average for the pitch type. So it’s clear that the quality of his stuff hasn’t actually deteriorated. Now I wonder how much more effective those pitches might be if they come in two-to-two and a half miles per hour faster.

I can see the headlines now for Keller and Luzardo at season’s end – “Former top prospects ride velocity gains to breakout seasons”.

Joe Ryan

Finally, we have the least experienced pitcher who debuted last year. Unlike the above two, Ryan enjoyed a pretty darn good debut last year, but a suppressed LOB% hit some superb skills. Throughout his minor league career, Ryan has posted some insane strikeout rate and combined them with low walk rates. If you were just looking at the stats, you would think he was a top five pitching prospect in baseball. But he wasn’t, and is not. In fact, he is only ranked as the Twins’ sixth best prospect and failed to even make the top 100 overall list. Even his future role is expected to be a multi-inning reliever, rather than a starting pitcher!

Why? Probably because scouts just cannot ignore velocity, no matter what stats the pitchers posts. From our blurb:

Throughout his time in the minors, Ryan’s strikeout rate has left many scratching their heads. With a fastball that sits 90-94 mph, it was hard to understand the 37.3% K-rate (against just 6.5% walks) he’d posted in his 29 professional starts across the 2018 and ’19 seasons, not to mention his swinging strike rates, which were among the minor leagues’ best.

But then came the explanation:

Understanding that success requires an examination of Ryan’s approach angle – he creates backspin that seems impossible based on his release point, thanks to a seemingly incongruously high arm slot and very short levers – which gives him the look of a starter, unlike other hurlers with similarly low releases. That deceptive approach angle allows his fastball to play up, with batters swinging over it, especially when he can place it in at their hands.

Deception. We hear that a lot, especially applied to pitchers with underwhelming velocity. Well how about when that pitcher’s velocity increases by more than a mile per hour? You assume the deception remains, so a faster fastball should be even more difficult to make contact with. It was hard to believe Ryan could come anywhere close to the small sample strikeout rate he posted during his MLB debut, let alone the elite marks he posted in the minors. A velocity bump doesn’t guarantee he will now, but certainly gives him a better chance to prove his skeptics wrong.

What’s interesting is that the fastball that was meh in velocity last year actually generated an above average 11% SwStk%. Again, likely due to deception. Add more velocity and it could get even better and/or make it more difficult for batters to adjust to his delivery, resulting in strikeout rate regression. He paired that fastball with a strong slider that generated an 18.2% and a solid enough changeup that was also in the mid-teens in SwStk%.

I think it would have been right to question the sustainability of his strikeout rate and SwStk% mark given his velocity, but a jump there should help stave off regression. He’s an extreme fly-baller, but that’s not so bad in and of itself, as that should lead to a low BABIP. Combined with his low walk rate, that’s a lot of solo homers.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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8 months ago

If Joey Ryan has a good year he will continue on as a starter. And ya Mitch Keller stresses us out every year. He is capable……but will he finally produce. For me in an auction, I will take Keller for a buck but if any bidding starts forget it. Joey Ryan is actually going for a few bucks. ( $3 to $7 ). Luzardo is one of the high risk high reward pitchers but if he blows up he can hurt you badly. Nice article,. Very interesting.

8 months ago
Reply to  montreal

Man please just call him Joe… “Joey Ryan” is a name that sets off alarms in the heads of wrestling fans lol