As we are not even two weeks into the season, it is ridiculously early to draw many conclusions from season-to-date stats. Still, most of us aren’t just standing pat with our opening day rosters, and it’s not just injuries and playing time trends that are guiding our add/drop moves.
It’s certainly not mere coincidence that Jakob Junis is coming off Monday night’s scoreless seven-inning performance against the Mariners and he is atop the most-added lists on ESPN and CBS for starting pitchers. Owners have not been scared off by Junis’ total of nine strikeouts over 14 innings, as they have been drawn in by his 0.00 ERA and 0.50 WHIP.
While Junis has been merely ordinary as a bat-misser, he has stood out as a minimizer of exit velocity. Of the 122 pitchers who have allowed at least 25 hit balls, Junis ranks 17th in lowest average exit velocity with a mark of 85.7 mph (per Baseball Savant). It’s not a stretch to connect the lack of speed on outgoing balls to the absence of extra-base hits in Junis’ first two starts of the year. For the 117 pitchers who allowed at least 350 hit balls in 2017, there was an R-squared of 0.18 (p-value < .0001) for the correlation between average exit velocity and Iso, so having the ability to limit exit velocity did help pitchers to avoid extra-base hits to some extent.
Two starts can only tell us so much about Junis, though. From last season’s bigger sample, the outlook isn’t so bright. Junis was one of 139 pitchers who had 300 or more hit balls, and only six of them finished with a higher average exit velocity than his 88.9 mph. He is pitching more often in the lower third of the strike zone this season, so maybe that is helping him to soften the blow when he allows contact. Even so, can we really bank on Junis continuing this trend? It’s probably a good time to put Junis on the market, just to see what other owners might be willing to give up for him.
Unlike Junis, several pitchers who are allowing exit velocities on the extremes are falling in line with their prior trends. Each of the current top four in lowest average exit velocity — Kyle Hendricks, Jose Berrios, Jacob deGrom and Charlie Morton — were far below the median mark last season, and Hendricks and Morton were among the 15 lowest (min. 300 hit balls). At the other end, Ian Kennedy, Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman ranked among the pitchers with the 15 highest average exit velocities in 2017, and so far this season, they are in the highest quartile (min. 25 hit balls). Though Kennedy has yet to give up a home run, his luck may be about to change, while Archer is showing no early signs of departing from his homer-prone ways. As long as Stroman is elite at inducing grounders, we don’t have to worry about home runs, but he may continue his trend of slightly-elevated BABIP rates.
There are a few other interesting names at the extremes of the average exit velocity leaderboard. Here are just a few and what their limited early data might tell us.
Brent Suter, 83.8 mph, 5th-lowest (min. 25 batted balls): Suter’s average exit velocity in 2017 was the same as it is now, and that was the second-lowest mark for any pitcher who made at least 10 starts. The ability to limit extra-base hits he showed in his rookie season (.125 Iso) may not have been a fluke, but his current .364 BABIP and 41.2 percent line drive rate look suspect. He appears to be a good buy-low target.
Shohei Ohtani, 83.9 mph, 7th-lowest: This doesn’t add much to our overall assessment of Ohtani. It’s just one more sign of how awesome he has been.
Dylan Bundy, 85.7 mph, 17th-lowest: In the second half of 2017, Bundy broke out as a strikeout pitcher, but his continued propensity to serve up flyballs made him a bit risky going into this year. That apparent danger has yet to surface, as he has allowed only one home run and one double in his first 20 innings. Bundy posted average exit velocities of 87.2 and 88.1 in his first two seasons in the Orioles’ rotation, so keeping it at its current level could be a key to his potential ascent into the pitching elite.
Tyler Mahle, 94.5 mph, highest on the leaderboard: Maybe Mahle’s extreme average exit velocity is just a small sample artifact. However, he is at the very bottom of the leaderboard and is one of only five pitchers on the list with a mark above 93.0 mph.
Danny Duffy, 93.5 mph, 5th-highest: Duffy is one of the other four pitchers to be in excess of 93.0 mph. An optimist can note that he was at 86.0 mph last season and at 88.4 mph in his breakout 2016 season. A pessimist could note this change in tandem with with the nearly 2 mph dip in his average fastball velocity as compared to a year ago and speculate that maybe Duffy did not leave his shoulder issues behind in spring training.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.