The Change: What Pitcher Stats To Use Early in the Season

A few weeks back, I looked at hitter stats that you can use early in the season. And they presaged the Domingo Santana mini-breakout! Now it’s time to look at pitchers, and let you into my toolbox.

There will be leaderboards.

The easiest thing to look at is velocity. Every tick is worth something, and all things being equal, you don’t want to see a pitcher down in mph. Here are the 20 pitchers that have gained the most velocity when you compare last week’s velo to last April’s velocity. I’ve also added a column for the yearly velocity in 2015.

Biggest Velocity Gainers April 2015 – April 2016
Player Last Week 2015 Apr-15 Diff April-April
Danny Duffy 96.9 93.6 93.6 3.3
Robbie Ross 94.5 92.4 91.4 3.1
Matt Barnes 96.7 94.7 93.8 2.9
Mark Melancon 91.8 91.3 89.1 2.7
Tony Cingrani 94.7 91.8 92.1 2.6
Joba Chamberlain 94.3 93.8 91.7 2.6
Michael Pineda 93.4 92.5 90.9 2.5
Matt Shoemaker 91.1 90.2 88.6 2.5
Andrew Chafin 94.3 92.4 91.8 2.5
David Phelps 92.6 90.2 90.2 2.4
Brandon Maurer 96.1 94.4 93.8 2.3
Derek Holland 90.7 92.9 88.4 2.3
Jesse Hahn 94.6 91.9 92.3 2.3
Andrew Schugel 93.9 91.6 91.7 2.2
Alfredo Simon 94.4 92.6 92.2 2.2
Will Harris 92.2 92.2 90.1 2.1
Trevor Cahill 92.2 91.4 90.1 2.1
Max Scherzer 94.6 94.1 92.5 2.1
Brett Cecil 92.3 91.8 90.3 2
Dellin Betances 97.3 97 95.3 2

Danny Duffy is going to be or is already a crazy good reliever. It’s part of the secret in Kansas City — they’ve only developed one good starter, so their relievers are really good failed starters. Maybe Robbie Ross can find the same love. Matt Barnes is stuck in limbo right now, usage wise, so that’s not super useful information.

Mark Melancon moving up is actually interesting. League average velocity for a reliever is 92.4, and for a top-30 guy in saves this year, it’s 93.0. Getting from 89.1 to 91.8 moves him from the bottom three to just below-average velocity, and makes it a little less likely he loses his job. Oh, look, his strikeout rate is up.

Tony Cingrani moved to the pen, so did Andrew Chafin and David Phelps and Brandon Maurer. You always get a bump when you move to the pen.

Derek Holland probably just got healthy, who hurt himself being Derek Holland at home last year. Interestingly, though, Holland is down when compared to his yearly velocity last year. I’d read this chart as being neutral to bad news for the lefty. Worse news is that he’s throwing his bad changeup more this year, and it’s no better. Put him down for a sell sell sell sell for whatever you can get in my book.

HollandVelo

Michael Pineda is up over both his April and seasonal velocities last year, and he’s giving up so many home runs. It’s not the changeup, or at least not the changeup against lefties. He’s only given up one home run to lefties so far, but he’s given up a home run to a righty on one of his 12 changeups, maybe that was just a hanger. He’s given up four home runs to righties on the fastball, and that’s the real problem. I think he can fix this and he’s a good buy-low.

Matt Shoemaker might be interesting at average velocity, but that velo reading is also from one game in which he pitched 2.1 innings. He doesn’t otherwise show much of a velocity boost, and his game is in shambles. I’d only pick up in -only leagues and only if I could put him on my bench.

Jesse Hahn, on the other hand, is moving from -only lists to mixed leagues. He was up last April, so maybe Hahn will lose a half-tick off his impressive 94+ in coming starts, but that would be fine. He’d still have made the jump from averageish to plus velocity. Let’s give him 94 mph on the fastball, that would still put him in the top 15 in the major leagues in velocity, right behind everyone’s darling Vincent Velasquez. VV’s curve is still harder, but Hahn’s is bigger, and if he keeps this up, he’ll have the most drop on a curve over 77 mph. And his change has been better than Velasquez’s has ever been. Buy Hahn as a top 60 starter right now.

The other side of the list is just sad.

Biggest Velocity Losers April 2015 – April 2016
Player Last Week 2015 Apr-15 Diff April-April
Jorge de la Rosa 89.9 91.4 94.1 -4.2
Carlos Rodon 91.2 93.3 94.8 -3.6
Rob Scahill 90.9 93.5 94.2 -3.3
Jason Grilli 91.2 93.9 94.1 -2.9
James Shields 89.2 91 91.9 -2.7
David Robertson 90.5 92.7 93.1 -2.6
Jim Johnson 91.7 94.3 94.3 -2.6
Neil Ramirez 91.2 93 93.8 -2.6
Drew Storen 91.1 93.9 93.4 -2.3
Gio Gonzalez 89.7 92 91.9 -2.2
Chris Sale 91.7 94.3 93.9 -2.2
Scott Feldman 87.4 90.2 89.6 -2.2
Brandon Finnegan 91.4 92.6 93.4 -2
Andrew Cashner 93.1 94.8 95.1 -2
Alex Wilson 90.3 92.3 92.2 -1.9
Shelby Miller 91.5 94 93.4 -1.9
Adam Liberatore 91.4 93.7 93.3 -1.9
Seth Maness 86.9 89.4 88.7 -1.8
Kyle Hendricks 86.8 88.3 88.6 -1.8
Enrique Burgos 94 95.7 95.7 -1.7

Of course, you have your fair share of role changers, or at least Brandon Finnegan. He’s still showing above-average velocity for a lefty, if barely.

Then you have some old relievers. I don’t think you need to roster any of them, really, so let’s move on.

That Carlos Rodon velocity loss really crept up on me. Didn’t even realize it was happening. His max is still doing okay, but overall he’s definitely down significantly. He’s still hovering above average, and he’s still getting the whiffs, but this really takes the shine off his upside, even if he’s corralling the walks. I’d put him down in the late seventies, as a borderline mixed league starter right now. He’s droppable!

I’d sell James Shields. Why would the lowest velocity and lowest swinging strike rate and the lowest strikeout rate of his career lead to some of the best recent results? Just write all of those things again and put Gio Gonzalez on the paragraph, too. Shelby Miller and Andrew Cashner were only good when their fastballs were big, you can move on or sell, depending on the depth of your league. One’s scraping his knuckles on the ground and the other’s failing for the third year in a row to get average swinging strikes or strikeouts on the back of that big fastball. (And now the fastball is less big.)

Another tool I like to use is pitching mix changes. Just a change in percentage can tell us that a pitcher trusts a new pitch, and can help explain wide swings in performance.

More Changeups

Yordano Ventura
After a couple sanity checks removed Mat Latos and Colby Lewis from the list ahead of him, Ventura looks like he’s added more changeups than anyone in baseball. He’s up to throwing almost changes a quarter of the time, from a tenth of the time. It’s now getting the most drop and whiffs of his career, and it has to be seen as a good thing for his career, even as it might be causing him trouble right now with the command. That said, it has a better ball percentage (career and this year) than his curve. I think he’ll get the walks down and come out of this a better pitcher, though it would be nice to have an above-average first pitch strike rate.

Nathan Eovaldi
Masahiro Tanaka is throwing his splitter even more than Eovaldi, nearly 40% of the time, and he’s up almost as much as his fireballing teammate. But it’s Eovaldi that is more important here, because he’s on waivers. He shouldn’t be. Believe that strikeout rate, believe that whiff rate, and believe that better days are coming. He’s never given up a home run rate like this, and fastballs over 94 give up fewer home runs per contact than fastballs under 94, too. He’s given up a few homers on his splitter as he still feels his way through that pitch, but if his arm stays in one piece, he should capitalize on the whiffs.

Garrett Richards
With his WHIP over 1.33, Richards might still be a possible acquisition. Maybe his owner doesn’t believe in that strikeout rate after he’s been up and down there. You should believe. Richards is throwing that changeup with conviction and getting whiffs on 20% of them. This might go down as his best year.

More Breaking Balls

Jerad Eickhoff
Dude had a top-15 curveball by whiff rates last year, so he decided to throw it more often this year. Still getting excellent whiffs on it. Still real nice and big. His mediocre fastball velocity (90.7) and command (in and out) means that he’s a home run risk, but with just a little more love from the ball in play, he’ll be the obvious mixed league play that he already is.

Drew Pomeranz
If you like Rich Hill, you should at least consider liking Drew Pomeranz. He took his curve and super-sized it, increasing the usage by half again at the request of his team. That at least puts batters on the defensive, not knowing when the fastball is coming in fastball counts, or that good curve. Just like Hill, who throws his curveball in the zone more than half the time (53%) so that he can get strikes on non-swings, Pomeranz has upped his zone rate on the curve ball to 52%. He’s basically Hill, so if you can stomach watching/playing a player that relies on non-swings as much as swings, and called strikes on a breaking ball, then you should also own Pomeranz. Well, maybe not on the same team, that would take too much Tums.

Noah Syndergaard
You know all about Syndergaard’s 95 mph slider by now.

Up next: swinging strike rate and ground ball rate.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Cory Settoon
Member

Anything to make of three ChiSox being on the down velocity chart? Maybe a change in philosophy with Sale going for more contact?

Moelicious
Member
Member
Moelicious

Not concerned about Robertson. He was at 91.7 in 2013 and 91.8 in 2014 and is at 91.8 in 2016.

nate0605
Member
nate0605

I think so. Rodon’s mix has been very different in 2016. Per Brooks in regular season:

2015: 33.09% Four Seam, 26.92% Sinker, 9.06% Change, 30.92% Slider

2016: 29.80% Four Seam, 43.34% Sinker, 5.42% Change, 21.44% Slider

You can see the sinker has become his main fastball, and its usage has increased dramatically. The thing is, he’s not throwing fewer 4 seamers to make room, but fewer sliders. The slider, of course, is his out pitch and the whole reason he got to the big leagues so quick.

You combine that with the Sale stuff, and the fact that Rodon’s biggest issue has been walks, and it’s not hard to imagine he’s trying this pitch to contact stuff too. Taking a bit off in an attempt to locate, etc.

In the Sale article, John Danks is quoted as saying re: Sale, “the only (thing to) tell him to pitch to contact is to throw it a little easier.” August then writes:

“Throw it a little easier. Sale’s average fastball velocity is down nearly 2 mph from last year, at its lowest point since 2012. Typically a cause for concern, maybe this is just part of the plan. Or maybe it really is a cause for concern.”

A month into the season, that’s my feeling on Rodon. Maybe the velo will become a cause for concern, but right now it’s just noise. Maybe the velo will return and we’ll forget this conversation ever happened. As Eno mentioned, his max is still ok. Only thing to do is wait. And if anyone wants the advice of this random fangraphs commenter, don’t drop Rodon.