On Velocity Being the Most Important Thing

I am fortunate enough to have a handful of acquaintances who work in professional baseball that I can freely discuss things without fear of dismissal. One friend of mine is a minor league pitching coach, who got in a discussion with me about velocity and command. The conversation went like this:

Him: You should see some of the ridiculous crap we get. Guys who throw 95 MPH but can’t throw a strike to save their lives. Unreal. Command is so important, pounding the strike zone is so important.
Me: I agree with that for sure, but velocity is a floor – no one is going to look at a guy who throws in the low 80’s who pounds it.
Him: I dunno. Our organization is full of flamethrowers with no idea what the hell is going on. Give me the strike throwers.

20 minutes elapsed while I spoke to him about other non-baseball related topics, then I decided to test him.

Me: Hey, I have a kid I want you to look at. Real good prospect.
Him: Is it [name redacted]? (one of my clients who is a top tier nationally-ranked prospect) I already know about him. Great stuff, love the body too.
Me: No, it’s a 2014 kid with awesome command. Throws three pitches for strikes like you wouldn’t believe. Average height/weight. Right-handed.
Him: Great, what’s his fastball look like?
Me: Has some sink. Locates super well though, can knock down soda cans all day.
Him: No, I mean what’s he cruise at? How hard?
Me: I thought you said command is the only thing you cared about?!

The point, of course, is that velocity is really important. If it wasn’t important…. well, I have no idea how Stalker is selling all those useless radar guns in the stands to scouts, but they have one hell of a business model.

Velocity is a Floor

Justin Verlander

Fastball velocity is the floor. College and pro coaches complain about everyone having terrible command because everyone they have throws hard. No one is actually complaining and requesting the 82-84 MPH strike-thrower at the higher levels – yeah, maybe they don’t like the 97 MPH guy who has zero idea where it’s going, but they want that guy to be 92-93 MPH with average command. If you haven’t noticed, 92-93 MPH is really hard. Not a lot of guys are cruising at that velocity.

You have to understand the environment from where they come. They don’t complain about velocity because they get their pick of the litter, and everyone who pitches professionally throws gas, because throwing hard leads to more strikeouts, and more strikeouts leads to better performance. Look at the trends of MLB over the last decade and a half:

Offensive Production

MLB Offense

Decline in offense from 2000-2013

Strikeout rate is way up and offensive production has crashed over the last decade.

Fastball Velocity

MLB FB Velocity

FB Velocity 2002-2013

Not only has average fastball velocity increased from 89.9 MPH to 91.7 MPH since 2002, but the percentage of fastballs thrown has dropped significantly! Not only do you have to throw harder, but you have to throw off-speed and breaking pitches more frequently, and they have to be better.

If you limit it to relievers alone – one of the fastest ways to get to the big leagues – you see just how hard you have to throw if you are coming out of the bullpen:

FB Velocity - Relievers

FB Velocity – Relievers

And that includes all the soft-tossing lefties coming out of the pen – if you limited it to right-handed relievers, I bet you’d see sky-high numbers.

In Conclusion, You Already Know…

That velocity is king.

The only people who don’t think this way are the pitching coaches who have the luxury of not needing to worry about it, or are amateur pitching coaches who have no idea how to train velocity. Fortunately for you, we do.

In parting, I leave you with this very scientific matrix that should help everyone understand the problem better:

Velocity Matrix

  • PSSBL Adams Data
    Permalink Gallery

    Locating Up in the Zone – Better for Amateur/Recreational Pitchers

Locating Up in the Zone – Better for Amateur/Recreational Pitchers

Pitchers at all levels of the game are told to locate their pitches in the bottom half of the zone so they can get hitters to swing over the top of the pitch and produce ground balls. As everyone knows, ground balls are the best way to prevent runs, since you can’t hit ground balls over the fence and it’s tough to hit them into the gaps for extra bases. Apologies to all coaches of youth, high school, and many college pitchers, but: You’re wrong. Pitchers should locate their fastballs and breaking balls in the top half of the zone to get the most success when competing against average youth, high school, and most college hitters.

Ground Balls: Be Careful What You Wish For

It’s happened to everyone – including me – you get a ton of ground balls, your defense boots the ball around, you end up giving up 1 or 2 earned runs but a plethora of unearned runs. When your coach comes and pulls you from the game, he says: “Nothing you could have done, kid. Defense just didn’t play behind you,” pats you on the butt, and tells you to get your running in.

Kyle's May 14th Start

Bad luck. Or was it?

Your teammates apologize for booting that easy ball in the hole, for not picking that ball at first base, and dropping that easy double play opportunity. Being a good teammate, you say “Ah, it happens. Get ‘em next time.” Then while running your poles, you reflect on how particularly unlucky you were that day. If only Bobby hadn’t lost that ball in the sun and Roger didn’t sail that ball from shortstop, you would have gotten out of that long inning. But were you unlucky? Think about it: You did everything you were supposed to – get a few strikeouts, not walk too many, and got a lot of ground balls. And what were you rewarded with? Hasn’t this happened before? What if you got fly balls instead? Don’t hitters swing and miss on your fastballs up in the zone – and when they make contact, don’t they often go for fly ball outs? How many home runs does the entire school have, anyway? Four? But what’s the team batting average – .380? Here are the two major reasons you want to get ground balls at the MLB level:

  1. Sluggers often hit fly balls over the fence.
  2. Defense at the MLB level is insanely elite.

Think about those reasons for a minute. Do either of those reasons apply to your high school league? What do you think the average HR rate on fly balls is in your league? I guarantee it’s not 11%. (MLB Average HR/FB rate.) We’ve already established defenders at the HS/College level are orders of magnitude worse than the Dominican and Venezuelan infielders of MLB (to say nothing of the local product), so why are you applying a heuristic to a completely different game?

Tons of data and a shattered myth after the jump…

Why Have I Lost Fastball Velocity?

Pitchers at all levels can lose fastball velocity – the meal ticket – over a season and wonder to themselves: What’s the deal? If you’re one of those pitchers who is seeing a drop in velocity despite no mechanical changes and no apparent injury, I have a very simple answer for you: You don’t work hard enough in-season.

Consider what Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez does to prepare for his starts during the MLB season:

He’s special in that he plays long toss every day, and it’s not even the normal long toss. It’s almost an extreme long toss. He probably throws the baseball about 280 to 300 feet. For the most part you see guys go out — the longer guys — 200 feet, maybe 225 feet. In his case, he throws the ball with a lot of height — he really gets a lot of air under it — and what he’s accomplishing is not only strength, but also extension. It’s a bit far, but hey, you can’t argue with the success he’s had.

(source: Fangraphs)

If you want to reach your ceiling for fastball velocity, you need to throw a LOT of fastballs. This concept doesn’t seem hard to understand, but it’s often overlooked by pitching coaches in an attempt to “protect” a pitcher’s arm. I’ve seen recommendations on baseball forums to not lift weights the day after you pitch and not to throw too much in-season to conserve the bullets in the arm. This logic is exactly backwards, and it leads to more arm-related injuries and decreases in effectiveness/velocity rather than protecting a pitcher.

Felix Hernandez

Tell this guy he's not allowed to work hard.

Human physiology doesn’t work the way the proponents of “rest” think it does. Humans have the amazing capacity to adapt to many different types and frequencies of stress. Pitchers should gradually throw more and more frequently and with more volume as they can tolerate it, and ideally should be throwing a baseball six days per week – including in-season work – to develop the necessary fitness and endurance to compete at the highest level.

Throwing – not pitching – more frequently does many good things:

  • Conditions and develops the structures in the pitching arm
  • Helps the developing pitcher work on his mechanics to feel the changes necessary to throw harder
  • Aids in improving control

If all you do as a pitcher is throw one bullpen session and one start per five days, you’re missing out on development opportunities to improve.

You must learn to throw the ball before you can adequately pitch it, and you can’t develop that ability without throwing in a non-competitive situation – and this includes bullpen sessions.