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The Pirates have made velocity an organizational focus

Mar 30, 2014, 8:15 PM EST

Gerrit Cole Getty Images

Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote an intriguing column about the rise in fastball velocity across Major League Baseball. In 2008, the average fastball in the Majors registered at 90.9 MPH; in 2013, it was 92 MPH. A change of 1.1 MPH over a six-year period may seem small, but when hundreds of thousands of fastballs are thrown every year, it becomes a statistically significant change.

Sawchik adds that more pitchers are hitting triple digits (100-plus MPH) more consistently than they have since velocity-tracking has become a regular part of the game. Some teams have begun to prioritize velocity over other traits, and the Pirates — one of baseball’s most forward-thinking organizations — are among them. From Sawchik’s column:

Under general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates made targeting and acquiring velocity a key part of their strategy, adding pitchers such as A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, and placing a premium on velocity in the draft.

“(Velocity) gives you a larger margin for error,” Huntington said. “Ninety-four (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate has much more margin for error than 88 (mph) that runs and gets too much of the plate.”

In Huntington’s first season as general manager, the Pirates ranked 18th in fastball velocity at 90.8 mph. The Pirates’ fastball velocity has improved every year under Huntington, averaging 92.5 mph last season, 10th in baseball.

Per Sawchik, Pirates 2011 first round pick and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole threw 22 pitches that registered at 100 MPH or faster last season. Reliever Bryan Morris averaged 94 MPH on his fastball last year, but showed up in camp throwing 97 MPH, drawing the attention of scouts. Other pitchers who averaged 93 MPH or better last season included relievers Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson, and Justin Wilson, as well as starter Francisco Liriano, a bargain bin pick-up who was a key reason why the Pirates snapped a 20-year-long playoff drought.

  1. Barry's Triceps - Mar 30, 2014 at 8:26 PM

    Vin Mazzaro was designated for assignment. He can help a ballclub, some of the projected bullpens are awful.

  2. moogro - Mar 30, 2014 at 8:27 PM

    I wonder if the game will evolve into every team carrying enough pitchers so that the norm will be every pitcher will throw 97+ for a 1-3 innings with a scheduled Tommy John surgery break every 5 years.

    • Barry's Triceps - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:53 PM

      Hopefully by then Tommy John is a 4 week recovery time.

  3. apkyletexas - Mar 30, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    And the minor league program is loaded with guys throwing in the mid-90’s to high-90’s who should arrive in Pittsburgh over the next couple of seasons. Some examples:

    – Jameson Taillon (upper 90’s, should arrive in the majors this summer or fall)
    – Tyler Glasnow (97 mph, probably 2 more years in minors)
    – Nick Kingham (mid-90’s, should arrive in the majors in 2015)
    – Stolmy Pimental (averages 95 mph, brief stay in majors in 2013, has made the 2014 25-man roster in the bullpen out of Spring training)

    Other current relievers on the 25-man roster with high velocity:
    Tony Watson (tops out at 97 mph)
    Justin Wilson (tops out at 99 mph)

  4. zackd2 - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:04 PM

    Doesn’t every team value velocity? This is really a new phenomenon?

    • jrbdmb - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:11 PM

      Some teams (the Twins come to mind) seem to have and odd fascination with soft tossers.

      • happytwinsfan - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:59 AM

        this is not true at least recently. for the last several years they’ve put an emphasis on tall hard throwers like meyer, may, kohler, gibson.

  5. musketmaniac - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:10 PM

    they were out of options with stolmy. which led to the mistake of letting vinny go.

    • apkyletexas - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:30 PM

      Vin had some good stretches last year, but he also had some disastrous stretches. I wouldn’t want to keep him over Stolmy, who we’ve got so much invested in, and who has so much more long-term potential.

  6. renaado - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:46 PM

    If they keep doin this up average velocities by their pitchers can be at 92-95mph now.

  7. musketmaniac - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    2.83 era. his overall body of work was better than gd. It is what it is. We will know soon enough if it’s a mistake or not.

  8. musketmaniac - Mar 30, 2014 at 9:55 PM

    But this move continues trend that the pirates value the future over this minute. Clearly that attitude is not a mistake.

  9. drewnichols81 - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:35 PM

    If you cant beat the Cardinals join em

  10. straightouttavtown - Mar 31, 2014 at 5:03 AM

    The unhealthy obsession with velocity has 3 major ramifications #1: Crafty veteran pitchers who rely on guile, finesse, and location are cut en masse in favor of high-velocity “throwers” who have no idea how to pitch. It has happened all over spring training. Just look at Freddy Garcia, Randy Wolf, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Francisco Cordero, etc. They even keep old dudes who throw a straight fastball with no movement (Aaron Harang, LaTroy Hawkins) than crafty pitchers with low velocity. Edinson Volquez cashed in this offseason for the same reason. #2: Pitch counts are way up as many of these high velocity pitchers (other than the few elite ones) have no idea where the ball is going, which result in longer games, more walks, more strikeouts, and bigger burden for the bullpen. #3: Pitching careers are becoming very short. Tim Lincecm is only 29 but since he has never learned how to actually “pitch” and just go by his electric stuff, he’s been pitching like he’s in his late 30s for quite a few years now. And he’s not the only big-name pitcher who crashed hard in his 20s. Compare that to his other era, it’s virtually unprecedented. It wasn’t that long ago when Kenny Rogers, Tim Wakefield, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Jamie Moyer were starting playoff, even World Series games. Heck, even Kevin Brown and Chuck Finley pitched until they’re 40. Steroids era aside, in the ’80s, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Fergie Jenkins, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Tommy John, Jack Morris, Jim Palmer all lasted into their 40s. I don’t see any of the guys right now lasting to their 40s. I thought Roy Halladay had as good of a chance as any. Instead he washed out last year at the relative young age of 36.

    • straightouttavtown - Mar 31, 2014 at 5:06 AM

      Also Bret Saberhagen and Dwight Gooden were considered disappointments in comparison to their peers. Yet even Saberhagen pitched till he was 37 and Gooden until he was 36. Orel Hershier pitched till he was 42. Many of these guys are far from elite HOF type.

    • gosport474 - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:41 AM

      Edinson Volquez has just been an awful pitcher up to this point. Career ERA+ of 83 and WHIP of 1.505 over 9 years and 850 innings, yet he still keeps getting chances because he has ‘stuff.’ Amazing.

    • Reflex - Mar 31, 2014 at 3:34 PM

      While I agree that the emphasis on velocity may not produce the results desired, I do not agree that its unprecedented and that careers are shorter. You are engaged in selection bias when looking at greats of the past, and ignoring obvious high velocity starters that also had long careers (Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan) or claiming that they weren’t velocity first pitchers (ie: throwers as you designate them).

      • straightouttavtown - Mar 31, 2014 at 7:12 PM

        Can you see anyone in the current era pitching into their 40s? I don’t. Sabathia is only 33 and his career is on life support. Halladay and Carpenter are both done last year. Lincecum is only 29 and is pretty much done as a force. The list goes on and on. Also I never dispute Ryan and Randy Johnson are power pitchers but they didn’t walk too many guys and there was a healthy blend of soft tossers and flamethrowers.

      • Reflex - Mar 31, 2014 at 7:57 PM

        Um, Ryan holds the career record for walks. He walked a TON of guys. Accuracy was never his strong suit. He had five seasons where he walked at least 150 hitters including two seasons of more than 200 free passes. Crazy stuff there.

        And no, I can’t see any of these guys pitching into their 40’s. But then you could have asked me the same question in the 90’s, 80’s or 70’s and I’d have given you the same answer. It is incredibly difficult to maintain an effective career as a pro athlete into anyone’s 40’s. It was not common in previous decades and it likely won’t be common in future decades. The reason you remember the guys you remember is because it was so unusual for guys to be effective that long, but you do not remember all the guys who flamed out in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Just like today.

        Again, selection and confirmation bias at work.

  11. cincinata - Mar 31, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    I like the talent on this Pgh team. I think they have an excellent chance to knock off the birds for the division title. They have a mix of young and old pitchers and good hitting. Every team has some holes and needed upgrades, but overall, the mixture of players and their manager, make them great competitors. They have a chance to win almost every game they are in. Don’t count Pgh out!

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