Velocity Triumphs And Panics From The Early Spring

New York Mets starting pitcher Johan Santana throws a pitch during the second inning of the spring training game against the St Louis Cardinals at Digital Domain Park. Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

Barry Zito doesn't throw hard. Andrew Cashner does. Here's a roundup of other noteworthy stories from the radar guns this spring.

You know better. You're a smart person. You consider yourself a learned baseball scholar, and you take great pains to empathize the "-ed" on "learned" when you say as much. You know that spring training is … well, it's training. In the spring. It's not like every baseball player spent the offseason finishing Skyrim, but they certainly could have if they were motivated (or unmotivated) enough. There are kinks to work out.

But you can't help yourself. You can't help looking at spring-training velocity readings and extrapolating something from them. You see numbers. Your brain kind of knows what to do with those numbers. You can't help yourself. You start applying those numbers to baseball players in a baseball context. It's only natural.

And by "you," I'm mostly talking about "me." I'm a sucker for this stuff. So here's a quick rundown of some velocity news around Major League Baseball:

The Good
To be excited about the Anthony Rizzo trade is to be excited about Andrew Cashner. To be excited about Andrew Cashner is to be excited about how hard he throws. And considering that he'll at least begin his Padres career as a reliever, his velocity will be especially important. The early results?

Oh, man.

Top speed: 103.3 miles per hour. Cashner threw seven pitches clocked at 102 m.p.h. or more. Four were swinging strikes, one was fouled off, one was a called strike, and one was put in play for an out. Think about how the difference between an 88-m.p.h fastball and a 91-m.p.h. fastball, and what that difference can mean for a pitcher's success. That's the same gap between Cashner and some jerk who throws only 100 m.p.h.

For the next group, the pitchers who aren't throwing as hard as they'd like, the refrain of "it's still early March" is absolutely acceptable. Mostly because it's still early March. It'd be unrealistic to expect every pitcher to be in midseason form. But that just makes Cashner more impressive with his spring velocity readings.

Yu Darvish's spring debut was also impressive.


Holy. Crap. That's … it just blows Cashner out of the water. That's the … wait, Eno's tweeting from Belgium or something. Kilometers per hour? Hold on, let me put my beret on and convert that. Carry the one … divide by soccer … looks like that's around 94 m.p.h. Darvish sat 92/93, and touched 95.

That's what we were told to expect, but there were grainy YouTube videos with velocity readings from his Japan days, and they hinted at velocity that could dip into the high 80s. His first start showed no such problems:

No_yu_medium


Other than the part where he BROKE INTO A MILLION PIECES. Or maybe that was an offspeed pitch. Same thing.


The Bad

Barry Zito, still due a cool $46 million, ended his 2011 season throwing 84 m.p.h. in relief. That's bad, even by his standards.

His first start of the spring?

Zito threw eight fastballs in first inning: 82, 81, 81, 83, 82, 81, 82, 83. He located it very well.

Amazed by how many people are asking what kind of pitch that 82 was. We're in Year 6 with Zito...you all know what it was...

If this reduced spring velocity keeps up, the Giants might start to think that the contract they gave to Zito was something of a mistake.

Michael Pineda was the reason the Yankees were finally willing to part with Jesus Montero. If the Yankees are truly going to get under the luxury tax soon, they'll need cost-controlled players. Montero fit that profile, but Pineda did too, and he fit more of an immediate short-term need. Now, though, there's talk that Pineda might not even make the rotation. That was before his velocity was down. That's nothing new, according to Dave Cameron, but that isn't a good reason to stop a beautiful early-spring panic.

Panic isn't really a Royals thing; that's more of a slow, lingering malaise. So the folks over at Royals Review are going to take the calm, measured approach to new acquisition Jonathan Sanchez, who made only three starts after June last year. Early in the spring, his velocity is down. That's of special concern for Sanchez, who typically doesn't maintain his velocity throughout his starts:

The problem is that Sanchez's fastball does not increase in speed during a game. It drops more than any pitcher in the game. Sanchez's fastball would look to drop, on average, another 1.5 MPH as he got closer to 100 pitches. By the end of the game, he may have fastballs in the 82-83 MPH range.


The Inconclusive

Johan Santana was throwing in the upper-80s during his first appearance since 2010, leading some Mets fans to freak out and type all sorts of internet acronyms. But Santana pitched most of 2010 throwing that hard; while it's not encouraging that his shoulder exploded after that season, it's worth remembering that he still had a year that most pitchers would be jealous of.

Carlos Zambrano says he was throwing 95 in winter ball, which would be a huge improvement over the high-80s, low-90s from last year. But the bigger question with him has to do with his personality, and whether or not he'll get to chance to put Ozzie Guillen in a burlap sack and throw him into the ocean, or if Guillen will think of doing it to Zambrano first.

It's easy to dismiss all of this -- hey, it's only spring, and so forth -- but it's impossible to ignore completely. Last year at this time, Phil Hughes would have made a spring-velocity rundown like this, and it turned out to be a serious problem that knocked out one of the arms that the Yankees were counting on.

There are still three weeks of spring left, and we will hear a bunch more about radar-gun readings from around Arizona and Florida. They might mean something; they might not. But they're impossible to ignore completely.

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