Steady fastball velocity is a vital part of any major league pitcher's success. As pitchers age and their career workload begins to add up, their velocity declines, sometimes drastically, as they approach and enter their 30s. Moreover, recent studies have shown that a significant decrease in velocity from one year to the next can be a harbinger for future arm injuries. At the very least, declines in velocity usually lead to fewer strikeouts and a dip in performance. As a result, it is important for MLB teams to monitor pitchers who have demonstrated a recent velocity decrease, as either injury or performance decline often follows.
Throughout spring training, a number of pitchers experience diminished velocity, though often this is simply a matter of building up arm strength as the season approaches. With Opening Day under three weeks away now, however, it's worth keeping an eye on pitchers whose velocity has yet to return to their career norms. Here are five pitchers who have seen their velocity dip this spring, and what that could mean for their 2014 outlook:
C.C. Sabathia's drop in velocity over the past few years has been perhaps the most publicized of any pitcher in the majors. According to BrooksBaseball.net, which tracks velocity for every MLB pitcher using Pitchf/x data, Sabathia's fastball dropped from an average of 93.9 mph in 2011 to 91.3 mph in 2013. That trend has continued this spring, with the left-hander's fastball routinely topping out in the upper-80s. Such a dip has only added to the scrutiny surrounding Sabathia after he struggled through the worst season of his career in 2013, posting a 4.78 ERA and his lowest K/9 since 2005. The 33-year-old hasn't missed any significant time due to injury yet, but with over 2,700 innings on his arm, it's fair to wonder if an injury is coming. He did have surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow last offseason, and since then, his velocity has only further decreased. Sabathia's decline could be bad news for the Yankees in 2014, who are depending on him to recapture some of his previous form. The 13-year veteran could improve on his 2013 numbers, but without a significant uptick in velocity, his days as an ace and Cy Young candidate are likely over.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012, Brandon Beachy's career has stalled. The right-hander impressed during his rookie campaign in 2011 and again in the first two months of 2012, but has been slow to regain his prior form since the surgery. Beachy suffered another setback on Monday when he was removed from his spring start after experiencing discomfort in his right biceps. According to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, Beachy's velocity was down during the outing, a worrisome sign for a pitcher who has a history of arm problems. Given Beachy's injury history and his struggles in returning from Tommy John surgery, these recent velocity issues are a bad development for Beachy and the Braves. With Opening Day less than three weeks away, it would be a surprise to see Beachy make Atlanta's roster once the season begins. When Beachy pitches next, in fact, is anybody's guess.
Jon Niese's velocity was down in his most recent spring start against the Cardinals on Tuesday. According to Newsday's Anthony Rieber, Niese's first fastball clocked in at 79 mph and his second at 81 mph and increased only slightly during the outing. Niese's velocity struggles have to be a concern for the Mets after he was already shut down earlier this spring with a sore left shoulder and missed nearly two months during the 2013 season with a partial tear in his rotator cuff. Unlike other pitchers who throw harder, the left-hander's success isn't strictly tied to his fastball velocity, though Niese has seen his velocity dip over the past three seasons. Niese and Mets manager Terry Collins insist the 27-year-old is healthy and will be ready for Opening Day, but given his recent arm injuries and velocity decrease, Niese's expectations for 2014 should be tempered a bit.
Once a dominant closer for the Rangers, Neftali Feliz is hoping to regain his old job after missing nearly all of 2013 following Tommy John surgery. The 25-year-old has had problems regaining his prior velocity, however, with Feliz being clocked around 92 mph during his spring training appearances, according to Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News. Feliz averaged just over 96 mph back in 2010 and 2011, per BrooksBaseball.net, which is quite the difference from his current velocity. The right-hander might just need to build up some arm strength after hardly pitching in game action since 2012, but it is hard to imagine the Rangers would name Feliz their closer with his fastball sitting in the low-90s. For his part, Feliz expects to see his velocity increase as Opening Day approaches, though the five-year veteran certainly has to prove he is healthy again after a year-and-a-half of lost time. With former Royals closer Joakim Soria impressing this spring, the Rangers can afford to bring Feliz along slowly in more low-leverage situations if need be.
Mets closer Bobby Parnell pitched on Wednesday and was clocked around 88-89 mph, according to ESPN New York's Adam Rubin. Parnell is coming off surgery for a herniated disk in his neck last September and has been behind on his throwing schedule all offseason as a result. The right-hander averaged nearly 95 mph on his fastball in 2013 per BrooksBaseball.net, but according to Rubin, Parnell isn't worried and says his velocity on Wednesday was normal for him at this point in the spring. Considering Parnell's track record (he has little history of arm injuries) and rehab from neck surgery, it is probably fine to give the 29-year-old the benefit of the doubt as he regains arm strength. Wednesday's appearance was just Parnell's second of the spring, and with no reported arm troubles, Parnell will likely see his velocity increase once Opening Day arrives.