Velocity Changes Among Free Agent Starters

With more than six weeks behind us, nearly every team has completed a quarter of its games this season. Impending free agents have a significant amount of their platform years in the books, though it’s certainly not too late to change the opinions of potential offseason suitors.

One way in which free agent pitchers can raise their stock is to up their velocity, although the opposite of that can hold true as well. A resurgence in velocity helped to save Scott Kazmir‘s career last season and took him from a minor league contract to a two-year, $22MM guarantee. On the other side of the spectrum, a rapid decline in velocity dropped Tim Lincecum from a lock to receive $100MM+ to a two-year, $35MM contract that looks to be a questionable investment.

A look at the coming free agent crop of starters shows that several arms could be improving their stock by turning up the heat on their fastballs, while several free-agents-to-be have seen troubling declines in their velocity that have contributed to poor results. Some will be quick to point out that many starters’ velocity increases over the course of a season. Because of this, I’ve included a comparison of each pitcher’s 2013 and 2014 April velocities as well. This should give a rough indicator of where each pitcher is right now compared to this point in the 2013 season.

I’ve included any pitcher who is working as a starter and has a chance at free agency next season, even if it’s a virtual lock that their club option will be exercised (e.g. Johnny Cueto). Additionally, potential starters who are working out of the bullpen (e.g. Chris Capuano) have been omitted, as their velocity spikes are likely due to a change in role (pitchers typically see increased velocity when switching to a relief role). Here’s the list, sorted by the most positive change to most negative change from 2013 to 2014:

As J.A. Happ is a testament to, a noticeable velocity increase doesn’t guarantee improved performance. Though his ERA is down, his command has suffered greatly, making his 3.57 mark unsustainable without improvement in that area. However, most starters with a positive change have demonstrated improvements in their swinging-strike rate and overall strikeout percentage. Ryan Vogelsong has cut his ERA by more than two full runs. Brandon McCarthy and Jorge De La Rosa, while they haven’t seen their ERAs dip, have seen notable improvements in sabermetric ERA estimators such as xFIP and SIERA.

A dip in velocity, on the other hand, is often a precursor to an arm-related injury, and could ultimately serve as a red flag for interested teams on the free agent market if paired with declining results. There is, of course, still time for each pitcher on this list to see his velocity change in one direction or the other, but the above velocity changes are something to keep an eye on as it relates to the free agent stock of each. Names like Justin Masterson, who currently ranks sixth on MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings but has seen the largest decline of any free agent, will be of particular interest as the season wears on.

*=Velocity data from May 2014 was used, as Floyd did not pitch this April.
**=Velocity data from April 2012 was used, as Lewis didn’t pitch in the Majors last season.
***=Velocity data from May 2013 was used, as Liriano didn’t pitch in the Majors last April.
****=Velocity data from May 2012 was used, as Paulino didn’t pitch in the Majors in either of the past two Aprils.

Data from Fangraphs was critical to the creation of this post.

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