TheLines has prepped some primers on key metrics that can aid your daily baseball handicapping. So far, we’ve looked at a couple of pitching metrics. We’re going that same route here, but with a very different, much more simple glance. Here we look at fastball velocity.
So, what is fastball velocity and how can you apply it when MLB betting?
What Is Fastball Velocity?
Metrics don’t come any more simple or straightforward than fastball velocity. Simply, how hard is a pitcher throwing his heater, on average? Fastball velocity lets us know. It doesn’t require any fancy math, just a simple reading and recording of the radar gun.
Unlike many of these metrics, which require use of statistical databases to reference, you can turn on any baseball broadcast and get a quick idea of a pitcher’s fastball velocity from merely watching about five minutes of the game.
That’s one of the things that makes fastball velocity unique. You don’t need a large sample. While fastball velocity will vary throughout the season (generally it goes up as pitchers ramp up), a pitcher’s average velocity usually stabilizes quite quickly.
More key baseball metrics
Why Is Fastball Velocity Useful?
The fact fastball velocity stabilizes so quickly makes it a uniquely useful metric. If you’re wondering if a pitcher has a true talent for outperforming his peripherals, you need multiple seasons of data before you can become fairly certain of an answer.
But if a guy comes out of the gate throwing 3 mph harder than he did the previous year, you’ve probably already seen enough to adjust your expectation. While quality secondary pitches matter immensely for major league starters, a jump in fastball velocity often means a jump in true talent level.
Take a look at the charts here. Pitchers who throw harder tend to allow fewer runs, fewer hits, strike out more batters and have better ERA estimators. Head over to the Statcast leaderboards from last year and sort by average fastball velocity, either four-seam or two-seam. You’re mostly looking at Cy Young candidates and very good pitchers.
Scouts have sought hard-throwing young pitchers for decades for a reason.
Furthermore, diminished fastball velocity can be a major warning sign. It often means a pitcher’s talent level has dropped or he is trying to fight through an injury. In either case, it’s probably best to steer clear until you get a better idea of how he is adjusting to his new reality. Or, you can take advantage by betting the other side until the market adjusts.
Using Fastball Velocity: The Case Of Robbie Ray
In Robbie Ray’s early days as a starter for the Diamondbacks, near-premium velocity was one of his selling points. While throwing almost 95 mph on average doesn’t turn any heads from a right-handed pitcher, it’s quite good for a southpaw starter.
From 2015 through 2017, Ray’s fastball averaged about 94.5 mph. He averaged a hair shy of 3 fWAR per season and was a solid upper-mid rotation guy.
From 2018 through 2020, Ray’s heater dipped to 93.4 mph. He compiled 2.8 fWAR total and looked like he was on his way either to the bullpen or out of the majors altogether.
Obviously, he had other issues at play. Baseball is a complex game with countless factors contributing to a pitcher’s success or failure. But, scroll down in his FanGraphs profile and you can see Ray’s fastball produced negative pitch values in two of those seasons. That’s a major impediment to success considering he throws the pitch 60% of the time.
Ray signed with Toronto for 2021 on a piddling one-year contract for $8 million, the type of money given to depth arms.
But, something funny happened. Ray started throwing hard again, harder than he ever had before aside from 2016. His heater became a highly valuable pitch as it had been in his early prime. He put together a career season and won the AL Cy Young award in a near-unanimous vote.
Use Fastball Velocity To Help See Changes In Pitchers’ Talent Levels
Bettors who locked onto this change early profited handsomely. Remember, Ray entered 2021 after a third straight poor season but this one was a new level of disaster as he posted a 6.62 ERA with estimators that said he earned it. The market had zero reason to respect him.
But when Ray came out throwing as hard as he had when he was a successful starter, that was probably a good indicator his true talent level had changed for the better. One measly mile per hour doesn’t sound like a ton. For a guy like Ray whose fastball drives his success, it can make him much more effective.
By contrast, pitchers like Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu can survive and sometimes thrive even with reduced fastballs because their secondary stuff misses bats and they have elite command. Always keep these things in mind when determining how heavily to weigh changes in fastball velocity.
In general, keep your eyes peeled in spring ball and early in the season for guys throwing harder or softer. Later in the season, watch for dips in velocity that might portend the announcement of an injury. Take advantage when the market doesn’t react quickly to these changes.
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