Velocity, flamethrower, and power arm, three terms constantly tossed around amongst MLB coaches, scouts, pundits, and fans. We love our home runs, plays at the plate, and diving catches, but no aspect of the game has enthralled baseball fans more than pitchers with cannons for arms. In 2005, only 17 starting pitchers and 50 relief pitchers' fastballs averaged 92 miles per hour or greater. By 2012, only years later, those number had shifted, with 37 starters and 80 relievers with fastball velocities averaging at least 92 mph.
We love us some heat. The reasons for the increase in pitchers throwing gas are numerous. Still, the penchant, nay the obsession that fans exude concerning velocity hasn't led to more pitchers throwing harder. Pitchers that throw faster generally collect more strikeouts, and other than groundball double plays, the strikeout is the most efficient and safest manner by which to collect outs throughout a ballgame.
Still, despite the fairly recent mania amongst baseball folk concerning the fireballers of the league like Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Aroldis Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel, every season certain pitchers find significant success with little velocity. In the interest of fairness, it's time to shine some light on those pitchers who can't even touch 90 mph, but remain effective, and to some extent, downright impressive. I like to call this class of pitcher the "Moyer Men", named after the ageless wonder Jamie Moyer, who had his most successful years in the big leagues when he threw the slowest.
Usually in order to combat a lack of velocity, pitchers resort to throwing pitches designed solely to force the hitter to chase balls and not hit strikes, change arm angles to distort the hitter's view of the ball or throw to a gimmick-like pitch such as R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. None of the pitchers profiled in this piece can claim any of those three explanations as evidence of their success. Instead, these pitchers utilize command, expert knowledge of the opposing hitters, and great pitch sequencing in lieu of extreme velocity.
Tommy Milone: (Average fastball velocity of 86.3 mph)
The Athletics lefty is by no standards an ace, but he profiles as a very capable pitcher. Milone throes a four-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, and changeup, using his fastball, that tops out around 88 mph a bit more than half the time. As of Saturday, Milone sports a 3.69 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and has compiled 0.6 fWins. He has the 32nd best K% in the majors amongst all starting pitchers at 22.1%, just a tick behind the Rays David Price.
Milone's success derives from his ability to keep runners from reaching base safely. He sports a 3.7 BB%, good for 12th best among all starters, and a solid .256 batting average against. Milone's .298 BABIP falls just barely under his career average of .307, his HR/FB% is the currently the highest of his career, and his 36.4% groundball rate falls well under the current league average of 44.5%.
These stats might leave you thinking how Millone has shown any success thus far. The key for Milone comes from his knowledge of opposing hitters. Usually, as a starter makes his way through the game, hitters adapt, and thus by the 3rd time through the order, a pitcher's stats look far worse than the first time through the order. In Milone's case a different pattern has emerged. The first time through the order opposing hitters have combined for a 153 OPS+ against Milone, the 2nd time through the order that number drops to 73 and by the third time through, opposing hitters muster a monumentally weak 38 OPS+ against the A's southpaw
Milone obviously goes into each game with a well-thought out plan on how to pitch to each opposing hitter. More importantly, he seems to use the first inning or two as tests cases, monitoring how hitters fair against his initial plan of attack, and then modifying said plan to gain a greater advantage the in the subsequent encounters. This brand of thinking leads to fantastic success, and allows Milone to pitch effectively into the 6th and 7th inning of ballgames without a plus fastball.
Carlos Villanueva: (Average fastball velocity of 87.1 mph)
Carlos Villanueva profiles simply put as a sinkerball pitcher. Villanueva, like many other pitchers throws a 2-seam fastball that has natural sinking action. Carlos' ground ball percentage, a career high in 2013 of 48.1%, allows the righty to get away with a 14.7% HR/FB rate. If hitters hit the ball against Villanueva, they either hit it out of the park, or smash it into the ground. Because of this plan for success, Villanueva's must keep runners off base, but his 7.1 walk percentage shows that he has a propensity for allowing free passes.
So, how has the Cubs righty remained somewhat effective. Villanueva's success has most certainly derived from two places. First, hitters facing Villanueva in 2013 have been making more contact at pitches thrown out of the strike zone. If those pitches are low, Carlos sees more groundballs, fewer fly balls, and more effective results. In fact, lowering his velocity can entice hitters to swing at what they think are "meatballs" but are actually subpar pitches for optimal hitting success due to location.
While Villanueva has had a very nice start to 2013, of the three pitchers profiled, he has the greatest chance to return to his career 4.40 FIP, 4.18 ERA, and 39.4 GB%. Still, pitchers who rely on groundballs constitute one of the few types of pitchers able to flourish with subpar velocity.
Paul Maholm: (Average fastball velocity of 87.6 mph)
Paul Maholm, a southpaw with a turn in his windup has never has yet to produce a season in which his average fastball velocity reached 90 mph. In Maholm's seven full seasons in the major leagues, he's averaged 1.9 fWins per season, and in 38 innings of work in 2013, he's already compiled 0.6 fWins. He's always thrown fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider, but in recent years has added a cut-fastball, and most recently added an occasional eephus pitch. The eephus pitch epitomizes a pitcher lacking in velocity, as it is essentially an incredibly slow looping curveball, which comes to the plate at about 60 mph.
Still, Maholm has been fairly dominant this season, compiling a 3.27 FIP, a superb 51.9% ground ball percentage, and a career high 20.7 K%. One interesting change Maholm seems to have made from 2012 to 2013 concerns his pitch usage. In 2012 he focused on getting lefties out by throwing predominantly his sinking fastball and his cutter, but in 2012 he has used 4 different pitches at least 10% of the time. Against right-handed hitters Maholm has moved in the opposite direction, focusing in on his sinker and changeup to put away righties.
Whether the difference in his pitch usage is due only to a small sample size remains unknown, but if not, it shows that Maholm's goal is not to be especially deceptive, but to use unpredictability to record outs. More than anything else, it seems that Maholm has replaced a sizable percentage of his four-seam fastballs with sinkers. Both pitches come in at a similar velocity for Maholm, but one, the sinker, has more movement, causing hitters more difficulty. This generally leads to more ground balls because making contact with an 87 mph pitch isn't difficult, but making solid contact with an 87 mph pitch with movement proves more difficult. Instead, Maholm is actually seeing more swings and misses, his swinging strike percent has increased from 7.4% to 8.9% from 2012 to 2013, but his GB% has barely changed. The slight increase in both horizontal and vertical movement might be the cause of this change, and the movement difference could derive from a shift in arm slot, but whatever the cause, Maholm has improved his productivity and efficiency without gaining any velocity.
Jamie Moyer once said,
"I came to realize in my late 20s that my velocity is not going to grow so I had to learn to utilize what I had."
In that statement Moyer makes two important realizations. First, a pitcher must be mature enough, desperate enough, or some combination of the two, to implement a strategy for success that does not center around a solid fastball with at least average velocity. Second, he mentions "using what he had", meaning that a pitcher is much more than a fastball or velocity. Just because said pitcher needed a to sustain a certain velocity on his pitches to reach the majors, does not imply his career is over because of an attrition in that velocity.
We've looked at three pitchers, each of whom has succeeded in 2013 with weak fastballs, but weak only in the numbers those fastballs register on the radar gun. Whether it's inducing more groundballs, using cunning, guile, and preparation, the unpredictability factor, or capitalizing on previously known strengths and simultaneously skimming off obvious weaknesses, these three pitchers prove that success is not dependent on speed. So, the next time you see a 100 mph fastball and begin the gushing process, remember the "Moyer Men" for they shouldn't be forgotten.