There was no question that, heading into the offseason, Dave Dombrowski had to do something to improve the pitching staff. Sure, the fact that many were waiting for last year’s group to fail has overshadowed how poor the lineup was for much of the first half in 2015, but the pitchers certainly weren’t good either. That went for both portions — rotation and bullpen — too, though one certainly required more work than the other.
Just looking at the names they have brought in and their overall numbers, it appears Dombrowski has succeeded. The new names that have been brought in should all theoretically help. There’s one thing the new faces have in common, as well.
If Dombrowski has one calling card when he’s building a team — particularly a bullpen — it’s that he loves velocity. It’s one of the biggest things that we heard about him when he was brought to town last summer. Of course, it’s not something he shies away from, either. He’s unashamed of the position he’s coming from, and he discussed this with Brian Macpherson in a great article posted Thursday. It’s a strategy he’s going back to with this team, as it’s among the things connecting Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith and David Price. So, all of this begs the question: How much does velocity really matter?
This is the time I will recognize the obviousness of this answer, to a degree. Of course velocity matters. Hitting baseballs gets harder and harder the faster it is coming in on you. Throwing fast is also very tough on an arm. Pitchers wouldn't be throwing as hard as possible if it didn’t make a difference. With that being said, we’ve obviously seen plenty of pitchers succeed without velocity before. Koji Uehara, Mark Buerhle, Darren O’Day and Hisashi Iwakuma were the first names to jump to mind, with many others being included over the years. And that’s without counting knuckleballs! Still, the game is clearly evolving towards strikeouts and power pitching in general. So, I figured it would be useful to check how the best pitching staffs last year ranked in terms of velocity.
This whole exercise will be using Fangraphs’ velocity measurements. According to them, the Red Sox’s pitchers’ average fastball velocity ranked 21st in all of baseball. They were also 25th in ERA and 23rd in FIP, which is a quick way of saying they were bad and also not good. It turns out, that kind of result is somewhat well-represented across the league.
To wit, seven of the top ten teams in terms of ERA also ranked in the top ten in terms of velocity, with an eighth also finishing in the top half of the league. When you change over to FIP rather than ERA, the numbers drop to six in the top ten and seven in the top half. Things become a little more blurry when you look at the bad teams, however. Of the ten worst teams by ERA, just half of them were also in the bottom third of the league in velocity. Again, the number drops by one when you change to FIP.
So, what does that mean? For one thing, it’s an inconclusive result judging from just one year of data. Taking the time — something the author currently does not have at the moment, unfortunately — to look over a longer chunk of time could prove beneficial. However, it should be noted we’re in a period of unprecedented velocity, so it’s not certain that today’s correlation would be like the past’s.
Anyways, beyond that ramble, last year’s results tell me that velocity certainly helps more than it hurts, but it’s far from a determining factor. If you want to be elite, you need to throw the ball hard as a staff. There were outliers, of course. The Astros were among the best staffs in the game last year along with having the second-lowest velocity in the game. However, generally speaking, high velocity made the good staffs great, but low velocity didn’t kill teams to the same extent.
It’s also worth nothing that this is a strategy that hasn’t always worked for Dombrowski. While he’s built enviable rotations in the past, he’s never been able to put together a strong bullpen in Detroit despite his inclination towards flame throwers.
Overall, while it’s clear that velocity helps a ton, it’s certainly not the only thing that matters. Luckily, the high-velocity players that Dombrowski brought in have strong command in common as well. Sure, guys like Matt Barnes and Pat Light who will be brought up later are Dombrowski favorites because of their velocity. They won’t be thrust into important roles like they may have in Detroit, though.
There were a lot of factors that went into (hopefully) improving the Red Sox rotation this season, with velocity being a very big one. Kimbrel, Smith and Price all throw in the mid-to-high-90’s, as do Light and Barnes, who hope to make an impact at some point. However, last season told us that velocity helped made good staffs great, but there were still hard-throwing teams that struggled. Luckily, the first three names mentioned above also carry great command. Dombrowski hopes his strategy this winter pays off, with or without the velocity.