Hope isn't the only thing that springs eternal. So, too, do creative explanations for why your starting pitchers are failing to live up to expectations.
Judging by the early returns, diminished fastball velocity is the in-vogue worry of 2012, and perhaps it's all Michael Pineda's fault: The New York Yankees right-hander faced questions about diminished velocity all spring before succumbing to a shoulder injury near the end of the exhibition season. Pineda's example demonstrates the worst-case scenario, and worst-case scenarios breed fear in owners of other pitchers facing similar questions.
Most notably, now it's Felix Hernandez facing the velocity question from some of his owners looking for the nearest bridge. Or … perhaps Bridge of Death from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"? It's like Hernandez, and his owners, are approaching the Old Man from Scene 24, preparing to be asked the Five … er … Three Questions:
What is your name?
"It is Felix Hernandez, ace of the Seattle Mariners."
What is your quest?
"To win the American League's Cy Young Award."
What is the air-speed velocity of one of your April fastballs?
"What? I don't know that! Auuuuuuuugh!" And with that, the hopes of your fantasy team are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
The reason for this comic approach is that questions about Hernandez's, or others', velocity tend to be more comical than tragic. Yes, comedies can in time transform into tragedies, but there are obvious rationales for not reading too much into Hernandez's -- or others' -- diminished fastball velocity at this early point in the season: the precariously small sample size of those statistics, or the fact that his 0.98 WHIP and 8.16 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio remain within range of his career numbers in those categories (1.22 and 8.19).
The deeper rationales are that sometimes the bizarre phenomenon known as the "dead-arm period" could be responsible for lost velocity, and the truth is that most pitchers tend to suffer in terms of velocity in the season's opening weeks. The chart below demonstrates the league's tendency to improve in terms of average fastball velocity, by month, over the course of a given season:
Those March/April numbers are noticeably low, easily the worst in any single month, and while you might claim that less than a half-mile per hour difference between those April and May numbers is small, remember those numbers were accrued over several hundred thousand fastballs per year, and more than 50,000 per month. That's one monstrous, whopping sample, and it shows that in "blanket statement" form, there might indeed be something to the dead-arm theory.
Effectively, if you're someone willing to make such a blanket statement as, "This pitcher's velocity is down, so let's panic, panic, panic," the statistics above provide the perfect such counterargument, "All pitchers throw slower in April than during the midsummer months, so it's too early to condemn them."
Let that keep you several steps back from the ledge … er … Gorge.
Of course, blanket statements are bad, as they lump pitchers of differing styles in one sum, and there's sometimes merit to the individual examples. Hernandez's is a valid question, as are those surrounding other starters, but Hernandez's owners shouldn't be so quick to criticize without putting his numbers into context.
Hernandez averaged 91.0 mph with his fastball during his April 7 start, his lowest single-start average since 2009, the first season ESPN's pitch-tracking data charted. Unfortunately, data wasn't available for his March 28 masterpiece in Japan; we only have reports from the Mariners' official website that he was generally throwing 89-90 mph in that game. Those are legitimately lower velocities than the 94.0 (2009), 93.9 (2010) and 93.2 (2011) he averaged the past three complete seasons, but in his defense, he's a pitcher who shed 15 pounds this winter and might yet be adapting to the physical change, not to mention that during his 2010 Cy Young campaign, he had a 91.9 average fastball velocity during his April 10 start, which was his second such assignment of that season.
Those don't take Hernandez completely off the hook -- he absolutely belongs on a "watch closely" list -- but they support the notion that this isn't the first time he has been throwing a bit softer than usual during his career. Take them too seriously and you might find yourself the unfortunate victim of a sell-low trade.
Scouring other first-start-of-2012 statistics -- and let's state upfront how minuscule a one-start sample is -- here are the six other regular starting pitchers who, after averaging at least 91 mph with their fastballs in all of 2011, suffered at least a 2 mph drop in velocity in their 2012 debuts:
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. Prev Rank refers to Tristan's preseason ranks, which were only 75 deep.
Clayton Kershaw (93.3 mph average in 2011, 89.2 in 2012 debut): He's the epitome of why you shouldn't overreact to velocity readings. Kershaw's 89.2 mph average was easily his lowest since 2009. He was also battling stomach flu. You try pitching through that. He gets a free pass.
Tommy Hanson (91.1 mph average in 2011, 88.7 in 2012 debut): His might be the most bothersome example of any because of the continuing questions about his long-term health. Hanson missed effectively the final two months of 2011 with a shoulder injury and made only three spring starts after recovering from the problem. And now his fastball is noticeably slower. Again, it's one start, but let that fact temper your enthusiasm following what was a statistically impressive 2012 debut. It might support him being more sell-high than bounce-back candidate. Bingo, he's on the "watch closely" list.
Tim Lincecum (92.2 mph average in 2011, 90.0 in 2012 debut): We've heard the commentary about Lincecum's diminishing velocities before, and his corresponding drop in strikeout rate. In his defense, four times since 2009 he averaged a lower number than he did on April 6, and in four of his first eight starts of 2010 he averaged beneath 91 mph. In that 2010 season he managed a 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 9.79 K's-per-nine ratio, excellent albeit not peak-level Lincecum numbers. Ultimately, if on draft day you still regarded Lincecum as a clone of his 2008-09 self, you now have your evidence that it was a mistake. It should've been clear even then, however, that while still good, he's at least a small step beneath the pitcher he was during those two seasons.
Ricky Romero (92.0 mph average in 2011, 89.9 in 2012 debut): His performance ran counter to what had been a previous pattern of hot starts -- he threw a quality start in each of his past three season debuts -- but diminished velocity isn't necessarily something new for Romero. During his first outing of 2010, he averaged 89.8 mph with his fastball, so he warrants patience.
Ubaldo Jimenez (93.2 mph average in 2011, 91.1 in 2012 debut): Let's first point out that Jimenez's velocity over the 2011 season was beneath his usual standard, but so far he's following last year's pattern precisely, his 91.1 mph average identical to his number during his regular-season debut a year ago. Jimenez's 2011 was disappointing, so it'd be understandable if that bothered you. But if you invested in him on draft day, one start of identical performance to last season shouldn't be radically altering your expectations.
Josh Beckett (92.9 mph average in 2011, 90.8 in 2012 debut): What's particularly bothersome about Beckett's velocity drop wasn't the home runs that resulted, it's that he already suffered a noticeable drop in velocity at an earlier stage of his career and had to adjust his pitching style accordingly. If it's necessary, will he be able to do it a second time? In his defense, he averaged 91.9 mph with his fastball during his 2011 debut, and that was his second-lowest average velocity of the season, so maybe he's a classic dead-arm example. But Beckett also warrants putting on the "watch closely" list.
With the increasing interest in head-to-head play, and with it the streaming-starters strategy, I'm adding the "Streamer's delight" section to both 60 Feet, 6 Inches as well as the weekly Forecaster column to provide multiple midweek updates, both to the picks themselves and their results.
Thursday, April 5, Erik Bedard: QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Friday, April 6, Jake Arrieta: W, QS, 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
Saturday, April 7, Chris Capuano: 4 2/3 IP, 2 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 4 K
Sunday, April 8, Juan Nicasio: QS, 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Monday, April 9, Tommy Milone: W, QS, 8 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 0 K
Week's total: 5 GS, 2 W (40.0%), 4 QS (80.0%), 33 2/3 IP, 18 H, 6 ER, 12 BB, 16 K, 1.60 ERA, 0.89 WHIP
Season total: 5 GS, 2 W (40.0%), 4 QS (80.0%), 33 2/3 IP, 18 H, 6 ER, 12 BB, 16 K, 1.60 ERA, 0.89 WHIP
Tuesday, April 10: Philip Humber at Cleveland Indians
Wednesday, April 11: Erik Bedard at Los Angeles Dodgers
Thursday, April 12: Chris Capuano versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Friday, April 13: Bartolo Colon at Seattle Mariners
Saturday, April 14: Carlos Zambrano versus Houston Astros
Sunday, April 15: Henderson Alvarez versus Baltimore Orioles
Monday, April 16: Freddy Garcia versus Minnesota Twins
Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh Pirates: The question about Bedard is not about his performance, it is -- and really always has been -- about his health. Consider that in 25 starts since the beginning of 2011, his first year after missing the entire 2010 season recovering from shoulder surgery, he has a 3.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 8.52 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio, numbers that can rival those of any starter in the 40-50 range. Bedard hasn't faced any sort of injury questions so far this season, and the right time to own him -- and claim his most valuable statistics -- is during the times he's healthiest. In other words, he's not a matchups type, he's a pick-up-and-enjoy type, albeit one for whom you'll likely need a contingency plan. After all, the guy does have nine disabled list stints on his career résumé.
Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals: Lohse's 2012 debut was a memorable one, partly because he did it on the national stage, during the Wednesday night opener at the new Marlins Park. It made him a popular pickup, and with good reason, but haven't we experienced this song and dance before? For a second consecutive spring training he was outstanding, posting a 2.81 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in six Grapefruit League starts; remember that in 2011 he had 1.88/0.88 numbers in five spring turns. Lohse extended that performance into the early stages of the regular season last year; he had a 7-2 record, 2.13 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in his 11 starts through May. In other words, enjoy this, because Lohse can contribute, albeit perhaps only in the short term. After all, he was 7-6 with a 4.33 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in his final 19 starts of 2011, numbers that dropped him beneath mixed-league usefulness.
Jonathon Niese, New York Mets: This Sabermetric darling produced one of the most relevant storylines of the Mets' scorching-hot start, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his 2012 debut and finishing with six innings of two-hit, seven-strikeout baseball versus the Atlanta Braves. As he did a year ago, Niese continued to generate strikeouts and ground outs, his keys to success; of the 18 outs he recorded, nine were ground outs and seven were K's. Forgive him the four runs (three earned) he surrendered, because all came in the seventh, a point at which he might have been more tired than he'd be midseason. This might be your final chance to get a sneaky, low-end contender for the top 50 starters of 2012.