Thursday, 15 March 2012

On Cecil's Velocity

By the sounds of it, Brett Cecil is having himself a decent little spring, though he could be doing terrible and I'd have no real knowledge of it, since all we ever hear is "This guy is in the best shape of his life", or "His changeup looks better than I've ever seen it".  Now, Google is telling me that Cecil has yet to allow a run over three Spring appearances to this point, which happens to total 6 innings, and there is no context to those 6 innings in terms of batters faced or whatever.  Basically, Spring Training still means nothing.

If we can remember back to a year ago, all the talk was about Cecil's diminished velocity (and really, that whole talk lasted literally all year long), and a lot of people were really shitting their pants, worried that he just wasn't going to be good anymore, since the '09 and '10 versions of this guy were touching 95 with the fastball, while the spring and early summer version was between 85 and 93MPH.  Well, wouldn't you know it?  People are worried about his velocity again.  To those people, I say this:

Shut up.

If you had the first fucking clue about whatever it is that you're talking about, maybe you'd see that there's more to the story than just "OMG Cecil's fastball is slow now and that's why he stinks!"  The big problem last year was his control, not his velocity.  It doesn't matter how hard you throw if you're just tossing up belt-high meatballs. We need to consider the fact that this is spring training.  Quite literally, nearly everybody's velocity is way down in spring training.  It's because these games don't matter, and there's no point of cranking up and throwing at 100% so soon after a 3 month layoff.

Second, many power pitching prospects throw harder in high school or college ball than they ever do at the major league level.  It's because the human body isn't exactly designed to perform a violent, overhand throwing motion at 95MPH.  It just shouldn't happen.  Ever wonder why so many pitchers throw in the high-90's early in their career and then get hurt, needing to retire at age 29?  Fuck, we had Adam Loewen right in front of us towards the end of last season.  Mark Prior is another perfect example.

Third, and most importantly, Cecil isn't the same pitcher he was in 2009, when he could occasionally reach back and hit 95 on the gun.  I'm not saying that he can't do that now, per se, it's just that Cecil's pitch repertoire and pitching profile has evolved as he's been in the league, getting used to MLB-hitters, and vice-versa.  Let's have a look at his pitch F/X numbers.

In 2009, Cecil threw about 58% fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam), 30% sliders/curves, and 11% changeups.  His average fastball velocity was 90.8MPH (88.3 for 2-seamers), and his average changeup velocity was 83.4MPH.  As Cecil has evolved as a pitcher, he's slowed his changeup down to an average of 81.1 MPH, adding a nearly 1MPH gap between the changeup and fastball velocities, and is now throwing it three times as often.  He's also eliminated his 2-seamer, and throws more sinkers.

It stands to reason that his average fastball velocity is going to drop a bit if he doesn't throw his hard pitches as often, no? The whole idea of a changeup is to make it look like a fastball.  Invariably, you'd like your fastball to look like a changeup as well.  Which would you like, 2 more MPH on your fastball, or a more effective changeup?  I don't know if there's a right answer to that question, but you can't have fucking both without being some freak.  Last I checked, Cecil is a #3 at best, so I'd prefer the extra pitch, and since Alex Anthopoulos reported yesterday on the Jeff Blair show (which I reviewed here last night) that Cecil's changeup has been lights out, maybe we can put two and two together?

Let's look at someone who has never really depended on velocity to get guys out: Shaun Marcum.  When Marcum broke in, he threw his fastball 43% of the time (plus 7% cutters) at an average velocity of 88MPH, and threw his changeup 17.5% of the time, averaging 81.3MPH.  Marcum now throws 23% fastballs, and 26% changeups, and guess what?  He throws both pitches significantly slower now.  Marcum's fastball frequency has dropped each year since 2007, and his average velocity has done the same.

Look at Cecil's heatmaps while you still have the fangraphs link: he hardly throws fastballs to lefty hitters anymore, and is now peppering the zone with changeups to batters on both sides of the plate.  Have you ever heard old broadcasters with funny hair say stuff like "this guy has all the stuff needed to be a good major league pitcher, he just needs to learn how to pitch"?  Shaun Marcum understands how to pitch.  Brett Cecil is simply still learning how to pitch, and realizing the fact that he can't blow it past MLB hitters was probably step number 1.  I'm not saying that Cecil has ace potential, or will even be good for the rest of his career; I'm simply saying that velocity isn't the be-all and end-all for pitching, and that losing a mile on his fastball for the sake of improving his best pitch (the changeup) is probably a really good trade if we want him to have a chance.

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