Gas is king.
I mean, fastball velocity is not the only determinant of success in the major leagues, but it really goes a long way. Consider the top five qualified starting pitchers, ranked by fastball velocity in 2010:
Ubaldo Jimenez (96.1)
Justin Verlander (95.4)
Josh Johnson (94.9)
David Price (94.6)
Edwin Jackson (94.4)
Yeah, any team would take those guys.
But what does it mean for the Mets' Chris Young, who is currently lighting up the radar gun with 84s, 85s and 86s?Let's find some other low-velocity pitchers and see what we can learn from them.
Taking a three-year sample, here are the fastball laggers, 'bottom ten' edition:
Greg Maddux (83.7)
Livan Hernandez (84.2)
Kenny Rogers (85.2)
Barry Zito (85.7)
Mark Buehrle (86.0)
Mike Mussina (86.4)
Shaun Marcum (87.0)
Ted Lilly (87.1)
Jarrod Washburn (87.9)
John Lannan (88.1)
When John Lannan has two miles per hour on you, you know you are in trouble. This is not a group you want to be in, either, but there are a few names that can give us pause.
What do Shaun Marcum, Ted Lilly and Barry Zito have that the rest of the list does not? (Let's ignore the end of Greg Maddux's career for the purposes of this argument).
Shaun Marcum has a world-beating changeup. It's been worth +40.9 runs over average by linear weights pitch type values during his career. Ted Lilly's best pitch is his curveball - which despite being worth only +4.5 runs over average, has set up his mediocre fastball consistently (+53.7 runs over average). Barry Zito also lives and dies with his curveball (+22.4 runs over his career). In any case, it seems that the (perhaps obvious) prerequisite for owning a mediocre fastball is owning great off-speed stuff.
Perhaps disconcertingly, Young has used his fastball nearly three-quarters of the time over his career (74.1%), and that does not bode well. Only Livan Hernandez and John Lannan on the list above used their fastball over 60% of the time on this list, and none over 70%. Don't use a slowpoke fastball three-quarters of the time, right?
Maybe Young has learned that lesson because this year, he's using the fastball at a career-low rate (68.9%). In its place is perhaps the changeup (17.5% this year, 7.6% career). During his last start, the announcing team told a story about Young learning the split-change from Dan Warthen. Apparently, Mike Pelfrey saw the pitch in use during spring training and ran down to the dugout to tell Young that it was a good pitch. An emergence of a split-change would be a welcome thing for Chris Young. His slider, though positive (+15.2 runs career), has never been elite. In other words, it's never been a Marcum changeup or a Zito / Lilly curveball.
If Mark Buehrle gives his fans hope, there's a couple problems with it. For one, Buehrle has barely used his fastball over 50% of the time over his career (51.1%), and he's only cracked that number once in the last eight years. Hey may not have a 'great' offspeed pitch, but his cutter has been worth +34.7 runs over his career and is a strong pitch. Lastly, Buehrle is known for his control (2.06 BB/9 career), while Young is only about average in the category (3.55 BB/9 career). It's not a great comp.
We can all root for Chris Young to succeed - he's had a tough couple of years - but the fact that he's lost about five miles per hour off of his peak velocity means something. Something not so good.