Jack did a good job this morning dissecting the adjustments Yu Darvish has made and how those have paid off in a big way, but there was one thing he didn’t mention that Darvish is also doing better now – throwing harder.
Here are the average velocities for Darvish’s pitches from 2012 and then last night, per PitchF/x:
The MLBAM classification algorithm isn’t perfect, so just for comparison, here are those same numbers according to Harry Pavlidis, who manually classifies pitches at BrooksBaseball.
We can also show this graphically. Here’s the spread of all pitches that Darvish has thrown that have been classified as four seam fastballs by PITCHF/x.
You’ll note that not only is the point denoting average velocity higher for last night’s game than it was for any point last year, but that the maximum velocity is also higher than it was at any point during last season. Darvish threw ten pitches that topped 95 last night, and three times, he got over 97.
Perhaps the most remarkable point of all of this is that April velocity is lower than seasonal velocity, and most pitchers throw harder as the season progresses than they do at the start of the year. And yet, according to the PITCHF/x data, Darvish was throwing harder last night than he did in any single start last year. In his Opening Day start last year, Darvish only topped 95 three times, topping out at 95.8. He eventually started hitting 97 on occasion towards the end of the year.
But, again, this isn’t all about the fastball. Darvish’s velocity was up on most of his pitches last night, and as Jack notes, he relied heavily on his cut fastball and slider. Differentiating between those two types of pitches can be difficult for an algorithm, so we’ll just focus on Harry’s classifications for these pitches. When you compare April 2012 to last night, in order to account for the early season diminished velocity effect, you’ll see that Darvish’s cutter was recorded at 91.3 versus 90.7 last year, and the slider was 84.0 versus 82.8.
Now, just because this is PITCHF/x data doesn’t mean that small sample size warnings don’t apply. It’s possible that a calibration issue in Houston could be inflating the velocities relative to what the system records in Arlington, or it could just be that Darvish put a little extra mustard on his pitches as the game wore on, given the whole perfect game thing. Two of his three pitches recorded at 97 mph came after the sixth inning, though there’s no Verlander-style velocity increase as the game wore on.
Still, just because PTICHF/x has Darvish throwing harder last night doesn’t mean it’s a new established norm for him. His maximum velocity spiked in his fourth start of the year last season, then fell off in May. Velocity is fairly consistent from start to start, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no variation, and last night could end up being an outlier. Or it could be a measurement issue with PITCHF/x. It’s still one start. Never read too much into one start.
That said, there are reasons to think that it’s probably partially real, at least. Since the Rangers spring training complex has PITCHF/x cameras installed, we also have data from March for each of the last two years, and Darvish’s 2013 spring training velocity is up compared to his 2012 velocity as well. And, of course, we have the benefit of knowing just how hapless the Astros looked against Darvish last night, and even after accounting for a weak opponent, the results align with the idea that Darvish had his best stuff last night.
For all the talk about how Houston’s line-up compromises the impressiveness of Darvish’s performance last night, keep in mind that he opened 2012 against the Mariners, and they tagged him for five runs in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out only 5 of the 30 batters he faced on Opening Day last year, versus 14 of the 27 he faced last night. That’s two straight years he’s opened against a bad line-up, but his results from last night were far more impressive.
Both from a scouting and results perspective, Darvish was at his best last night. The question now is whether he’s going to keep throwing harder the rest of the season, and whether or not he can actually gain velocity from this current point as the season wears on or if he’s just starting from a higher base. After all, the longer spring training — due to the WBC — may have allowed pitchers to build up more arm strength than usual by Opening Day, so we can’t say for certain that pitcher velocity trends will follow previous years patterns. However, even at last night’s registered velocities, Darvish’s projections would likely have to be revised upwards.
Steamer used a projected 92.8 mph FBv for Darvish as their velocity input, and it still spit out a 3.25 FIP projection despite the fact that he pitches half his games in Texas. As those guys have shown, increasing fastball velocity improves a pitcher’s projection and makes for more accurate projections, and Darvish was throwing well above that 92.8 average last night. If he spends the year throwing closer to 94 than 93, then Darvish may actually be underrated by the preseason forecasts. And they already forecast him as one of the game’s best starting pitchers.
It’s still one start, and one start against the worst team in baseball. Maybe Darvish gets rocked in his next start while throwing 92 and we throw this whole post in the trash. Small sample warnings cannot be overstated at this time of year. This might not mean anything.
But, you know, on the chance that Darvish’s velocity is trending upwards, well, look out, American League.