Over the past two seasons we’ve come to see sub-par, by their standards, velocity from two Yankees young pitchers, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Hughes was up first in 2008. He was throwing around 91, when minor league scouting reports had him up around 93, hitting 94 and 95 on occasion. When he dropped down in 2008, we at RAB said not to worry. Velocity isn’t everything, after all. Then came Joba this year. Up around 95 as a starter last year, he’s been in the 92 mph range for most of this year. Again, we said don’t panic, he has other offerings which can help him excel at the major league level.
As it turns out, we might have overstated the “velocity isn’t everything” argument. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (sorry, subscription required) takes a look at a pitcher’s velocity as it relates to his major league success. While both Joba and Phil could survive with 91, 92 mph heat and a couple of quality secondary pitches, any lower and they might be in some trouble. Velocity, it would seem, is the best predictor of whether a pitcher can hack it at the major league level.
Yes, there’s plenty more that goes into it, but as the data shows, 92 percent of major league pitchers this season (who have thrown more than 300 fastballs) throw at 89 or higher. For those throwing softer, it takes a bit of deception to bridge the divide. Sidewinders like Brad Ziegler and Cla Meredith, and deception artists like Chris Young and Yusmeiro Petit can survive by hiding the ball from batters. But for your run-of-the-mill pitcher tossing 88, 89? That’s probably not going to hack it.
So, to answer the question of the headline, velocity isn’t everything. But it does appear to be the best single predictor of a pitcher’s ability to hang in the majors. Of course, it can’t be done without some semblance of command — see Jason Neighborgall — or secondary pitches, but without velocity it might not be attainable at all. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Yankees declined to trade for Brian Bannister.