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Jonathan Sanchez's Velocity is Down. Time to Panic?

Yesterday Jonathan Sanchez made his first appearance in a spring training game with horrible results:

1 IP, 4 Runs, 3 ER, 4 Hits.

Here is Sanchez's take on the outing

I'm healthy. I hope I'm going to have a pretty good year," Sanchez said. "It was my first time out there in seven months. It was kind of different. I was throwing all my pitches, a lot of fastballs. I wasn't sharp. I was throwing my fastball down in the zone. Something positive was I threw one split(-finger fastball) and it worked.

It didn't help his outing that the Royals made 3 errors in the inning that made Sanchez throw 31 pitches.

A major point of concern from the game was his decreased fastball velocity. Usually, I care little to nothing of spring training stats, but knowing how fast a pitcher is throwing is useful. In the game, his fastball average 87.8 MPH with a range of 86 to 89 MPH. Here is a visual from Fangraphs with his last start added to his previous 4 seasons worth of starts (thank you MS Paint).


As it can be seen, not once during the regular season over the past 4 seasons did he fail to reach 90 MPH. His average value is not far off the other lowest values.

Some people may say that it is spring training and pitchers may not be up to speed. A problem with that argument is that the rest of the Royal pitchers are up to speed. Here are some pitchers and their average speeds in games with Pitch FX cameras and their average speed last season:

Name 2011 03/07/12 03/04/12 Diff
Teaford 91.7 89.3 - -2.5
Adcock 90.4 91.3 91.6 -1.0
Herrera 96.2 95.5 96.5 0.2
Collins 92.4 91.5 - -0.9
B. Wood 95.6 96.0 - 0.4
Mendoza 90.8 - 92.2 1.4
Mazzaro 91.9 - 92.2 0.3
O'Sullivan 91.5 - 91.5 0.0
Sanchez 89.9 - 87.8 -2.1

As it can be seen, most pitchers are generally throwing as hard, if not harder, than they did last season with the exception of Teaford and Sanchez.

The problem is that Sanchez's drop may be more severe than it seems. Some pitchers, like Justin Verlander, throw harder as the game goes on. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs pointed out this trait when Ken Rosenthal and Keith Law noticed that Michael Pineda fastball was not up to speed. The problem is that Sanchez's fastball does not increase in speed during a game. It drops more than any pitcher in the game. Sanchez's fastball would look to drop, on average, another 1.5 MPH as he got closer to 100 pitches. By the end of the game, he may have fastballs in the 82-83 MPH range.

Some pitchers have been able to be productive throwing slower, but historically that is not the case.
As my favorite Houston Astro's front office person, Mike Fast, stated:

Starting pitchers improve by about one run allowed per nine innings for every gain of 4 mph

If he is not able to regain his speed, he is looking to see an increase in his ERA over 0.5 Runs which would put him in the 4.50 to 5.00 range for 2012.

While the drop in velocity might not seem like a huge deal, it is for Sanchez. He has problems maintaining velocity to begin with and the additional drop will limit his strikeout potential. I will monitoring his speeds for his next start intently to see if the problem continues. Panic, not yet. Concerned, yes.