Need for speed? Pitchers live, and die, with heat
Chapman shows travails of a fireballer who loses command
When Aroldis Chapman entered the eighth inning of the Reds' game Sunday night against the Tigers, it was hardly a secret what the Cincinnati reliever would use to go after the Detroit hitters.
Heat, heat and more heat.
According to MLB.com's Gameday, the first 15 pitches Chapman threw -- against five hitters -- were fastballs. Each traveled at least 98 mph, and five (including three out of four to Matt Young) were 100 mph.
And why not? The heater is Chapman's bread and butter, something of a phenomenon around baseball in that he is routinely clocked in the high-90s and commonly reaches triple digits.
He gets more swings and misses on average than any other National League pitcher, with a contact rate on all swings at 60.6 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. And his fastball, specifically, has the third-highest swing-and-miss percentage of any heater in the Majors, at 40.7 percent, according to STATS Inc.
But Sunday was an indication of how the speed, if not properly harnessed, can backfire. Chapman gave up two hits, walked a batter, hit another and threw a wild pitch, allowing the Tigers to claw their way back into the ballgame on an evening of rare misfortune for the Reds fireballer.
"You've got a guy coming in that can throw the ball 105 mph, and you beat him," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said afterward. "That's pretty good."
But it begs the question: Is it possible, when it comes to a fastball, to have too much of a good thing? Is velocity a pitcher's most powerful weapon? And where does it stand in comparison to location or break on a particular pitch?
Of course, it's a different situation between starters and relievers. Rarely can a pitcher go out and throw in the high-90s for an entire outing. It was an adjustment Rangers pitcher Alexi Ogando had to make when he made a spot-start last weekend for injured starter Derek Holland.
In Ogando's case, Rangers manager Ron Washington said he'd almost rather Ogando keep a few ticks shaved off his heater. The right-hander, who landed on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday with a groin strain sustained while legging out a hit, typically lives around 96 mph, with an average fastball of 96.7. But lately he's been consistently in the 98-100 mph range. Washington knew his hurler can't reach those speeds consistently, and the wear it could cause concerned him.
"He's got to back off if he's going to be a starter," Washington said. "He can't be going that hard. A fastball at 97-98 is good if you need it, but 93-94 is good. Mix in the slider and changeup. If he's throwing 97-98, he's not going to stay out there long."
But there are starters who are exceptions to the rule. Take Justin Verlander, the Tigers ace and 2011 American League MVP/Cy Young winner, who is known for a lethal fastball -- just one of four knockout pitches he possesses -- that seems to get stronger as his starts go on.
Or, in the words of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, whose team was two outs away from being no-hit by the right-hander last month: "That's a master craftsman with a power tool. He can take you places you don't want to go."
Other pitchers are forced to be craftsmen without a power pitch. Like veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, who made an admirable attempt at a comeback with the Rockies this season with a repertoire of pitches that rarely reach the mid-80s.
The 49-year-old knew in Spring Training that his location had to be on point if he were going to throw at that speed, and that he had to effectively vary the speeds on his weak fastball and even slower off-speed pitches.
In the end, he was unable to do so, and it led to the end of his tenure in Colorado. He signed a Minor League contract with the Orioles last week.
"There is a difference in that the 82 or 83 mph that he had as a fastball had started to come back and get closer and closer to where some of his off-speed pitches were," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "There's very little variance between pitches.
"I saw more seasoned Major League hitters that stood at home plate and were just looking for the ball. There was not a real concern anymore, from the standpoint of the variance of speeds."
Other pitchers -- Washington's Stephen Strasburg leads Major League starters with an average fastball velocity of 96 mph, followed by Tampa Bay's David Price, the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, Tampa Bay's Matt Moore and Verlander -- don't have to worry about that. When it comes to their repertoire, they have no need for more speed.