Inbox: Why should Cubs focus on velocity?
Beat reporter Jordan Bastian fields fans' questions
Why do clubs and media focus so much on velocity? It seems like if someone isn't throwing high 90s, everyone assumes they can't make it in the Majors. Yet, there are several pitchers who have had long, prosperous careers throwing in the lower 90s. I would take command and pitch deception over straight heat almost any day in the Majors.
-- Bobby G., Carol Stream, Ill.
You're right, Bobby. Plenty of pitchers over the years have made a career out of precision over velocity. The Cubs' own Kyle Hendricks (average two-seam velocity of 86.6 mph last year, per Statcast™) is a prime example in this power-obsessed era in baseball. That said, individual cases of success in that regard are typically the outliers -- the exceptions to the rule.
The data is clear: More velo from the pitcher equals less success for the hitter. MLB.com's Andrew Simon saved me some research by writing a recent article on this very subject. In it, he outlined the hardest-throwing rotations for the upcoming campaign and presented a nice statistical glimpse into why it matters.
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Here are the weighted on-base averages by MLB hitters in 2018 based on varying tiers of fastball velocity from starting pitchers:
• Less than 90 mph: .379
• 90-92 mph: .365
• 92-94 mph: .355
• 94-96 mph: .335
• 96-98 mph: .281
• More than 98 mph: .270
As Simon notes in the article, MLB hitters had an overall wOBA of .316 last season against starters on all pitch types last season.
So, while you're not wrong that lower-velocity pitchers can have success in the Majors, a pitching staff full of precision-based arms could prove to be problematic. That is actually one area of concern for the Cubs' rotation, as experienced and deep as it is. Last year, Cubs starters combined for 90.3 mph on average on fastballs (29th in MLB and last in the NL).
With the Cubs having added Brad Brach to the bullpen, it begs the comparison to two other two-year deals signed this offseason by former Cubs relievers: Jesse Chavez (Rangers) and Justin Wilson (Mets). Last year, Chavez dominated after the Cubs picked him up, and lefties only hit .190 against Wilson. Based on the similar contracts, did the Cubs choose the right guy?
-- Shane H., Montpelier, Vt.
Well, in Brach's case, the reported deal has the potential to include two years, whereas the deals given to Chavez (two years, $8 million) and Wilson (two years, $10 million) guarantee the second season. Right there, the Cubs built in some flexibility. Brach's 2019 salary has a base of $3 million, but the deal could be worth $4.35 million, per reports. If the Cubs were to pick up the second year (it's a mutual option), the deal could reportedly reach $9.5 million.
I couldn't sit here and say definitively that the Cubs landed the best of the three. If you felt Chicago needed more lefty depth, well, then you probably thought Wilson was the wiser investment. Comparing righties, Chavez had the edge in 2018, but he's also three years older than Brach and would've cost more for a Cubs team that has made it very clear they are working with a limited budget this winter.
What the Cubs can hope for is that they get the version of Brach that showed up in the season's second half last year. Following the break, the right-hander had a 2.39 ERA with a .677 opponents' OPS in 26 1/3 innings. In the first half, Brach had a 4.46 ERA with an .806 opponents' OPS in 36 1/3 innings. Brach also saw his fastball velocity jump to 94.6 mph in the second half, compared to 93.4 mph in the first half, per Statcast™.
Should we expect to see Brandon Morrow pitch anytime before the All-Star break? Because I have my doubts. The Cubs could be scrambling for bullpen performance if the team gets off to a slow start.
-- Bruce W., Brookfield, Ill.
Morrow is currently at the Cubs' facility in Mesa, Ariz., and is unrestricted in his workouts. The November procedure on his right elbow (an arthroscopic debridement) has delayed his throwing program by roughly one month. So barring any setbacks, it's fair to project that Morrow will miss roughly the first month of the regular season. Given Morrow's injury history, I understand the we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it mentality, but that's the timeline given the current information. If his latest comeback takes until the All-Star break, something probably went wrong along the way.
Until the issue of Tyler Chatwood's inability to put pitches over the plate is rectified, how can anyone seriously consider him as rotation depth?
-- Lou H., San Mateo, Calif.
Chatwood will certainly be under the microscope this spring, when the Cubs do need to sort out how he fits into the pitching staff's picture. Right now, it would probably take multiple setbacks for Chatwood to crack the rotation, but describing him as "depth" for the staff is not inaccurate. He'd currently be seventh in the pecking order, behind swing man Mike Montgomery. Yu Darvish's pending return and picking up Cole Hamels' contract options helps lengthen the depth chart.
When Spring Training officially begins, we'll be able to get a better grasp of what Chatwood has been working on over the offseason and his plans for the spring. I will say this, if he can get the walk rate under control, Chatwood could be intriguing as a versus-righty reliever. Last year, Chatwood held right-handed batters to a .288 wOBA, which was better than Morrow (.298). Pedro Strop (.215), Steve Cishek (.233) and Carl Edwards Jr. (.250) led the way for Cubs relievers in that regard in 2018.
By not going in on the big-name free agents this year, does that indicate that the Cubs are waiting for when Mike Trout becomes available?
-- Ray, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Oh boy, are we starting Trout to the Cubs watch already? We still have two years to go until that sweepstakes will overtake the Hot Stove. By then, there will certainly be some contracts off the books for Chicago, but some of the Cubs' stars (Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, specifically) will still be in line for hefty arbitration contracts. But, man, we're putting the cart a couple hundred miles ahead of our horse here. Ask me again after the 2020 season.