Opening Day is behind us and with that the opening weekend in fantasy baseball. Plenty of overreactions in both positive and negative directions have taken place while the masses are eager to make a transaction simply for the sake of making one. Do not be that person. Unless there is an injury or significant change in circumstance it is highly unlikely you can gauge much from a three to four-game sample size. Yet that is what we are going to try and do, the column is called “By The Numbers” after all.
So what can we gain to learn from such a small sample size? We look to variables that can have a meaningful impact on results over time. By this, I mean pitcher's velocity, pitch mix adjustments, and of course maximum exit velocity. This is not to say anything definitive can be concluded, but we can throw a yellow flag on some trends in order to see how they progress moving forward. Let’s dig into the numbers and see what is worth keeping an eye on.
Pitching: Average Fastball Velocity
It is important to note that many variables can go into velocity outliers early in the season. Cold weather, hot radar guns, and early season ramp-ups could all lead to inaccurate readings in terms of future outlook. However, that is not the case for everyone and major changes are worth keeping an eye on.
Here are notable pitchers so far who have seen a significant change in their average fastball velocity from last season. (I use mostly four-seam velocity or the pitcher’s primary fastball)
Velocity Gains as of 4/4:
Velocity Loss as of 4/4:
So, So Cold
Like I had mentioned above, cold weather likely played a massive role in the low velocity readings for aces like Luis Castillo, Shane Bieber, and Jack Flaherty. Castillo has an established track record of struggling in cold weather with low velocity and should not be considered a worry for the time being. In fact, when past dates where Castillo’s velocity fell below 95 miles per hour were brought up on Twitter, the right-hander commented specifically on the weather.
Unlike Flaherty and Castillo, Bieber barely allowed the drop in velocity to impact his performance by still collecting double-digit strikeouts and a quality start. Just keep an eye on these pitchers their next time out and you are likely to see a different story as the season moves forward.
Wheeler had 10 strikeouts in his 2021 debut Saturday and hit 97-plus miles per hour on the gun 40 times in seven innings. Last season the right-hander reached over 97 mph 85 times in 71 total innings. It is also worth noting that Wheeler worked on his fastball efficiency this offseason and was able to lower the drop on his four-seam fastball by five inches. Less drop equals more rise, and that is a good thing.
Many assumed that Buehler's velocity would pick up once the regular season started, but that was not the case. The right-hander averaged two miles per hour less on his fastball, which is the lowest single-game mark of his entire career. No reason to freak out, but this is certainly a situation worth monitoring after his bizarre ramp-up last season.
Gausman saw a significant bump in his velocity last season that led to a career year in which he posted a 3.62 ERA and 11.92 K/9 over 59 ⅔ innings. The 30-year-old's bread and butter is his splitter, but overall velocity was a key part to his success, evidenced by a four-seam pVal increase from a negative 4.6 to a positive 2.8. However, through the right-hander's first start Gausman averaged just 93.6 miles per hour, a drop of 1.5 mph from a season ago. Was the increase we saw last season due to a short season before free agency? Time will tell.
Davis is an interesting name on the reliever side of things, posting a 1.9 mph increase in his fastball over opening weekend. After a strong spring in which the veteran allowed one run over seven innings, it’s an interesting wrinkle to an already complex relief market. Royals manager Mike Matheny had mentioned a willingness to use different arms in the ninth inning, and with Davis having already secured a save this season that seems to be the case. The smart money is on Greg Holland to still be the primary ninth-inning option, but Wade Davis is not done yet, folks. (Although it should be noted there is a possibility the Kansas City radar gun was hot with several of their pitcher showing up in my research)
Heaney did not have a successful outing against the White Sox in his 2021 debut, but he did show an increased fastball velocity throughout the game. Heaney was one of only 17 pitchers last season to hold a better than MLB average swinging strike rate, Z-Contact% (contact within the strike zone), and O-Swing% (swings out of the strike zone). If Heaney can stay healthy, he has the talent to be special, so do not let this first game impact his long-term outlook. The worry is health, not talent.
Pitching: Arsenal (Pitch Mix) Adjustments
Milwaukee most definitely had a “hot gun” over the weekend with most of their notable pitchers showing up on the velocity gain chart. Corbin Burnes is worth discussing though. I am not talking about the dueling perfect games with Jose Berrios, which was amazing. I am talking about the increased usage of his cut fastball. Burnes tossed his cutter 31.5 percent of the time last season and 48.3 percent during his debut.
This is just one game so this is very subject to change, but for how well the cutter and sinker tunnel and deviate, this has the potential to be a dominating change of events. (chart below from Baseball Savant)
Innings are the concern for Burnes, but he has far more command over his cutter (58.2% zone) and sinker (47.7% zone) than he does his offspeed offerings. This could allow for more in-game efficiency without sacrificing strikeout potential given the 15.1% swinging strike rate on his cutter last season.
Glasnow also showed up among the leaders in velocity gain with a full uptick on his fastball. However, the far more interesting topic is the 27-year-old’s slider. It is a brand-new pitch that Glasnow immediately installed as a major piece of his arsenal in which he threw 33.8% of the time. The pitch carried a 41.7% whiff rate and clearly had the opposing hitters confused. Below is a chart that illustrates where in the zone each of the right-hander's pitches is most effective.
If Glasnow can stay healthy he is one of the best inning for inning pitchers in baseball.
McCullers also introduced a brand-new slider to the party. The interesting difference here is that the 27-year-old threw it 35.8% of the time as his primary weapon on Saturday. McCullers' new slider carried a 40% whiff rate and generated 13 called strikes over 34 pitches. The right-hander’s beloved curveball dropped from 37.6% to just 16.8% in the game. A very different approach that will be fun to watch in April.
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Hitting: Maximum Exit Velocity
As we discussed in last week’s column, maximum exit velocity is a great tool for small sample data analysis due to its ability to be useful after just one battled ball. You either have the ability to hit a ball at a certain EV, or you do not. This should not be mistaken for more than it is though. Maximum exit velocity measures potential but does not account for contact rate or launch angle. This is purely a raw measure of what is possible without corresponding metrics to put it in perspective. That being said it still has a useful purpose early in the season for player evaluation and breakout speculation.
Here are the current standouts that have already generated gains in max exit velocity during the opening weekend:
Taylor showed promise early in his career with the Nationals, flashing a power and speed combo that is coveted in fantasy. In 2017 the 30-year-old batted .271 with 19 home runs and 17 stolen bases over 399 at-bats and followed that up with 24 stolen bases in 2018. However, Taylor fell out of favor in Washington failing to reach 100 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons.
A much-needed change of scenery took place this offseason when Taylor signed a one-year deal with the Royals with a promise of everyday at-bats. So far, so good. Taylor has already eclipsed his previous max velocity multiple times during the opening weekend that includes two home runs and six RBI. The batting average may not hold over the long haul, but Taylor could be in for a career year if the Royals are committed to putting him in the lineup.
The tragedy of Shohei Ohtani. Of course, by that I mean the tragedy that fantasy shareholders can’t reap the benefit of this two-way unicorn's full ability. Pitching prevents Ohtani from hitting every day, which often prevents him from being a viable choice in weekly lineups. On Sunday night the $$$-year-old broke 100 mph on the radar gun on the mound while surpassing 115 mph in the air on this blast seen in the video below.
This is the year. O’Neill has been a fantasy sleeper since his major league debut in 2018 and he has always found a way back into the hearts of his believers after multiple seasons of disappointment. One major roadblock has simply been playing time which has mostly been taken care of by the Cardinals essentially paying The Angels to take Dexter Fowler from them.
O’Neill has elite sprint speed but is mostly known in fantasy for his raw power. Last season the 25-year-old peaked at a 107.4 max EV after posting a 113.1 in his rookie season. So far in 2021, the St. Louis outfielder has already produced a 110.2 giving fantasy shareholders hope that this season truly is the one they have been waiting for. O’Neill has the everyday at-bats, let's see if he takes advantage of them.
The last player on our list is Nolan Arenado. After a career-worst season in 2020 and being shipped from Coors Field to St. Louis, many are skeptical of what the all-star third baseman can produce this year. A major factor that held Arenado to a .252/.303/.434 slash line last season was a nagging shoulder injury. This caused the 29-year-old to cap out at a 108.9 max exit velocity.
That sounds low for a star like Arenado right? What if I told you he did not crack 110 even once from 2017-2020? That’s right, the gold glove machine is not the hard contact machine many might have assumed. The good news is that Arenado has already registered a 110.6 early this year that should signal that he is healthy and ready to rock n’ roll.