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It’s no secret that, generally speaking, as pitchers age, they lose velocity. It’s also no secret that, generally speaking, as players age (past 28-30), they become less effective at baseball. On the pitching side, those probably aren’t wholly independent truisms.

But does that mean that, when a pitcher sees a drop in his velocity, he’s in for a serious decline in performance?

As part of my due diligence on the Edwin Jackson signing (still not official, mind you), I reviewed a variety of things about his 2012 season, and previous seasons, wrapping my head around his prior performances, and what they suggest about his future with the Cubs. I’ve already dug into a great deal of the statistical analysis piece, but my research turned up something else worth discussing.

Here’s a chart from FanGraphs showing Edwin Jackson’s fastball velocity over the last five years:

fangraphs edwin jackson velocity

While it isn’t dramatic, you can see a pretty clear drop in velocity in 2012 – from about 94.5 mph to about 93.5 mph. My internal alarms went off: should we be concerned? Is this the start of a decline in velocity, and, more importantly, performance?

The Cubs will have Jackson for the seasons in which he turns 30, 31, 32, and 33. I was curious, then, if I could find examples of other pitchers who lost fastball velocity in their late-20s/early-30s, and, if so, examine how those pitchers fared during those early-30s years, despite the drop in velocity.

In short, the results were encouraging – albeit in a very limited sample. As a starting point, I looked at pitchers who pitched the 2012 season at ages 32 to 34, on the thinking that what we really want to capture is performance in the later years of the Jackson contract. I limited the group to pitchers who threw at least 170 innings, trying to weed out pitchers who had serious injuries, which could skew both velocity and performance.

That left me with 11 pitchers (to which I added CC Sabathia because (1) he turned 32 during the 2012 season, and (2) he’s always been a hard-thrower, and I thought he was a pretty good fit for this exercise): Cliff Lee, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Vogelsong, Wandy Rodriguez, Josh Beckett, Jake Westbrook, Mark Buehrle, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Guthrie, and Barry Zito.

Remembering that the point of this exercise is to find pitchers who experienced a drop in velocity and then review their attending performance, I threw out the pitchers who do not appear to have experienced an appreciable drop in their velocity over the last five years – Lee, Rodriguez, Westbrook, Capuano, and Vogelsong.

The other seven pitchers:

  • Kyle Lohse – Back in 2007-09, when Lohse was in his late 20’s, his fastball used to sit in the 91-92 mph range. Now, at 34, he’s closer to the 89/90 mph range. His effectiveness, however, has actually seen an uptick in the last two years. Encouraging right? Well, the rub here is that Lohse has started relying much less heavily on a true fastball, instead opting for a very effective sinker (though, interestingly, his ground ball rate has not increased). In something we’ll see with the subsequent pitchers who retained or improved effectiveness despite a decline in velocity, Lohse learned to adjust his game.
  • CC Sabathia – In his late 20s, Sabathia was a mid-90s fastball kind of guy. Now that he’s entered his 30s, that fastball is much closer to the 93/94 mph range, with 2012 being a solidly 93 mph year. Outside of a huge, probably unsustainable, leap in his HR/FB rate, Sabathia’s performance this year still fell generally in line with his peak years. In other words, it doesn’t look like the decline in velocity has translated into a decline in performance just yet for Sabathia. But, keep in mind, he just turned 32, and, like Lohse, Sabathia began relying much more heavily on his off-speed stuff in 2012 than he ever has before (for his career, he’s thrown the fastball 61.4% of the time, but in 2012, that figure was just 54.0%).
  • Josh Beckett – One of the hardest throwing pitchers in his 20s, Beckett’s fastball velocity has declined dramatically over the last three years (ages 30, 31, and 32), from the 93/94 range in 2009, down to 90/91/92 range this past season. It has shown in his performance where two of the worst seasons of his career came during that three year stretch in his 30s. Like Sabathia and Lohse before him, Beckett has definitely started relying less on his fastball (as well as his curveball), in favor of a cutter that he throws a few mph slower than his fastball. Apparently it hasn’t been too effective just yet.

  • Mark Buehrle – Something of an anomaly in this list, Buerhle has never been a hard-thrower. In his late-20s, Buerhle’s fastball sat in the 86/87 mph range, but, in recent years (ages 32, 33), it has fallen to right around 85 mph. Although Buerhle did have a bit of a down year in 2012, because he’s been stunningly consistent for his career, it’s hard to say whether that was the start of a trend or an anomaly. Interestingly, Buehrle’s pitch mix in 2012 changed dramatically according to Baseball Info Solutions, who had Buerhle’s fastball percentage dropping from 45-50% to just 37%, with a huge uptick in his slider (from 3/4% to over 15%). Change in teams and pitching coach, perhaps? Hard to say, and it’s hard to take a whole lot from the Buerhle case anyway, as he’s never been overly reliant on a big fastball.
  • Aaron Harang – As he was turning 31, Harang’s fastball was right around 90/91 consistently. He was coming off some very effective years with the Reds, pitching for Dusty Baker, and looked primed for many more good seasons. But then his effectiveness dropped dramatically, followed by about a 1 mph drop in fastball velocity, and he just hasn’t been a great pitcher in the last few years (ages 32, 33, 34). His pitch mix hasn’t changed too much, and the drop in velocity was slight. Because it also seemed to follow his drop in effectiveness, I’m not sure you can call him a guy whose effectiveness fell off as he aged because of a drop in velocity. In other words, I’m not sure there’s a lot of anecdotal value here.
  • Jeremy Guthrie – In his late 20s, Guthrie was one of the harder throwers in baseball, with his fastball sitting around 93/94 mph. As he’s entered his age 32/33 seasons, however, that velocity has dipped into the 92/93 mph range. It isn’t a huge drop, and he only just experience his first down season in 2012 (with a bounce back in the second half with Kansas City), so the decline may not hurt him. We’ll have to see – in that 2012 season, he didn’t change up his pitch mix, so it’s possible that the down year was the start of a decline if he doesn’t adjust.
  • Barry Zito – The cautionary tale. Zito was a Cy Young caliber pitcher in his younger days, and his fastball sat in the 87/88 mph range. As he came to San Francisco and turned 30, that velocity dropped into the 84/85 mph range, and his effectiveness fell off the map. Interestingly, his pitch mix didn’t change at all until 2012 (a bounce back year of sorts), when he finally stopped using the fastball more than 50% of the time, instead using his slider and his fastball each about a third of the time.

So, what can we take away from this exercise? Well, not too much – it is an extremely limited sample, and the drops in velocity we’re discussing are typically just a mile per hour or two. (Of course, in the big leagues, such a drop can make a dramatic difference.) Further, there are always latent explanations for changes in effectiveness that have nothing to do with fastball velocity.

We also have to keep in mind that this is all relative. Even after his drop in velocity in 2012, Jackson’s average fastball velocity was still good enough for seventh in all of baseball. And, despite that drop of a mile per hour in velocity, his stats did not drop in any meaningful way.

It does seem clear, though, that as pitchers enter their 30s and experience a drop in fastball velocity, they are best served by recalibrating their pitch mix, and learning to become an effective pitcher in ways unrelated to blowing hitters away. The pitchers who have had the most success in that adjustment have started relying far less on their fastball as they age.

And, hey, what do you know? Edwin may have already started the process. In 2012, he threw his fastball less (53.8% of the time) than he has ever in his career before, and started throwing a cutter (which he throws almost as hard as his fastball).

I’m cautiously optimistic that, even if Jackson’s decline in velocity from 2012 is here to stay, he can still be an effective pitcher during his stay with the Cubs – and could even improve.

UPDATE: A comment of mine from below, in response to some very astute readers: “By limiting it to guys who are still pitching (lots of innings), I (inadvertently!) cut out a huge swath of players who could have seen their velocity drop in their late-20s/early-30s, and then got bounced to the pen or out of the league completely. It made sense to me as I was doing it, and I stand by not wanting to include guys with injury problems (because they are unpredictable, and because, as they relate to velocity/performance, we could get into a tail wagging the dog situation), but I obviously goofed by going backwards. It’s still interesting to see how these particular pitchers evolved as they aged, I guess.”

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