Phillies 6th Round pick Brandon Leibrandt has been on a roll recently which has started the round of questions about how good he can be, which ultimately end up on fastball velocity. Velocity is the most tangible and quantifiable aspect of a pitcher’s arsenal. Movement, command, and deception are all in the eye of the beholder and once we start talking secondary pitches the amateur eye is really out of its league. So we debate velocity and whether it is enough for a pitcher to survive in the major leagues (should the prospect in question survive the other levels in between them and their major league aspirations).
Here is the average velocity of all 139 starting pitchers who threw over 100 major league innings last year, from R.A. Dickey (81.6) to Nathan Eovaldi (96.1), with the overall average velocity at 91.15 mph.
The magic number we like to think of is 90 mph, mostly because we like number divisible by 10, and 36 pitchers come in under the mark, but it is not necessarily a dividing line statistically.
Does Velocity Matter:
The simple answer is, yes. the complicated answer is that it really depends. Velocity is not the end all be all of a fastball, there are many other attributes of the pitch that can make it better than a fastball thrown harder by another pitcher. Here is the same 139 pitcher’s average fastball plotted by average value per 100 pitches (from fangraphs).
We can see that on a whole the faster the pitch thrown the greater its value, but there are enough outliers on either side to give credence to the fact that raw velocity is not everything. However, we do see that towards the top of the spectrum 93+ mph the fastball has a sharp uptick in value.
The average right-handed fastball in the group was 91.46 mph, the average left-handed fastball was 90.37 mph, the average value per pitch of a right-handed fastball was -0.04, the average value per pitch of a left-handed fastball was -0.09. In the value of these pitches we can assume both are fairly equal to zero.
Back to Leibrandt:
In college Leibrandt was 84-88, but could touch as high as 90 in a start. This means that without a jump in velocity he would be the third slowest throwing left-handed starter in the majors behind Barry Zito and Mark Buehrle. In professional ball it has been much the same velocity wise. The counter has been that Leibrandt could add velocity, and at 6’4″ and 190lbs there is some room to add muscle. The counter is that in 2012 the Phillies drafted another skinny college left-handed pitcher in Hoby Milner. Milner comes in at 6’2″ 165lbs and has not added any muscle or velocity since high school. In 2012, mostly in Lakewood, Milner put up a 2.50 ERA, 3.2 BB/9, 7.1 K/9, he then was decent in Clearwater before being pounded in Reading where he has been homer prone. At each stop along the way he has missed less bats and given up more hits.
Now Leibrandt has better stuff and control than Milner, but Milner is not the only player with low fastball velocity to fail in the high minors. There is a small chance that Leibrandt bucks the trend and is the lone outlier, but he is going to need to add velocity to have a better chance. The good news is that he doesn’t need elite velocity to have a workable fastball, we can see that for left-handed pitchers the magical number is around 90mph where there is not a consistent trend of poor fastball value.
Leibrandt is certainly a guy to keep an eye on, but for now he is behind the other members of the 2014 draft class.