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Which Yankees are throwing harder, or softer, in the early going?

Velocity is one of the first things to become significant early in the season. Who should the Yankees be excited, or worried, about so far?

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Early in the season, there’s only so much one can glean from the initial spate of statistics. It’s tempting to look at the fresh batches of batting averages, strikeout rates, contact rates, and so on, and try to jump to conclusions. It’s only human nature to want to assign significance to what has happened already.

For the most part, it’s foolhardy. Sure, it’s possible to sift through the morass of early-season games and find some signal in the noise, but in general, if you try to make bold proclamations based on a week or two of data, you’ll end up looking foolish. A few weeks into 2017, for example, Michael Pineda was pitching like an ace, Brett Gardner looked like he had lost all of his gains in power, and Aaron Judge had yet to turn into a thunderous destroyer of spherical objects.

That being said, there are still valuable pieces of info to be derived early on. It’s best to revel in the first month of baseball and just rejoice that the sport is back, but if we want to dig into the numbers right away, there are a few sensible places to look.

Early on, perhaps the safest metrics to look at are simple velocity readings. While most pitching and hitting statistics take months to “stabilize,” velocity figures can be pretty meaningful right from the jump. If a pitcher comes out in April popping the radar gun like never before, there’s a decent chance he’s reached a new level of skill when it comes to velocity. If a hurler shows up in the first few weeks down a couple ticks, it’s reasonable to speculate that he has started to see a real decline in velocity.

In that way, velocity numbers can be quite exciting, or worrisome, right out of the gate. They could signal breakouts, or the start of irreversible declines. They could project stardom for young players adding strength, or demonstrate the unflinching march of time as veterans fade.

Which Yankees look most promising, or unsettling, so far based on their velocity? Let’s take a look.

Luis Severino

Of all the Yankees’ pitchers, Severino stands out as the only one to be throwing notably harder right now. After averaging 97.2 mph on his fastball last April, according to Brooks Baseball, Severino has averaged 98.1 mph on his fastball in 2018. Severino has basically added a full tick of velocity over what he was throwing at the beginning of 2017.

Velocity generally ticks up gradually throughout the season, typically peaking August. That is why I’ve compared this year’s velocity readings with velocities from last April, rather than the entire year. If Severino just throws a little bit harder as the season progresses, as most all pitchers do, he could be setting records for average velocity as a starter.

I wrote last week about how Severino’s increased slider usage could help him elevate to a level even beyond that which he achieved in 2017. If Severino couples a more efficient plan of attack against opposing hitters with added velocity? In such a scenario, Severino should be a serious contender for the AL Cy Young award.

Aroldis Chapman

On the other side of the spectrum, the most concerning velocity loss so far probably belongs to the Yankees’ closer. After popping the glove at 99.9 mph in April 2017, Chapman has been slower this year, at 98.8 mph so far.

98 mph is still stellar, and enough to consistently blow away most hitters. However, if Chapman is showing signs of age, and this is the beginning of a velocity decline, then the Yankees should be worried.

With Chapman on the books for a lucrative contract through 2021 (provided he doesn’t exercise his opt out clause after 2020), the Yankees need Chapman to maintain at least something close to his peak velocity. Chapman is dominant when he is averaging 101 mph on the radar gun. Is he dominant if he is averaging 98 mph? What about 97 or 96 mph, if he loses strength as the years pass?

Chapman is pretty close to a one-pitch pitcher, and he needs that pitch to be elite to thrive. Every tick backwards erodes his margin for error. This could just be an early-season blip, and Chapman may be easily averaging triple digits come summer. If not, though, the Yankees have reason for concern.

Others of note

Given their long-term importance to the team, Severino’s and Chapman’s respective velocity readings profile as the most significant in terms of their potential impact. There are a few other situations to monitor, though.

Jordan Montgomery’s average velocity is down about 1.2 mph from last April. Montgomery generally relies on a deep repertoire to turn over lineups, and has emphasized his changeup early on. Diminished velocity shouldn’t be a death knell for him, but it’s not optimal for a pitcher that should be in his physical prime.

Tommy Kahnle is also down a full two mph from last April. Kahnle has looked a bit shaky thus far, and it’s easy to wonder if decreased velocity could be at fault for his troubles.

For posterity’s sake, the rest of the Yankees’ starting rotation, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and CC Sabathia, has seen minimal changes to their fastball velocity thus far. Velocity isn’t of huge concern to Sabathia, who long ago lost his mid-90’s heat, but it’s good news to see prime-age pitchers like Tanaka and Gray holding steady with their velocity.