The season has begun, and we finally have real baseball to discuss. No longer must we couch our observations with spring training asterisks and disclaimers. We can watch meaningful baseball games and attempt to draw meaningful conclusions from them.
Of course, the early season proceedings always oversee a transition from “spring training caveats” to “small-sample early-season caveats”. As tempting as it is to make bold proclamations just as the new season commences, it’s almost always wise to wait just a bit before passing judgment on initial statistics.
There are, however, exceptions. Perhaps the most important pieces of information we can get our hands on in the season’s opening weeks are the first velocity readings on pitchers league-wide. Pitchers generally add small bits of velocity later in the season, as they hit their stride and as temperatures rise, but notable bumps or decreases at the beginning of the season can still be extremely meaningful. When someone like former Astro Charlie Morton shows up firing 98 mph bullets, or when a hard-throwing reliever spends April with heavily diminished velocity, like Tommy Kahnle last year, we must take note.
Which Yankees pitchers should we pay particular attention to during the first few series of the year? Whose velocity might be especially concerning? Let’s take a look.
In his final outing of spring training, Chapman looked a mess. He gave up a single and walked a pair of batters on four pitches before recording his only out of the day on a strikeout. He gave way to Chad Green after just four batters faced.
Most disconcertingly, his trademark heat was nowhere to be found. Chapman sat mostly in the low-to-mid 90’s with his fastball, a far cry from his typical triple-digit radar readings. Yesterday, on Opening Day, Aaron Boone brought Chapman in to close out the win a non-save situation, and Chapman still didn’t look quite right. Chapman was mostly around around 94 or 95 mph, a bit better than spring training, but again not close to what’s expected from him. Every drop in velocity counts for Chapman, who may soon have to demonstrate the ability to maintain his dominance with a fastball that doesn’t consistently touch 100.
To some extent, it’s unsurprising for Chapman to start slow. Per Statcast, Chapman’s average fastball traveled at 98.1 mph last April, before slowly climbing to its peak at 99.2 mph on average in July. Even so, Chapman wasn’t close to 98 when he closed out spring training or when he started off the year. Keep a close eye on Chapman throughout April to see if he regains his strength.
Kahnle could be fascinating to watch to open the year. His 2018 campaign was torpedoed by a bicep injury that he didn’t at first disclose, sapping his strength and his effectiveness. He lost two full ticks on his fastball after lighting up radar guns with 97-98 mph heat in his breakout 2017 season.
Reports in spring training indicated Kahnle was back healthy and sitting closer to 97 mph than he managed at any point last year. Getting official velocity readings on Kahnle early on will be crucial. If he’s popping the catcher’s mitt at 97 with frequency, the Yankees may quickly find they have another relief ace to add to their already dominant bullpen. If he’s back around 94 or 95, like last year, we’ll have to hope Kahnle can add speed as the time passes, or else risk another challenging season.
This one goes without saying, as the big right-hander will start the year on the IL after going down with a shoulder ailment. There’s plenty at stake depending on how Betances recovers.
The Yankees had been discussing an extension with Betances before he was shut down. The team may feel hesitant to continue those talks should Betances return from injury and again show dampened velocity. On the other hand, if Betances is back in the upper 90’s once he regains his health, perhaps the two sides will hammer out a deal, now that seemingly every star player in MLB has locked down an extension.
Betances has been one of the Yankees’ best players for a half-decade now, and it would be a shame to his tenure potentially marred or shortened because of an ill-timed shoulder problem. Here’s hoping that once Betances is back in action, his blazing fastball comes back with him.