On Tuesday Dellin Betances, one of the Yankees key relievers this season, made his spring debut. It immediately made headlines, but not for the best reasons. Betances, known for a high-90s fastball that pairs with a power curveball in the 80s, was consistently down a notch on his pitch speed. His fastest four-seamer topped off at just 92 mph.
Betances made his second appearance last night against the Tigers, and manager Aaron Boone was being interviewed by the broadcast booth while Betances pitched in the game. Boone mentioned that the velocity was certainly something they were monitoring, but weren’t concerned with. Betances got up into the 90s again, but wasn’t anywhere near top gear.
Boone’s lack of concern however, is probably justified. Betances has a reputation for being a slow starter regarding his velocity entering the season. Not only does it take time for Betances to get the heat going in spring, but his average velocity typically jumps up after April and May. Consider this chart FanGraphs compiled that shows this trend over Betances’ last five seasons:
Betances isn’t the only one with this problem either. Aroldis Chapman also generated some concern in his debut, throwing around 95 mph on the heater. Not as bad as Betances’ outing, but in context to the 100+ mph fastballs that Chapman is known for, the difference is pretty similar. Chapman’s velocity also tends to spike around the summer, as the graph indicates:
Building up arm strength in a pitcher can take some time. No one should panic over spring training velocities, especially after the first couple of appearances. In particular, flamethrower relievers seem to need a little more than that, but tend to get to their peak by mid-season.
Starters however, can be a different story. Take, for example, CC Sabathia’s path:
Sabathia signed with New York before the 2009 season, at which point he still had prime stuff. By 2012 his average fastball velocity began to fall, clocking in around 94 mph. Then, by 2014, he had plateaued down near 90 mph and was forced to reinvent himself as a pitcher. The difference in this trajectory is how each season individually played out. The speed that they throw coming out of camp stays relatively consistent throughout the year, and the drop occurs in the offseasons.
As a final example, let’s consider starter that hasn’t had velocity concerns as he’s aged. J.A Happ never reached the peak velocity that Sabathia did in his career, but has showcased far greater consistency through his later years and doesn’t experience the velocity dip early either:
This is the key difference in expectations. Starting pitchers are the type that generate real concern when they come out of the gates slower than before. Relievers can look shaky at first, but warm up in line with the weather to become their typical dominant selves. So while Betances and Chapman aren’t where we’d like them to be velocity-wise yet, we should step far away from the panic button for now.