There are a lot of tweaks starting pitchers can make to improve their game, and one of the most common is adding some velocity to their fastballs. It’s worked wonders for plenty of pitchers in the past, as it often makes the rest of their repertoire more effective (and, obviously, a faster fastball is typically harder to hit).
In this article, I’m going to take a look at the 10 starting pitchers who saw the biggest velocity gains on their fastballs in 2020, compared to 2019, and let you know whether you should care or not for fantasy purposes in 2021.
With some of these pitchers, their increase in fastball velocity (and in some cases, spin rate) is very interesting and makes them intriguing sleepers for 2021. For others, it really doesn’t matter at all.
So here are your 10 biggest fastball velocity-gainers of 2020.
10. Ross Stripling (+1.1 MPH)
Ross Stripling saw his fastball velocity increase from an average of 90.6 MPH last year in 2019 to 91.7 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Honestly, not really.
Stripling was bad last year, posting a 5.84 ERA with a 6.15 FIP and 4.96 SIERA in 12 games (nine starts) for the Dodgers and then the Blue Jays.
This was pretty surprising to me, because Stripling had been pretty consistently good to great in his past three seasons, even posting a 3.02 ERA, 3.13 SIERA, and 27% strikeout rate in 122 innings in 2018. So what went wrong?
Basically everything, but the biggest problem was his fastball, which is odd right? You wouldn’t necessarily expect Stripling’s fastball to perform significantly worse when gaining speed. But it did exactly that, as opposing hitters had a .490 wOBA and .453 ISO (yes you read that right) against.
So what was wrong with the fastball? Looking at it, it’s mostly the same. Spin rate is nearly identical, where Stripling located it is nearly identical to years past, there’s just one difference, and it applies to all of his pitches, not just his fastball.
It’s pretty clear to me that Stripling’s arm angle changed in a way it hasn’t before last year. Now, that doesn’t always mean something, but if I had to hazard a guess as to why Stripling struggled so much last year, I’d bet this has something to do with it. Maybe his pitches were easier to pick up on, maybe the arm angle made them less effective, I don’t know, but if there’s one noticeable difference in 2020 Ross Stripling compared to past years, it’s this.
This is a long way of saying unless Stripling makes some changes next year and shows flashes of the pitcher he used to be, he’s not going to have much fantasy value. Keep an eye on him though, I’m still a believer in his potential.
10. Erick Fedde (+1.1 MPH)
Tied with Stripling on this list is Erick Fedde, who saw his fastball velocity increase on average from 92.3 MPH in 2019 to 93.4 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? This one’s fairly easy—no. Not unless Fedde does something about… well, everything else he’s got going on.
Fedde has danced between the starting rotation and the bullpen basically since 2018, and he’s not been particularly good, pasting a career-best 4.29 ERA last year that came with a 6.15 FIP, 5.44 SIERA, and 12.6% strikeout rate.
Basically, Fedde doesn’t start all that much and he’s just not that good. His fastball improved somewhat last year, with its wOBA against dropping from .384 in 2019 to .360 in 2020, but he also had some command issues with it, as opposing hitters had a .227 ISO against it.
So no, don’t worry about Erick Fedde.
8. Kevin Gausman (+1.2 MPH)
Kevin Gausman saw his fastball velocity increase on average from 93.9 MPH in 2019 to 95.1 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? You most definitely should.
Gausman had arguably the best season of his career last year, posting a 3.62 ERA with a 3.09 FIP, 3.24 SIERA, and 32.2% strikeout rate (a career-best), and that was in large part thanks to a much more effective fastball than he’s seen in years past.
Gausman has always been so close to being a really good starter. He’s got an absolute wipeout pitch in his split-change, but he’s lacked much else, and his fastball has been especially ineffective.
But last year, his fastball looked better, posting a .347 wOBA against (compared to .386 in 2019) and a .178 ISO against (compared to .216 in 2019). Those numbers are far from perfect, but they’re definitely an improvement.
He also controlled the pitch better last year, posting a 70.5% zone rate with it, a career-best by a good bit (his previous career-best zone rate with his fastball was 61.5% in 2019).
And his split-change was exactly what it has been—just filthy, posting a 26.3% SwStr rate and a 43.3% chase rate last year, alongside a .109 wOBA and .039 ISO against.
I’d still like to see Gausman develop a decent third pitch, which he just doesn’t really have yet, but the improved fastball is certainly something to pay close attention to.
7. Clayton Kershaw (+1.3 MPH)
Clayton Kershaw saw his fastball velocity increase on average from 90.3 MPH in 2019 to 91.6 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Yes and no.
Yes in the sense that, it’s great to see Kershaw is able to gain velocity on his fastball at 32-years-old, but I don’t think it should really change your perspective on Kershaw’s fantasy prospects for next year.
Kershaw had an awesome year last year, with a 2.16 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 3.22 SIERA, and 28.1% strikeout rate, but if I’m just going to sit here and say “Clayton Kershaw is good at pitching,” I might as well just say “Water exists” or “Camden Yards is the best ballpark in America” if we’re going to just state objective facts.
6. José Berríos (+1.4 MPH)
José Berríos saw his fastball velocity increase from 93.1 MPH on average in 2019 to 94.5 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Sort of.
On paper, José Berríos increasing his fastball velocity to nearly 95 MPH on average sounds very exciting. But in practice, it very much was not last year.
Berríos’ fastball got demolished last year, with a .463 wOBA and .333 ISO against, with Berríos posting some of the worst numbers of his career since his rookie season, with a 4.00 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and 4.39 SIERA.
I love that Berríos’ velocity increased, but his fastball is such a low-spin fastball, I kind of wonder if it’s still just eminently hittable.
Last year saw Berríos change his pitch mix up a bit, dropping his four-seam usage from 32.2% in 2019 to just 25.4%, replacing it with his sinker, which he threw 26.1% of the time, and significantly increasing his changeup usage to a career-high 18.9%.
What’s interesting to me is that his four-seam fastball is far and away his worst pitch. The pitch with the next-highest wOBA against for Berríos was his sinker at .334. That’s a big jump down from .463, and it makes me wonder if maybe essentially ditching his four-seam for his sinker as his primary fastball might help Berríos in the long run. Because the rest of his repertoire looks really solid.
5. Robbie Ray (+1.5 MPH)
Robbie Ray saw his fastball velocity increase from 92.4 MPH on average in 2019 to 93.9 MPH last year.
So should you care? Yes, but only conditionally.
Similar to Berríos, Ray tweaked his fastball and it got destroyed. Last year, opposing hitters had a .460 wOBA and .375 ISO against Ray’s fastball. The biggest difference between Ray and Berrios though, is that Ray also noticeably increased his spin rate on his fastball, from 2,257 RPMs to 2,420 RPMs, and he increased the movement on it, giving the pitch more life than its had in years.
In essence, this was a brand new fastball for Ray, and in a vacuum, if you tell me a guy gains 1.5 MPH on his fastball and amps up his spin rate to the 80th percentile of the league, I’d be super jazzed.
But the exact opposite happened for Ray, and the guy posted an absurdly terrible 6.62 ERA, 6.50 FIP, and 5.49 SIERA. Was some of that bad luck? I think so, but no one is that unlucky.
Not only did Ray change up his fastball, he changed up his mechanics almost entirely.
Robbie Ray 2020 vs. 2019.
Arm Action. pic.twitter.com/KOugMidSt1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 26, 2020
So why didn’t all of this work? Usually when we talk about pitchers making these kinds of dramatic changes to their mechanics, adding velocity and spin rate to their fastball, we’re talking about why a pitcher broke out. But instead, we’re talking about a pitcher who bombed about as hard as he could.
If I had to guess, I’d bet Ray wasn’t quite set in his new mechanics, because he just could not control his pitches to save his life. Ray threw 36.2% of his pitches in the strike zone, the lowest rate of his career, and got a first-pitch strike just 52.2% of the time—also the lowest of his career.
Ray was behind in the count 33.1% of the time last year, and ahead in the count just 24.4% of the time. If you’re going to throw that many pitches outside the strike zone, things aren’t going to work out that well.
If Ray can get some control back—and that’s a massive if—I’d bet his new fastball will play well, and then I’ll be very interested. But I’ve got to see it before I believe it.
4. Jacob deGrom (+1.7 MPH)
Jacob deGrom saw his fastball velocity increase from 96.9 MPH on average in 2019 to 98.6 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Similar to Kershaw, yes and no.
Like I said with Kershaw, I don’t think your perspective on Jacob deGrom is suddenly changing now that he’s added velocity to his fastball. He’s one of the five best pitchers in all of baseball, and has been for a while now.
That said, the fact that deGrom added nearly 2 MPH to his fastball and is throwing almost 99 on average is undoubtedly awesome (dude threw 101 in the above GIF), and his fastball improved last year as a result, posting a .243 wOBA against and .134 ISO against, compared to .290 wOBA and .177 ISO in 2019.
So, yes, this is cool, but it’s not going to change deGrom’s fantasy prospects much.
4. Nick Margevicius (+1.7 MPH)
Nick Margevicius (so delicious) saw his fastball velocity increase from 88.3 MPH on average in 2019 to 90 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Not even a little.
Basically, it’s cool Margevicius is now throwing an average MLB fastball rather than a sub-90 MPH fastball. But Margevicius isn’t all that good, having posted a 4.57 ERA with a 4.35 FIP and 4.68 SIERA last year with the Mariners, a year after posting a 6.79 ERA.
His strikeout rate increased last year, which is obviously good, but that increase went from 16% in 2019 to 21.2% last year.
Basically, Margevicius has gone from being very very bad in 2019 to very very average in 2020. He’s still just 24, so obviously anything can happen, but for fantasy purposes next year, you don’t need to worry about him.
2. John Means (+2.1 MPH)
John Means saw his fastball velocity increase from 91.7 MPH in 2019 to 93.8 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? You bet your sweet sweet butt you should.
Not only did he had velocity to his fastball last year, he also added nearly 100 RPMs to it, increasing its spin rate from 2,376 RPMs to 2,458, giving him a fastball with a spin rate in the 87th percentile of the league.
So why am I all jacked up about a guy who pitched to a 4.53 ERA with a 5.60 FIP last year? Because as far as I’m concerned, much like a bag of Tootsie Rolls, I’m tossing those numbers in the trash.
Why? Because last year was really hard on John Means. Early in the shortened season, his father died, and Means ended up missing time on the bereavement list. But after he came back, he was phenomenal, posting 1.52 ERA, 2.75 SIERA, 34.5% strikeout rate, 3.4% walk rate, and a 32.1% CSW.
Means also had the biggest difference in home runs allowed versus expected home runs allowed, suggesting some of his struggles last season were more luck-based than skill-based.
With a changeup that continues to be a nice strikeout pitch, a solid curveball, and now an amped-up fastball, I’m psyched. As far as I’m concerned, THIS MEANS WAR.
1. Drew Smyly (+2.6 MPH)
Drew Smyly saw his fastball velocity increase from 91.2 MPH on average in 2019 to 93.8 MPH in 2020.
So should you care? Definitely.
I absolutely love what Drew Smyly did last year, and I’m super intrigued by what he might look like in 2021, as I mentioned on Twitter.
I am *very* interested in Drew Smyly next year, depending on where he signs
– 2.01 FIP, 2.86 SIERA
– gained 2.6 MPH and just under 200 RPMs on his FB (most of any SP)
– changed pitch mix
– curveball was 💰 (40.8% chase, 43.7% zone, 22.4% SwStr)
– K% jumped 23.3% ➡️ 37.8% pic.twitter.com/bGGrqTFuGW
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) November 10, 2020
Smyly totally changed things around last year, and it worked wonders, as he posted the best season he’s had in five years with a 3.42 ERA, 2.01 FIP, 2.86 SIERA, and 37.8% strikeout rate. Granted, this was just 26.1 innings worth of work, but it’s clear Smyly made a significant change and it paid off big time.
Smyly toyed around with his repertoire, amping up his curveball usage to a career-high 36.5% and eliminating his changeup. His curveball was fantastic, posting a 40.8% chase rate, 43.7% zone rate, 22.4% SwStr rate (money pitch!), 54% strikeout rate, and a .238 wOBA against.
And as I mentioned in the tweet, not only did Smyly gain a good amount of velocity on his fastball, he also increased his spin rate from 2,086 RPMs to 2,249 RPMs, and the new fastball was excellent, posting a .278 wOBA and .026 ISO against.
Again, this is a small sample size, but clearly Smyly made a definitive change to his repertoire and it worked wonders. I’m hopeful he can keep it up this year and be an excellent value in drafts.
Photos by Nick Wosika, Brian Rothmuller, and Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics on IG)