Let’s say there’s a left-handed pitcher on the Giants. Let’s call him Tossy McDufftapper. Let’s say that he has a two-pronged problem with his pitching:
- His fastball is much, much slower than almost anyone in baseball.
- His control is much, much worse than almost anyone in baseball.
Since we’re surrounded by the velvety curtains of Hypothetical Theatre, let’s pretend that one of these problems can be fixed. Which problem is more likely to be fixed?
Problem one: The fastball
Allow me to use Juan Marichal as an example of McDufftapper’s struggles. That’s the 2008 Juan Marichal, mind you. Is Marichal’s arm injured? As far as we know, it isn’t. Can he still throw 90+? No, he can not. Is there any amount of exercise or training that he could do to get that velocity back? Nope. Sometimes, the human body just can’t throw a fastball the way it used to.
Maybe using a 70-year-old man in the analogy is a little extreme. A better – and much, much more frightening example – is Jim Abbott. Abbott was one of the better left-handed pitchers in the league, and then his velocity dipped. When his velocity dipped, his strikeout rate plummeted. He was able to get through a couple more seasons just fine with his reduced velocity, but it all eventually caught up with him in 1996. He wasn’t hurt at that point; he just wasn’t the same pitcher. Sometimes, the human body just can’t throw a baseball the way it used to.
That was my stock answer until Justin Verlander started having problems earlier this year. Verlander was a triple-digit fastball guy, but he started throwing his fastball in the 80s earlier this year, which would seem to indicate an injury. A couple of mechanical tweaks later, he’s throwing hard again. He hit 97 in his last start against the Giants. Maybe some tweaks can get back the three or four miles that McDufftapper has lost. Hypothetically, of course.
Problem two: The control
Part of the control problem is probably related to the velocity; as in, his stuff is that of a 34th-round draft pick, so he’s trying to spot his pitches as well as humanly possible. But McDufftapper was never a control pitcher. Since we’re munching on hypothetical Junior Mints here in Hypothetical Theatre, let’s pretend that this hypothetical pitcher is suddenly blessed with Madduxian control. Could he succeed? Mostly likely, yes. Lefties don’t need an above-average, or even average, fastball if they have good off-speed stuff and fantastic location. That combo is what kept Jesse Orosco in the game from Taft to Bush.
But it isn’t as if young pitchers suddenly morph into control artists with experience. Young pitchers can move from unmistakably awful control to acceptable (Jeff Nelson always comes to mind, but now we have a fine example with Alex Hinshaw), and sometimes average control pitchers become otherworldly (Pedro Martinez, for example), but control isn’t a given to improve with experience. Nolan Ryan was walking almost 100 batters a year when he was 40, and control problems always kept Bobby Witt from being anything more than average.
The point of the above: Sometimes the human body will always be unable to throw a baseball where the thrower wants it to go. It depends on the pitcher.
So have at it. What’s easier to fix, control or velocity?