Is Brett Cecil Back?

After pitching his first complete game shutout last night against the Texas Rangers, a lot has been made of Brett Cecil’s apparent return to form. Everyone’s first assumption seems to be that Cecil finding success once again has something to do with his improved velocity since coming back from a two month stint in Triple A.

While there’s certainly some truth behind faster pitches making off speed pitches more effective, it should be remembered that Cecil, even at his best, was never a flamethrower. His most impressive starts from 2010 saw an average fastball velocity below 90 mph, which is the same speed at which he was throwing his four seamer and sinker at the beginning of this season, before he was sent down to work on his velocity.

He’s come back throwing harder, but in a completely unsustainable way. For each of his starts since returning, Cecil’s velocity has drastically dipped at some point between the 50th and 55th pitch.

This is from his start on July 19th vs. Seattle:

And this is from his start last night. Notice the large drop in velocity after the fourth inning and then the return for the ninth inning.

I’m not a pitching coach or a trainer, but I wonder if this isn’t evidence of physical exertion and if it shouldn’t be somewhat worrisome to the sustained health of the pitcher, especially when Cecil has proven in the past that he doesn’t need to be throwing 93 miles per hour to be effective. And he may be proving it again.

One of the most obvious differences between April Cecil and July Cecil has been his effectiveness against right handed hitting. Over the course of his career, right handed batters have a .825 OPS against him, compared to left handed batters, who only have a .700 OPS. This season the difference has become even more staggering: RHB – .884, LHB – .591.

However, since returning from Triple A at the end of June, it’s been a different story altogether. Cecil has been throwing every pitch in his arsenal for more strikes against RHB, and allowing less balls in play. This is most notable with his slider, which has become one of his most effective pitches against righties.

For the month of April, Cecil threw 42 sliders against RHB, 54.8% of them for strikes, with a horrible whiff rate of 2.4%, while the opposition put the ball into play 11.9% of the time. Since being recalled from Triple A, Cecil has used his slider 25 times against RHB , 72.0% for strikes, with a whiff rate of 12.0%, with the opposition putting the ball into play only 4.0% of the time.

Now, there’s no question that increased velocity on his four seam fastball would only serve to help his off speed pitches, but it seems to me that the difference maker is actually that Cecil is able to find the strikezone and actually pitch his off speed stuff for strikes. I’m not so certain that increased velocity, which Cecil obviously can’t sustain, is necessarily worth the risk of damaging his arm, or tiring prematurely and leaving stuff up in the zone, as we saw in his first start back against the Pirates.

So, in answer to the question posed in the title of this post, Cecil, in a small sample size, looks to be back, but not necessarily for the reasons that we may think. His ability to hit the strike zone with off speed pitches has been immeasurably more important than a few extra miles per hour added to his velocity. In fact, the exertion that Cecil undergoes in order to reach that velocity may prove to be more dangerous than necessary or beneficial.

Here’s a chart showing Cecil’s progressive velocity from last season in which he threw seven and a third innings of shutout baseball against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, proving that consistency is far more important than velocity.