This is a particularly pessimistic outlook on one’s existence, but it’s also painfully accurate. We’re in the constant process of moving toward our own demise. Certainly, good things happen along the way. We learn. We find things that give us a sense of fulfilment. We seek out little moments of happiness, but then, we shuffle off.
The life of a Major League pitcher is a microcosm of all this. From the moment a pitcher throws his first pitch in the league, his velocity begins to decline, and with it, a good measure of everything else he’s capable of doing on the mound.
A Fangraphs study from 2012 by Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman reveals that:
Velocity is a young man’s game. Rather than a parabolic curve of some sort, pitchers generally lose velocity from the beginning. Through age 28, they appear to stay within .5 mph of their peak velocity; but starting at age 29 they [lose] 1 mph with the loss accelerating every year thereafter.
This is the life of a pitcher, mapped out over time:
It’s not all bad. A pitcher’s overall decline isn’t as dramatic as his decline in velocity. As pitcher’s age, they gain experience. They learn how to better deal with batters. They develop new pitches when they learn that their fastball won’t blow everyone away. However, a pitcher’s existence is one of constant adaption. He must constantly deal with a declining skill set and seek out new ways of getting batters out, lest he be pushed out himself.
On Thursday night, we witnessed the St. Louis Cardinals win Game Two of the 2013 World Series on the strength of three pitchers, none of whom were older than 23-years-old. This was presented as something that should astonish baseball fans. Young pitchers making veteran batters look foolish with the velocity of their pitches.
Starter Michael Wacha, 22-years-old, threw his fastball 65 times, averaging 94 miles per hour, while reaching as 97 miles per hour on one pitch. This was followed up by 22-year-old Carlos Martinez, who threw a four-seamed or sinking fastball for 20 of his 24 pitches, reaching a velocity of 99 miles per hour on one pitch, and averaging more than 97 miles per hour overall. Then, the Cardinals interim closer Trevor Rosenthal, the elder statesman of the triumvirate at 23-years-old, entered the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, and struck out the side with 11 fastballs, the slowest of which clocked in at 96 miles per hour.
Here’s Rosenthal’s velocity chart from his dominant outing (from Brooks Baseball):
After Game 1 of the World Series, viewers mockingly referred to “The St. Louis Cardinals Way” after repeated defensive gaffes combined with mistake pitches led to a blowout loss to the Boston Red Sox. However, references to the term were few and far between when the front office’s presumed philosophy was actually on display.
There are added incentives to having a young pitching staff. In addition to 99 miles per hour fastballs embarrassing opponents, Major League Baseball’s salary structure is such that young talent is immensely cheaper to retain for a team than veteran free agents.
When we look at the World Series roster of the Cardinals, we find a dozen different pitchers that Mike Matheny can give the baseball to if he so chooses. Of those 12, seven are 25-years-old or younger. Only Adam Wainwright and Randy Choate have passed the arbitration stage of their careers, and more than half of the staff are currently signed to league minimum or automatically renewed contracts.
This, it seems, is the actual St. Louis Cardinals way.
Typically, at this time of year, because the Oakland A’s aren’t in the World Series, baseball fans are presented with columns from threatened columnists – whose once authoritative opinions have become marginalized through analytics – on the death of Moneyball. Of course, the analytics community is quick to point out that Moneyball isn’t about one team, or one statistic, but rather the ethos of arbitrage, or finding a market inefficiency.
The Cardinals have certainly done this, but instead of discovering an unappreciated aspect of player talent – there does not exist a single MLB general manager who wouldn’t want to have young, controllable arms on his roster – St. Louis found a way to actually attain that type of talent. It’s not so much the idea that’s new or unconsidered in the world of baseball, it’s the execution of actually acquiring such a great number of young pitchers able to throw so hard and with such skill.
How they did that is the real question, but for now – perhaps until that book is written – we have to shake our heads and shrug our shoulders in curious appreciation of what GM John Mozeliak and former Vice President of Scouting and Player Development (and current GM of the Houston Astros) Jeff Luhnow have put together.
It’s almost as breathtaking as the sight of a radar gun reading after an overmatched batter whiffs on a four-seamer from Trevor Rosenthal. We have to enjoy it while it lasts.