Kyle Hendricks signed a contract extension with the Cubs on Tuesday. It appears to be very useful for both sides. I doubt it’s the final extension the Cubs sign, especially with the trend toward extensions and away from free agency. None of these are remotely news. Today, I want to talk about velocity, or lack thereof. Hendricks’ success ought to serve as a deterrent to the pervasive “velocity only” mindset.
Many baseball fans are MLB-only. Many of them are incredible fonts of great knowledge. That said, if a baseball person only watches major league games, they can tend to be a bit spoiled. They can think that “MLB average” is a “borderline baseball talent.” They can think players show up for their MLB debut as fully developed, physically and mentally. They can also think that 96 cheese with late movement can be ordered standard when initially acquiring talent. That’s not how it works.
Baseball is played at tremendously varied levels across the country and the globe. That quite a few people are only watching games at the most elite level doesn’t change that kids are likely going to be playing organized baseball within a few miles of your house for a few weeks or months. Little League leads to high school and college. Those can lead to the draft. If a player is selected, they can have a chair in the competition.
Games also progress internationally. In the fashion they are, players are recruited from their locales to (occasionally) play professional baseball. You needn’t travel to the Dominican Republic to be aware of the importance the Dominican League can play in the success or lack thereof of a big league organization. From whatever starting point, players from across the globe start playing “for realsies” in April.
Whether the player under consideration is a hitter, pitcher, or a two way option, their best way to impress is to play well on game day. Some of that is “outplaying the competition.” Another part is the (exit) velocity. Others advance on the (largely, presently) hidden world of revolutions-per-minute, and other computer-generated numbers. Yet, the question is often: “What’s his velocity?”
I don’t expect you to think that every college arm on a 17-40 team has the chops to make a major-league run. Quite the opposite. It’s not important for you as a Cubs fan to take in a local prep game with a draft-legitimate pitcher to understand that decisions have consequences. The same applies for a seventh-place college team with a reliever closing games out with a 93 heater and a sloppy delivery.
Kyle Hendricks is an outlier. A pitcher with high velocity will get more looks than a pitcher with lower velocity. As he should. Regardless how aggressively a proponent plays his velocity card, middling velocity pitchers can get MLB outs. Pitchers who don’t reach MLB are traded to recoup MLB talent in trades. Pitchers on a pro roster are often “close enough” to a degree of success to be retained, or they’d be released.
Pitchers develop in minor league systems. Many learn techniques to throw harder. Hendricks realized that, for him, having greater command looked the better payoff. Tuesday pretty much proved him right. Velocity is a pitching attribute. Perhaps even an attribute of primary importance. However, pulling up on commitment to a “velocity only” outlook seems advisable.
The Cubs will bring up some reasonably unfamiliar pitchers from the pipeline this season. It would be nice if they all took to the top level at their first attempt as Hendricks did. Not all will. Some won’t figure it out. Some won’t until moving to a different team. Among my hopes for the season is that Cubs fans will be less vocal in their displeasure from on-field lack-of-success.
Certainly, you can be upset about players performing poorly. A second lesson we could learn from Hendricks, along with the value of pitching with guile over velocity, is the value of calm. When he gives up a double, his demeanor is similar to when he gets a pop-up to third in foul territory. It’s not necessary as a fan to take every loss as a personal affront on many levels, despite what social media breeds.
I close with a Greg Maddux quote: “The reason I think I’m a good pitcher is I locate my fastball and I change speeds. Period. That’s what you do to pitch. That’s what pitchers have to do to win games.”
Velocity is adorable. Getting outs consistently moves pitchers up levels. Getting outs in college gets players drafted. Doing so in Triple-A often earns an MLB look. Which jersey colors don’t matter. The guys that are better than their opponents move up, if they stay healthy. If they do it long enough, they get paid. The rest is eyewash.