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Checking back on Brett Cecil’s velocity

Brett Cecil St. Louis Cardinals

photo by @cardinalsgifs

Much has, rightfully, been made about the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. Key high leverage guys Kevin Siegrist, Seung-hwan Oh, and Brett Cecil have all seen velocity drops of varying degrees. Velocity is obviously a key aspect of pitcher performance, so the early season drops are worrisome.

The velocity drop under the brightest spotlight thus far has been that of Brett Cecil. Inked to a $30+ million dollar deal this offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals expected him to slide right in as a new, dependable option in tough spots.

Cecil lost most of that trust just three games into the regular season, when he blew a two-run seventh inning lead after the sticky chest protector incident. Add his velocity drop to the bad outing and we have a real early season concern.

Strangely, Brett Cecil is no stranger to slow starts. He’s struggled to an average April ERA of 5.39 and FIP of 4.10 over the last three seasons. That April ERA is about 2.5 runs worse than his total ERA over that period, and that April FIP is about 1.5 runs worse than his total FIP.

He’s also struggled to build up his fastball velocity early in the year, shown below:

Brett Cecil St. Louis Cardinals

While Cecil missed May 2016 to injury, he saw velocity jumps from April to May in two of the past three years. In both of those years, his velocity ticked up again in June. In all four years, his average fourseamer velocity in April was below his average velocity over the full season.

That really shouldn’t be surprising; what is most alarming this year is the magnitude of the difference. To date, Cecil is averaging 90.6 mph on his fourseamer and 89.4 mph on all fastballs (including the sinker and cutter), which is nearly 3 mph below his 93.1 mph and 92.3 mph marks from last year.

Yet, over his last four appearances, Cecil has started looking better. After owning a 3.00 WHIP through his first four appearances and three innings pitched, he hasn’t allowed a hit or issued a walk in his last four appearances (2.2 IP). It’s not just luck on balls in play, either, as the five tracked batted balls over his last four appearances have averaged an 82.0 mph exit velocity. That number isn’t really meaningful, but does show that he’s induced weaker contact over his last four games.

So, given his recent short-term turnaround, I wanted to check back on his velocity. If it’s ticking back up, we’d expect to see an increase across all of his pitches, just like we’re seeing with the velocity drop.

Brett Cecil St. Louis Cardinals

And that’s exactly what we see. The average velocity on all his pitches has jumped by at least 1 mph over his last four starts, and it’s 1.5+ mph on everything but his changeup. These samples are small enough that they may not be meaningful, but it’s encouraging to see the trend across all five pitches. If it weren’t significant, we probably wouldn’t see that consistency.

As it turns out, Cecil’s velocity doesn’t just magically jump back up to normal when the calendar flips from April to May. Of course it doesn’t. Instead, he builds it up game by game, and that pattern was most obvious in 2015.

Brett Cecil St. Louis Cardinals

Cecil’s average fourseamer velocity over the last four games is a half-mph better than it was in April of 2015. His sinker now is a half-mph below where it was in April 2015. His cutter still trails by 0.8 mph, but is on its way back. While we won’t know until it happens, it looks like Cecil is following the same trend he set in 2015.

Wondering how 2015 went? Brett Cecil allowed a 5.14 ERA and and 6.13 FIP in April.

He posted a 2.09 ERA and 1.78 FIP for the remainder of the season, starting on May 1st.

His 2.34 FIP for the entire season was 12th best among 137 qualified relievers and his 2.39 xFIP was 6th best. By WAR per 50 innings pitched, he was 14th best.

His 1.4 WAR on the season was his best since becoming a full-time reliever. He posted a 32.7% strikeout rate and a 6.1% walk rate, both career bests at the time.

Clearly, a bad start didn’t ruin Cecil’s season. Despite a horrific April, he had a career year.

Hopefully, he brings more of the same in 2017.

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