A shortened spring training did not affect several pitchers on the Astros staff, apparently.
Of the key aspects of pitching, none may be more important today than velocity. In an era where missing bats is the name of the game on the mound, possessing high-octane heat can be hugely beneficial. It enables pitchers to be more aggressive in the zone and ostensibly makes them more difficult to hit.
Throwing hard is good. Throwing harder is better.
Over the weekend, several members of the Astros pitching staff displayed one or the other in their 3-to-1 opening series victory in Anaheim.
Two strikeouts in five innings is not ideal and neither is four swings-and-misses, and yet, Urquidy’s Sunday start was rather impressive. Surrendering just one run in five innings was a solid season debut, but what quietly stood out was the 26-year-old righty’s fastball velocity — it was up by 1.5 mph compared to 2021 and averaged 94 on the afternoon, topping out at 95. What’s more, it peaked late in the outing.
One of the sport’s premier command artists, Urquidy’s game could be elevated with the addition of a mid-90s fastball, something he’s never truly had in his repertoire. Though he possesses multiple secondary pitches that can generate whiffs, Urquidy’s fastball has yet to miss bats at an average rate across a full season.
That could change if the velocity increase is here to stay.
No starter lasted longer on Opening Day than Valdez, who twirled 6 2⁄3 scoreless innings while striking out six and walking one. It was a dominant all-around start for the Dominican native, yielding just two hard-hit balls all night. It was highly unusual given how high his typical exit velocities are, albeit mostly on the ground.
Compared to 2021, Valdez’s velocity was up a tick Thursday night. Issuing only one free pass while wielding improved stuff could bode well for the 28-year-old southpaw, who is ostensibly entering his prime. A plus-plus curveball is still heavily featured and rightfully so, but a nicely developing changeup is subtly paying dividends for Valdez.
Additionally, more velocity — presumably with competent control — enhances Valdez’s profile going forward.
Verlander is not throwing harder than usual, but during his Saturday night outing, the 39-year-old starter’s velocity sat in its accustomed range, with his fastball averaging 94.7 mph across 80 total pitches, maxing out at just over 96.
It wasn’t so much as surprising as it was reassuring, as Verlander’s four-seamer had been routinely clocked in the mid-90s during spring training. At his age and coming off Tommy John surgery, it’s quite the marvel that JV can not only reach 96 at all, but do so fairly late in starts — he did so twice in the fifth inning when striking out reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani for the third time.
Health is paramount for the Astros ace but if there were something almost equally important, the sustainment of his above-average to plus velo might be it.
Joining Verlander in the throwing-hard-but-not-necessarily-harder category is Stanek, whose fastball averaged just over 98 in his relief appearance Saturday night. Though it was but a single outing, it’s encouraging sign for Stanek that his arm strength appears to already be built up. That wasn’t quite the case in 2021, when the 30-year-old flamethrower did not average 98 mph with his four-seamer until June, gradually building up from 96.7 to 97.5 in April and May, respectively.
From July on, Stanek was one of the Astros’ best pitchers, and his upper-90s heater had a lot to do it with.
It’s way too early to make any conclusions, right?
Four games is four games, but on the heels of an abbreviated spring training, it’s intriguing that multiple arms in Houston’s stable are not only displaying mid-season velocity, but are throwing harder than before.
While it is early to put any meaningful stock in these developments, it’s reasonable to surmise they could be indicative of future performance.