A general rule in baseball is that when a pitcher loses velocity in his pitches, it means bad things. There are always exceptions to every rule, so the Halos better start hoping they are granted such an exception when it comes to their fireballing rookie closer Jordan Walden. The kid who was touted as having one of the fastest fastballs in all of the land may be doing a fantastic job as the Angels' closer, but he is doing so with a little less than originally advertised.
When we first saw Jordan in 2010, he was making everyone drool with his fastball that frequently lit up three digits on the radar gun. This year has been a slightly different story though. Whereas Walden averaged blistering 98.8 MPH with his heater in 2010, he has seen an appreciable dip in velocity this year, averaging "only" 96.8 MPH. That's still an awfully dang hard fastball, but losing two miles per hour on one's fastball is no trivial matter, especially when the pitcher in question has a history of arm problems.
Let's not panic just yet though as there are plenty of reasons that Walden is not lighting up the speed gun quite like he used to.
When I first saw Walden's less-than-superhuman velocity this season, I just assumed it was all part of the plan. Too often young pitchers can become obsessed with the radar gun and throw every single pitch as hard as they can with little concern for where said pitch actually goes. Having Jordan back off the heat just a tiny bit could very well be the advice Mike Butcher gave the kid in order to give him a little more command. As much as I want to believe that to be the case, the evidence suggests otherwise. For starters, Walden's walk rate this year is almost identical to his walk rate last season as is his percentage of pitches thrown for strikes. In fact, both are just a teeny bit worse this year. But what really blows this theory out of the water is that Walden's slider is also two miles per hour slower compared to last season. I get backing off on the fastball, but throttling down on the slider just doesn't make much sense.
The only other explanation I can think of for Walden's velocity decline is that it is simply because of the time of year we are seeing him. Let's not forget, by the time Jordan joined the Halos last year, it was late-August when Walden had already pitched for several months, stretching his arm out. What we are seeing now is early-season Walden who many not quite have gotten his arm as loose as possible, especially since many of the game he has appeared in have been at much colder temperatures than he would've pitched in during the late-summer action of 2010. It is entirely plausible that this is normal for Walden, we just don't know it yet because this is his first full season in the bigs.
It is also entirely plausible that blaming the calendar for reduced velocity is a big steaming pile. Maybe there is something to the theory, but we are now a month into the season, so we should be seeing him start to warm up. It also is kind of difficult to believe that some chilly nights are wholly responsible for a 2 MPH drop off. Sorry, that is just too big of a difference for me to blame on the guy not wearing a thick enough jacket out in the bullpen. That being said, I do think there is a little credence to the idea. If you check out Walden's Pitch F/X velocity chart, you can see that his heater is starting to pick up steam as the season progresses.
Two things about that chart bother me though. One being that already it seems like the velocity is beginning to plateau. We are dealing with a pretty small sample size though, so that may not be anything to worry about. What does seem like a big red flag is the last few games of the 2010 season in that chart. Again, a small sample size is in play, but Walden's velocity started falling off a cliff the last three or four appearances he made in 2010. That can't be a good thing.
While we are dealing with small sample sizes in Walden's brief MLB history, what we do have at our disposal is a long, concrete track record of Walden struggling with arm problems and, wait for it... loss of velocity. Lest we forget that the reason the Angels were able to draft Walden in the 12th round back in 2006 was because he suffered a drop in velocity during his senior season in high school. The same velocity problems recurred in 2009, along with some arm problems, limiting him to just thirteen starts and prompting the Halos to convert him to a reliever in 2010.
Now in 2011, the velocity is slipping again and given his track record, we are right to be concerned. If there is good news, it is that he has only lost two miles per hour and seems to be holding steady, if not coming back up a little bit. In his previous bouts with his heater, he was reported to be topping out in the low 90's, whereas just yesterday Walden was hitting 99 MPH on the gun in Tampa (assuming it wasn't a hot radar gun). Of course, the real evidence on Walden's side is that even with his loss in MPH, he is still pitching very, very effectively. His heater still has its sink and his slider still has its bite, albeit both are just doing it a little slower.
All we really know for now is that Jordan Walden and Aroldis Chapman won't be having any "who can throw harder" competitions for a little while and that whenever Walden enters the game, I'm going to be holding my breath waiting for 99s and 100s to pop up on the radar gun display while praying that we don't start seeing any 93s and 94s.