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USATSI

There are a lot of stats you really shouldn't be talking about a week into the MLB season. Batting average is a fairly obvious one – that's a noisy stat over a full season, let alone a week – but even a lot of the advanced stats just aren't going to hold much value right now. You typically need several dozen, if not hundred, plate appearances for most stats to stabilize. 

It's nice, for example, that Christian Yelich is hitting the ball hard early on, given widespread concerns about his apparent declining skill set, but it doesn't tell us very much about what's likely to happen with him in the future. You probably need around 50 batted balls for average exit velocity to stabilize – that's to say, in order for it to have meaningful predictive value. 

Pitcher velocity, of course, doesn't need much time to stabilize at all. It's a direct measure of how hard a pitcher is throwing in a given start, so there just isn't much noise there at all. 

So, it's time to panic about Robbie Ray, right? Through his first turn in the rotation, Ray's average fastball velocity was down 2.7 mph, the largest year-over-year decrease for any start in MLB; it was down even more in his second start, so you can't just write it off as a one-turn fluke. And it's led to seven runs, six walks, and four home runs in 13.1 innings over his first two starts, with just nine strikeouts. 

Shane Bieber is in a similar boat. His average fastball velocity is down 2.0 mph through his first two starts, and while his results haven't been nearly as bad across both starts, his strikeout rate is down to just 24.3% while his swinging strike rate has collapsed to 10.6%, which would be the lowest mark of his career. 

So, Panic City, Population: Us, right? That's a hard question to answer. It might just be an impossible question for us to answer, because what matters is whether these velocity dips are likely to stick. That  means, the biggest question we need an answer to is one that may be impossible to answer: "Why are Bieber and Ray's velocities down so much?"

Because, I feel pretty confident in saying neither is likely to live up to expectations if their current velocity levels persist. Bieber's fastball has always been a pretty fringe-y pitch for him, and he's relied on his slider and curveball especially to rack up swings and misses outside of the strike zone. He tended to get hit pretty hard when he left the fastball in the strike zone when he was averaging 93-94 with it; it's probably going to get crushed at 90-91. Add in that Bieber's spin rate on his slider and curveball are way down in the early going – we haven't seen him pitch much since the sticky substance crackdown last June – and it looks like a concerning package. 

Similarly, Ray's fastball played a big part in his success last season thanks to a career-high velocity spike. It allowed him to simplify his approach, focusing on pitching to the top of the strike zone without having to worry too much about getting hit hard. He gave up a .327 expected wOBA on the pitch in 2021, compared to a .448 mark in 2020. That was a big part of why he was able to drop his walk rate, which helped fuel his breakout. 

So if these represent new baseline levels for Ray and Bieber, I'm pretty worried. But I can't exactly tell you it's time to trade them before the bottom falls out on their value, because I don't know why their velocities are down. This is a weird season, with the owner's lockout pushing the start of spring training to March 17, meaning we're still just 28 days removed from the start of exhibition games. There were 30-plus days of spring training in 2020, so we're still squarely in the part of the calendar where players would still be warming up. 

Clayton Kershaw for one didn't mince his words when blaming the abbreviated spring schedule for why he didn't try to finish out his perfect game bid Wednesday:

Which is to say, these guys may just not even be fully stretched out yet. You'll often see velocity dips in spring training as guys are building their arms back up, with "dead arm" a term that is routinely thrown around in the middle of spring training. That might be the whole explanation. 

And in Ray's case there are other extenuating circumstances to consider, which he talked about after Wednesday's rough outing: 

If you didn't watch Ray's start, he was forced to pitch through a heavy rain early on in the outing, and water on the field even seemed to affect the results of some of his batted balls in a way that certainly didn't help his results. Those are less than ideal circumstances to pitch in, and it would be totally fair for Ray to hold something back if he was concerned about his footing, say. For his part, he told reporters his arm feels fine and it's more a matter of getting his delivery worked out, lending credence to both the spring training and weather-related hypotheses.

It's a bit harder to find an easy answer for Bieber's velocity drop, or should I say it's harder to find an answer that wouldn't be alarming. Bieber's velocity was down in two starts late last season coming back from a three-plus-month absence due to a shoulder injury, so the fact that his early-season returns are a continuation of that is obviously a concern. 

Which might mean there is more reason for pessimism with Bieber, though I will say, I think his floor is higher than Ray's even with diminished velocity – Bieber at his worst has still been a pretty good pitcher; but Ray has been unusable in his worst moments. So it might be more accurate to say that there might be more reason to be optimistic about Ray's velocity recovering, but there might be more reason to be optimistic about Bieber in a general sense. 

All in all, I can't say I'm not worried. It's early, and these results are merely a snapshot of where these two pitchers are at this moment in time. If Bieber comes out averaging 93 in his next start and Ray is dialing his fastball up to 96-97, it might end up having been much ado about nothing. 

Which is why I haven't felt motivated to move either down in my rankings yet. I want to give both some leeway here. If we get to the end of April and their velocity issues remain, then I'll be worried. Maybe that will be too late and you'll have missed your sell window, but I haven't moved either Bieber or Ray down in my rankings or trade values chart yet, and I'm not looking to sell either at a discount right now. We'll see what the future snapshots hold.