We have not spent a lot of time talking about Miami Marlins starter Mat Latos's velocity, in part because the story had seemingly been written. Last year, Latos spent time on the disabled list for various ailments, including a left knee problem that eventually sidelined him for the season. At the same time, he saw a two mph dip in his velocity, which at the time had not necessarily affected his ERA but certainly cracked the armor of the former ace. The concern going into this season was that Latos would never get that velocity back.
Then Saturday night, Latos's first start after spending time on the disabled list again for the same knee issue, happened.
Specifically, this happened.
That is Latos throwing 95 mph gas in the fifth inning for his ninth strikeout of the night. He ended with seven innings and 11 strikeouts versus just two walks and one run allowed. This was clearly the best showing he has put up as a Marlin after he had been written off despite decent peripherals all season. The biggest reason for his success is the above mentioned velocity; at least for one night, Mat Latos got his groove back.
That last start averaged about 92-93 mph for the fastball on Pitch F/X, and it was the fastest he has thrown since 2013. He touched 95 quite a few times, which is something he has only done twice in the last year and change. The results were fascinating to watch. The 11 strikeouts clearly tells you that Latos's fastball was on point, and there was no denying that. He threw a total of 71 different types of fastballs, split between what could be considered a two- and a four-seamer. In total, he got batters to swing at 35 of those pitches and induced 16 whiffs, a whiff rate of 46 percent. That is an absurd number for a fastball, which usually hangs around the 18 percent range. In Latos's best year as a starter in 2010, Latos's fastballs were only getting whiffs in about 17 percent of their swings. That Saturday game was loaded with Colorado Rockies players getting blown away by heat.
That was not all that was effective for Latos, however. He placed the heater well even if the batters were not swinging away. When hitters did not take a hack at the pitch, they split balls and called strikes evenly at 18 a piece. That is a one-to-one ratio for balls and called strikes, which demonstrates spectacular command and control of the fastball. Latos was hitting his spots, at least in the strike zone, all evening, which is something he failed to do several times in his first nine starts.
However, it was not just the fastball that gained some life out of Latos's hand. The slider and splitter, his two primary breaking options, were also moving faster. According to Brooks Baseball, Latos's slider averaged 84 mph this year, but it was bumped up to 88 mph on Saturday, a gain of four mph on the sharp, diving pitch. The splitter picked up two mph as well. Every pitch in Latos's arsenal had added oomph, and it combined to become his best start in two years.
One might say that it is just one start and it was against the lowly Rockies, but the relevance of this start holds a little more weight than the average one. Latos had a reason to maybe throw a little harder, as he was still working on his injured knee from last year in this past disabled stint. Maybe rehabbing the knee more was what he needed to subsequently get his mechanics straight.
More importantly, velocity is something so primal to a pitcher that it is impossible to fake and rarely fluctuates much. In 2014, Latos's highest in-game average velocity was 92.6 mph in a season in which he averaged 91.9 mph according to Brooks Baseball. In 2013, it was 95.3 mph when he averaged 93.9 mph. This past start would represent a two mph bump in average velocity, which is higher than the average variance per start that Latos shown before. Pitchers can get lucky on balls in play and allow few hits. They can easily pull off a Dan Haren and luck into solo home runs rather than three-run bombs. They can even luck into strikeouts without a great underlying change in skill. But it is extremely difficult to fake your way into a velocity increase.
It is still way too early to assess how "true" this velocity increase was. Latos is once again a regular part of the rotation and should get every opportunity to prove himself. However, a similar thing has happened in Miami before. In 2011, Javier Vazquez was eight starts into a disastrous season with no positive claim in sight. Then, in a late May start against the Tampa Bay Rays, he went from averaging 89 mph on his fastball to 92 mph. He found a mechanical problem, fixed it, averaged 92 mph the rest of the way, and went from being a non-player (7.55 ERA, 10.5 percent strikeout rate versus 12.0 percent walk rate) to being an All-Star caliber player the rest of the season (2.70 ERA, 23.4 percent strikeout rate versus 4.3 percent walk rate).
Velocity is the key to a return to pitching success for someone like Latos. If he can keep his velocity groove that he found on Saturday in Miami, maybe he has a chance to pull off a Vazquez-like comeback of epic proportions.