Well, the Phillies finally lost number 10,000 last night, and only this man has seen every single one. But I really don't care how many games the Phils have lost; I'm more curious right now about former Phillies closer Billy Wagner. One of the things I noted in my all-star game blog was that Wagner's fastball was topping out at 95 mph, including the one that Victor Martinez took deep for the eventual game-winning run. This seemed strange to me; Wagner has always had the reputation of being a guy who can hit 99-100 consistently on the radar gun.
So, I went through Wagner's recent outings to see if this was anything strange...and it turns out, it wasn't. Wagner's thrown three times since the All-Star break, and he's been effective in all three games. In his most recent outing, he was at 95 with pretty much every pitch (although he hit 97 on the last one), and in the two outings before that he was in the 94-97 range as well. I went back before the All-Star break to his 7/5 outing, but again, more of the same - his fastball was 96-97, hitting 98 twice, but this game was on the road in Houston, so it could just be that the radar gun there reads differently.
Is Wagner getting less effective as the season goes on, or does he simply not throw as hard as he used to? I went back to a couple of his April outings at Shea, but again, he was in the 94-95 range most of the time (though he hit 99 once, which seems to probably be a misread). Finally, I looked through some of his games in 2006 - the radar guns on the MLB.TV feed rarely actually worked, making the experience rather frusturating, but he was around 96-97 last year also (on the road, because the home games didn't show the speed).
What does this mean? It just means that Wagner doesn't throw as hard as he used to. Wagner still carries the reputation of being able to hit triple digits (in a game at Arizona last year, one of the announcers introduced him as "the hardest-throwing lefty in the game"), but that just isn't justified any more. Wagner was clocked at as high as 101 mph in 2003, but has lost a little bit off his heat since then. This actually isn't out of the ordinary; I was surprised to learn that he is 35 years old, so his pure stuff should be starting to decline around now.
Now, does this mean Wagner isn't going to be as effective anymore? Not really. Obviously, an extra five mph on his fastball would help, but he's still a fine pitcher without it. Wagner's given up just seven earned runs this year in 41 innings, for a solid 1.52 ERA (though he's given up four homers already, which would seem to suggest that his ERA is likely to increase a bit soon), and he's posted a great 0.87 WHIP thus far. Even more encouraging is the fact that his strikeout rate has remained extremely high - 11.3 K/9 this year. The only thing that's changed is that he's now relying more on location and changing speeds to get hitters out, instead of pure velocity. Wagner's location has been great in his last couple outings; yesterday, he was coming across the zone and low very consistently (the low and outside corner to a lefty). His slider has also become a devastating pitch; he throws it 85 mph with great movement, and he's shown tremendous command with it; he's thrown it eight times in his three most recent outings, and only once was it called a ball. Wagner also has a curve, but doesn't throw it very much; that's not really a problem, though, as a reliever doesn't usually need more than two pitches to be effective.