clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Fastball ain't getting faster

I found this article to be of interest so you will have to suffer through my lack of taste.

We wish we knew 23 years ago what we now understand about pitching mechanics, because we never would have fallen for the great Sidd Finch/Sports Illustrated hoax of April 1, 1985. We would have known immediately that the pitching prospect pictured in his New York Mets uniform, with his bizarre windup, could not have thrown his fastball 168 mph, as purported in George Plimpton's famed story.

I didn't read the story in 1985 but I remember people talking about the "kid" who could throw a fastball so fast that no one could hit it.  When I finally read the article, libraries are wonderful things, I remember thinking how in the world could anyone have bought into the story.  Though it was a pretty decent knock-off of a comic I read in my youth about a triple-jointed pitcher who no one could hit and he led his team to a World Series win, or something like that.

But as the author points out the real draw of the story was the speed of the fastball thrown by the fictional character.

The speed of Finch's fictional fastball was the most memorable detail from Plimpton's April Fools' hoax. And baseball is no less obsessed by velocity today than it was 23 years ago. Arguably, given the advances in technology that makes radar readings more widespread, baseball is even more obsessed now.

"Way too obsessed," said Florida Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley, who wielded the radar gun as a Colorado Rockies scout the previous two seasons. "I've heard scouts say they wish one organization, as an experiment, would just get rid of the guns. Just don't send your scouts out with them. Just watch (the pitchers) pitch. Sometimes I think I agree with that."

There is a part of me that agrees with this.  For example: Greg Maddux isn't going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer because he blew guys away.  He will be because he out thought the hitters and he could locate pitches.  A lot of guys have risen to the big leagues because they could throw hard only to have very short careers.

But if you can locate pitches and have some movement, speed is a plus.  Which leaves the question just how high can one go on the radar gun.  And when you ask questions like this, there is only one place to go for the answer, Alabama.

Why, in other words, do the hardest throwers still measure a couple of ticks above 100 mph, same as they did in Nolan Ryan's day?

The answer, according to Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. -- in a nutshell -- is that while the muscles of the body can become stronger and more explosive, the tendons and ligaments upon which pitchers rely most heavily can only take so much torque before they snap. And that limit appears to be somewhere just north of 100 mph, no matter the height, weight and strength of the pitcher.

"The problem with baseball pitching is that it's a balance between throwing as fast as you can and not getting hurt," said Fleisig, an expert in the biomechanics of pitching. "If the muscles get too big and strong, it leads to more overwhelmed tendons and ligaments, and before it will lead to greater performance, it will lead to more injuries. In other sports, the athletes aren't in danger of getting hurt every time they perform."

"Our biomechanics studies show the tendons and ligaments (in pitchers) are just about at the maximum in terms of how much they can take."

Pitching in baseball may be the most violent and unnatural activity in all of sports on the body.  And it very possible that the highest speed is at the upper boundary and will not be extended above that in our lifetimes.  If a one to two mile per hour increase, or above, is seen it will probably be due to better measuring and not because of the physical ability to throw harder.