Pitchers thriving with faster fastballs, more K's

Gonzalez: Pitchers thrive with faster fastballs, more K's

Pitchers thriving with faster fastballs, more K's
Justin Verlander will admit, with very little shame, that he'll often sneak a peek at the scoreboard radar gun while on the mound.

"After almost every pitch," the hard-throwing Tigers starter specified, then grinned. "I like to know where I'm at."

Verlander has been in the league a while now and has accomplished a lot -- including a second no-hitter hurled three days after this conversation -- but since velocity is such a big part of his success, he always wants to make sure it's right.

And, of course, Verlander is an admirer of an ability only a select few possess.

"It's something that is fun for a pitcher," Verlander said, "and I think it's even more gratifying for me, because I've worked so hard to try to do that for a full season."

Bringing the Heat
Fastest average fastball velocity in 2011 (minimum five innings pitched)
Name Team Mph
Aroldis Chapman CIN 98.63
Henry Rodriguez WAS 97.43
Joel Hanrahan PIT 97.08
Jordan Walden LAA 96.99
Jeremy Jeffress KC 96.93
Daniel Bard BOS 96.81
Mark Lowe TEX 95.68
Matt Lindstrom COL 95.67
Brandon League SEA 95.66
Matt Thornton CHW 95.51
Bobby Parnell NYM 95.36
Michael Pineda SEA 95.35*
Jim Hoey MIN 95.31
Felipe Paulino COL 95.29
Fernando Rodney LAA 95.19
Aaron Crow KC 95.17
Craig Kimbrel ATL 95.16
Justin Verlander DET 95.03*
Dan Runzler SF 95.02
Jason Motte STL 94.97
Blake Hawksworth LAD 94.95
Jim Johnson BAL 94.75
Sergio Santos CHW 94.70
Drew Storen WAS 94.70
Blake Wood KC 94.68
Adam Russell TB 94.50
Kyle Farnsworth TB 94.50
Al Alburquerque DET 94.50
Brian Wilson SF 94.47
David Price TB 94.43*
* denotes starting pitcher

Verlander is that rare breed of starting pitcher who can put up triple digits on the radar gun despite having triple digits on his pitch count. He proved that Sunday at Rogers Centre, when his 106th pitch to Rajai Davis -- the last batter he faced before becoming the 28th pitcher in history to complete multiple no-hitters -- came in at 100 mph.

With regards to average fastball velocity in 2011, Verlander (at 95.03 mph) ranked second among starting pitchers through Monday, trailing only Mariners rookie Michael Pineda (95.35).

In fact, only three of the top 30 in that category are starters -- Pineda, Verlander and the Rays' David Price.

It should come as no surprise that the fastest pitches come from relievers; those who can max out because they usually aren't going more than two innings. The top 10 in average fastball velocity this season are: the Reds' Aroldis Chapman (98.63), the Nationals' Henry Rodriguez (97.43), the Pirates' Joel Hanrahan (97.08), the Angels' Jordan Walden (96.99), the Royals' Jeremy Jeffress (96.93), the Red Sox's Daniel Bard (96.81), the Rangers' Mark Lowe (95.68), the Rockies' Matt Lindstrom (95.67), the Mariners' Brandon League (95.66) and the White Sox's Matt Thornton (95.51).

Major League hitters can time a bullet if it's straight and they see enough of it. But facing these guys is never easy.

"It doesn't matter how many times you face a guy who throws that hard, it's an uncomfortable at-bat," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "I think what you're seeing nowadays is a lot of the starters are sitting 94 and 95 [mph]."

A gift
Few things in life are more thrilling than seeing a big number on a scoreboard radar gun. There's a sort of excitement, buzz -- sexiness, if you will -- that comes with witnessing a human arm cause a projectile to travel that fast.

Nobody appreciates it more than the pitchers themselves.

The ability to throw that fast is simply a gift, and it doesn't matter how hard you work and how much you focus on it, you either have it in you or you don't.

And one day, you can wake up and it's just, well, gone.

"It's nothing you can take for granted," Jeffress said. "One pitch, your arm can blow up on you. I pray to God every day that I'm able to throw that hard, stay in this game as long as He wants me to play, because if it wasn't for baseball, a lot of people don't know where they would be."

And that's why these nature-defying gunslingers are so conscientious, if not paranoid, about their velocity.

Any one of them can clearly remember where they were when their fastballs topped out, and just about all of them wonder how fast they're throwing during games. They do it because it's fun to see how hard they can amp it up when they really rear back, but they also do it because they want to make sure their big advantage isn't abruptly slipping away.

We've seen it happen in the Bronx, where Yankees starter Phil Hughes didn't feel any pain in his arm but suddenly couldn't throw so hard anymore. And Verlander himself recalls coming out of Spring Training in 2008 with his fastball five mph slower because his arm angle was maybe just an inch or two off.

"I freak out every Spring Training," said Verlander, who went on to post a career-high 17 losses and 4.84 ERA that season. "I always ask guys, 'Hey, is it coming out good?' And I can pretty much tell, but that's always a worry for a power pitcher."

Delicate, and rare, as this gift might be, there sure seems to be a lot of guys throwing really hard these days.

Fastballs now faster
More pitchers are seemingly coming out of the bullpen, and even starting games, with the ability to pitch in the high-90s and sustain it. Throwing hard may be something you're born with, but the ability to capitalize on it comes through rigorous work and development.

Strikeouts on the rise
Season K's/9 IP
2005 6.38
2006 6.59
2007 6.67
2008 6.83
2009 6.99
2010 7.13
2011 7.08
Stats courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau

Advanced weightlifting regimens and enhanced knowledge of how to get the most out of arms has lent itself to more hard throwers around baseball. There also seems to be plenty more towering pitchers nowadays. From 2006-10, 190 pitchers were 6-foot-5 and taller, according to Baseball-Reference.com. In a five-year stretch from 1991-95, there were 115.

We've seen some evidence in the stats, too. Not only does this seem like the beginning of an era dominated by pitching -- with eight no-hitters since the start of the 2010 season and run production plummeting -- but strikeouts continue to rise.

Major League Baseball's strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio sat at 6.38 in 2005 and has gone up every year. It was at 7.13 in '10 -- the first time that the number of strikeouts per nine innings was higher than seven, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- and through Monday, it was 7.08 this season.

"The physical act of taking a baseball and throwing it 95 mph is definitely more today than in my day, by far," said TBS MLB analyst Ron Darling, the former All-Star and World Series-winning pitcher for the Mets in 1986. "I think a lot of it has to do with weight training; the athletes are bigger and stronger. But they don't call it throwing, they call it pitching."

And that's just it.

Velocity not an be all, end all
You can throw as hard as you want, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can dominate.

In fact, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty will say it's usually harder to work with pitchers who are blessed with the ability to throw so hard because all they want to do is cash in on their ability to do just that. Often, they lose sight of the importance of location, command and movement -- because they've never really needed that to get hitters out.

"Those guys, you have to get them to not overthrow," McCatty said. "But it's like asking a thoroughbred not to run. It's not easy to do."

Just look at the dynamic between Chapman (first full season) and Verlander (sixth).

Five days ago, Verlander gave up just one walk -- on a 3-2 fastball that barely missed the outside corner in the eighth -- and effectively pitched to contact against a short-handed Blue Jays lineup while hurling his no-no.

In the case of Chapman, 14 of the 16 fastest pitches in baseball since 2009 have come out his left hand, according to Pitch f/x -- including one at 104.1 mph and one at 105.1 mph. But Chapman has averaged 11.4 walks per nine innings this season, offering up eight of them in his last three appearances (a one-plus-inning span).

Sometimes, pitchers -- like the rest of us -- become just a little too infatuated with radar-gun readings.

"We're all enamored with the velocity, but it's not the key," McCatty said. "It's really not. It's being able to locate it, get ahead of guys."

McCatty paused, then chuckled. "But it's a nice thing to have."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.