Bringing the heat: Triple-digit velocity fascinates
As methods for measuring pitch speed evolve, baseball gets a closer look at high heat
By Paul Hagen
One summer morning in 1940, at the request of the Commissioner's Office, Indians fireballer Bob Feller showed up at Chicago's Lincoln Park. As he wound up to throw a baseball at a paper target 60 feet, six inches away, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle roared by to his right while a film crew captured the whole, strange scene.
Even Kenesaw Mountain Landis, it seemed, wondered how fast Feller's fastball really was.
The motorcycle, traveling 86 mph, had a 10-foot head start. The baseball beat it by three feet. According to MLB's estimate, that meant the ball had traveled 98.6 mph. Later that was recalculated to 104.
In September 1974, the Angels partnered with Rockwell International to use a state-of-the-art but untested device to measure Nolan Ryan's fastball and announced a contest in which fans could predict the outcome. According to newspaper reports at the time, it was a coherent infrared radar that utilized the Doppler frequency shift. The answer turned out to be 100.9 mph, and that was duly entered into the Guinness Book of World Records.
The hitch was that the machine measured only pitches that crossed the plate. There remains a suspicion that the device missed several offerings that would have obliterated the record had they been in the zone.
Today, techniques to measure the velocity of pitches are much more sophisticated. The results are flashed on scoreboards, shown on television and logged for research purposes. What hasn't changed is the fascination with pitchers who really bring the heat. And there's an undeniable fascination when the number has three digits.
It's impossible to say with certainty who the hardest-throwing pitchers of all time have been. For example, there is only anecdotal evidence of how hard Walter Johnson threw. And the methods used for Feller and Ryan were primitive compared to modern techniques. Even now, there can be different standards. Should it be the speed of the ball when it leaves the pitcher's hand or when it crosses the plate? The most widely-accepted version is called the Fifty Foot Equivalent (FFE) which represents the distance from the mound when the measurement is made.
It can be said with certainty, however, that no current pitcher throws harder, and does it more consistently, than Reds right-hander Aroldis Chapman. He has thrown 408 pitches so far this season, and 136 of them -- a full one-third of them -- have hit at least 100 mph, according to Pitch f/x. The eight other pitchers who have reached triple digits this season have done it a total of 54 times.
When Chapman throws 100, opposing batters have managed a hit 4.4 percent of the time, and they put it in play in another 5.9 percent of their plate appearances. The result is a strike or a foul ball an amazing 60.2 percent of the time. Which makes sense -- the less time a hitter has to react to a pitch, the less chance he has of squaring it up.
Really, though, is there any practical difference between a fastball that comes in at 98 mph and one that registers 100? After all, the rule of thumb for pitchers using a changeup or a breaking ball off their slider is that there should be a separation of 10-12 mph for it to be deceptive.
"I think you can tell, but the honest difference, whether it's 95 or a 100, is the action of the ball," said Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton. "Even at 100, if it's straight, guys are going to be able to time it. Whereas guys throw 93 or 94, and it has action. Whether it's sink, whether it's cut, it causes more problems. So it's not as much the velocity as it is what the ball's doing. Now, most guys who throw 100 these days have a little bit of ride to it, so that's what causes the problems."
Pitchers who understand that location is more important than pure heat tend to be less impressed with reaching an arbitrary threshold. The Phillies are one of two teams to have a pair of pitchers, Jake Diekman and Ken Giles, who have been clocked at 100 this season. The Royals, with Kelvin Herrera and Yordano Ventura, are the other.
"It's sexy, yeah," Diekman said after doing it for the first time in his career. "[But] if I never hit it again, I'll be OK with it. It's more about getting people out."
Giles, who started the season at Double-A Reading, hasn't reached triple digits as regularly since being called up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but he's unfazed.
"The 100 will be there, but if it's not there it's OK," Giles said. "When you bring it in the high 90s, letter-high and with a downward angle, it's a hard-to-hit ball."
Fair enough, but that overlooks the romance, the electricity that's created when the numbers 1-0-0 go up on the scoreboard and the crowd reacts. Billy Wagner recalls the time, when he was with the Phillies, he threw back-to-back 100-mph fastballs and was wildly cheered. Then his third pitch only registered 99. He was booed.
Chapman had an epic faceoff against the Braves' Freddie Freeman in the bottom of the ninth last July 12 at Turner Field. Chapman started with five straight fastballs, each progressively faster: 101.5, 101.6, 103, 103.3 and, finally, 104. Then, on a 1-2 count, Chapman threw a 91-mph slider, and Freeman dunked a single to center.
Here's a look at all the pitchers who have thrown at least 100 mph since the start of the 2014 season, as measured by Pitch f/x: