September 13, 2003


The Hardest Stuff (PAT JORDAN, September 14, 2003, NY Times Magazine)

The year 2003 may go down as the year the stat geeks won over organized baseball, converting the evaluation of talent from art into science. But there are still some things about the game that don't yield so easily to cold calculus, and chief among them is the mystique of the fire-balling pitcher, the guy who pitches close to and can break the 100-mile-per-hour mark. According to Robert Adair, a physicist and professor emeritus at Yale University and the author of ''The Physics of Baseball,'' throwing a ball this hard transcends the ordinary parameters of the game. ''It's really at the edge of what human beings can do,'' Adair told me.

Every major-league team has a designated flamethrower or two on its roster, but only a handful of all these pitchers get near 100. Still, the 10 or so pitchers who can break 100 m.p.h. make up what might be the largest such group to ever play in the major leagues at one time. Just as hitters have bulked up and are becoming ever more menacing at the plate, pitching technique and training have advanced, too. An arms race is under way. Lou Medina, who has been scouting for eight years, the last three for the Kansas City Royals, said that although he has never registered a 100-m.p.h. pitch on his own radar gun, he has ''no doubt that someday kids on every team will be hitting 100 m.p.h.''

There is an old baseball axiom that says, ''Hitters murder fastballs.'' But nobody murders a 100-m.p.h. fastball. Jim Thome, of the Philadelphia Phillies, has called the fastball the best pitch in the game: ''I don't think people understand how difficult it is to hit a fastball.'' And he's talking about the garden-variety 95-m.p.h. fastball. The difference between a 97-m.p.h. fastball and a 100-m.p.h. fastball, says Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros, ''is that sometimes you don't see it until it's in your face. It's a macho confrontation. You can see it in a pitcher's eyes -- he wants to dominate you. I like that.'' Adair said a 100-m.p.h. fastball reaches the catcher four-tenths of a second after it leaves the pitcher's hand. A batter has fifteen-hundredths of a second to react to a 100-m.p.h. fastball. ''The ball,'' Adair said, ''moves faster than you can move your eyes.''

The stat geeks are officially neutral on the importance of the 100-m.p.h. pitch -- whether an out is recorded off a blazing fastball or a fluttering knuckler makes no difference to them. And they are leery of old-school scouts who tend to be overly impressed with rudimentary gifts like velocity, while overlooking the other skills that make a major-league pitcher successful. But there's one thing that everyone in the baseball world agrees on -- there is no more valuable player than a pitcher who does not even allow the opposing team to put the ball in play. And 100-m.p.h. fastballs, if thrown consistently for strikes (an admittedly big if), are one of the best ways for a pitcher to accomplish that. When that go-ahead run is on third in the ninth inning with nobody out during the September playoff push, every general manager in contention is going to wish he had a 100-m.p.h. arm on his staff, and if he doesn't, he's going to wonder where in the world one might be found.

As the essay continues, Mr. Jordan--whose memoir, False Spring, is not only a great baseball book but great literature about squandered gifts--finds three 100 mph arms.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2003 7:21 AM

It is hard to hit any major league pitcher, even guys on the Detroit staff. Look, you win a batting title if you fail 65% of the time. In most things in life if you fail that much, you stop doing it for a living (unless you are a public defender).

Posted by: pchuck at September 13, 2003 9:32 AM

Great fastball pitchers often are a late developing quantity, not due to their speed, but to their afforementioned inability to throw strikes on a consistant basis at the major league level. Kolfax was wild as could be when he came up with the Dodgers during their dying days in Brooklyn and early years in Los Angeles; Ryan was the same with the Mets and through much of his stint with the Angels, and Randy Johnson was just considered a very tall, but erratic hurler when he played for the Expos. (It's also why I never expect the New York Yankees to develop a great 95-100 mph pitcher on their own -- buy one, like Clemens, yes, but the owner would never have the paitence to sit through several years of frustrating inconsistancy before the pearl would emerge from the oyster).

Posted by: John at September 13, 2003 9:44 AM

Steve Dalkowski

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 13, 2003 10:06 PM

Bottom line is strikeouts. I don't care if you can throw a ball 112 MPH, if you throw it over the plate what good is it. Movies like Major League show pitches throwing fastballs all the time and that's just not the way it is. Nolan Ryan 100 MPH, 324 wins on bad teams and over 5700 strikeouts. Sandy Kofaxs 4 no hitters in 4 years. Steve Dalkowski who. Control is the bottom line with any pitcher.

Posted by: John A. Miller at September 27, 2003 7:34 AM

You can learn control. You can't learn 100mph.

Posted by: oj at September 27, 2003 8:05 AM