One continual debate that I enjoy having with people that love baseball is about the idea of how hard pitchers have thrown throughout history. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of posts online about great baseball documentaries, and this conversation re-inspired a debate in my mind because of the Netflix documentary simply titled Fastball. For those unfamiliar, this film is about the evolution and origins of baseball’s most basic pitch, and even more about how we measure its speed effectively.
The cornerstone of this argument, and one baseball hill that I am absolutely willing to die on, is the question: Would pitchers from previous eras compete from a velocity standpoint with the greats of today?
My answer to this is an emphatic YES, but with one large caveat. I openly admit that the wonders of modern medicine and our improved knowledge of strength training and nutrition allow for more pitchers to throw hard today than ever before. However, I find it very hard to believe fireballers from decades past, like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax didn’t throw just as hard. Today I am here to enter my plea on why.
We will start with the dubious, which is Johnson. I say he is dubious not because of his own merits, but because of the merits of the technology that was around to track him in his day. Arguably the greatest pitcher ever, the all-time leader in shutouts, a two-time MVP and a 417 game winner through 21 seasons for the lowly Washington Senators, Johnson was once clocked against a motorcycle while wearing street clothes and a mere few warmup pitches. Mathematics suggests that he threw a baseball at 97 mph that day. More anecdotally, Ty Cobb, 2nd all-time in hits, called him “the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park”. Johnson himself spoke to his own velocity, claiming that the later pitching star Bob Feller didn’t quite throw as fast as he. Which I would tend to believe, when you consider Johnson’s own even-handedness when he also claimed one of his contemporaries, Smoky Joe Wood, threw even harder.
Moving forward, we look at Feller. Many know the 18-year Cleveland Indians veteran as one of the best pitchers of baseball’s golden age. A look at his Baseball-Reference page suggests he had an admittedly early peak. Feller was an absolute workhorse early in his career, leading baseball in innings pitched 5 times by the time he was 28, and doing so while also missing three seasons due to military service. By the time the Indians had won their last World Series in 1948 Feller was 29 (the same age as pitchers Mike Clevinger and Alex Wood today, for reference) and had led baseball in strikeouts 8 times.
He did this with an absolutely blazing fastball. Ted Williams had hand-eye coordination not only great enough to be the last man to hit .400, but also be called “one of the best pilots I know” by future astronaut John Glenn. Williams in turn, called Feller “the best and fastest pitcher I ever saw”. In an effort to find out exactly how fast Feller, while still in his prime in 1946, was clocked by the US Army at 98.6 mph. That figure however came from the point that the ball would cross home plate. Today, the radar gun readings taken on television and by Statcast come from the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Computations on how much gravity and wind resistance would slow Feller’s ball down suggest that at the point of release the ball was likely at a velocity anywhere between 101 and 107 mph.
I don’t care what year it was. Feller threw straight gas.
Skeptics will call both this and Johnson’s story old wives’ tales. They will point to the lack of reliable equipment used to measure speed or the potential faults in the calculations done by the Army. They will claim that the legend is bigger than the truth and that there’s no way without modern means that either man could possibly throw that hard. They will claim Williams and Cobb didn’t know any better in their day and age than to think these men threw fast. The reason Williams hit .400 was that pitching was so much easier to hit then. Cobb is a relic of the dead-ball era where bunts were more common than bombs. Meanwhile, the number of 95+ mph fastballs thrown nearly doubled between 2007 and 2015.
But let’s move forward, to another Indians fireballer just a couple decades later. In 1965 “Sudden” Sam McDowell led the American League in ERA and made his first All-Star team. This was a decade where the average baseball player was 20 pounds (at least partially of muscle) lighter than today. It was a time where ballplayers still needed winter jobs in order to live and couldn’t focus on training year-round. Specifically, McDowell himself weighed in at 190 lbs and therefore was 17 lbs lighter than today’s average player when he pitched 273 innings that season. For reference, no one in baseball has thrown as many as 250 innings since Justin Verlander did it in 2011. McDowell had all these factors stacked against him, yet struck out 10.7 batters per 9 innings in 1965. That’s essentially equivalent to Yankees’ ace Luis Severino who matched that figure in the much more strikeout-friendly 2017 season. Further, Severino is also considered by many the hardest throwing starting pitcher in baseball. McDowell’s sky high strikeout rate can be attributed to his fastball which was questioned to be just as fast, if not faster, than the great Sandy Koufax, another legendary pitcher with a cannon for a left arm.
Yes, I am once again making inferences. There can be flaws in my reasoning and my evidence isn’t entirely concrete. However, if McDowell wasn’t throwing just as hard as Severino, he sure was throwing just as effectively with the same showcase pitch.
For those doubters that may still be out there, perhaps a more scientific approach is necessary.
I can’t remember if it was a gym teacher, a baseball coach or some other adult of authority during my formative life, but I remember an individual of that stature in my teen years announcing very confidently to a group of young people including myself that “Throwing a baseball overhand is a completely unnatural motion. That’s why baseball pitchers always have arm pain and softball pitchers don’t.’
I cannot speak about softball pitching, but it turns out that the above statement about baseball is completely and utterly factually inaccurate. Not only is throwing overhand a natural action that humans have been performing since the dawn of our existence, but its actually a trait that is identifiably human. There isn’t a living creature known on this planet that is able to throw overhand with the same effectiveness or efficiency that a human being does. Not one. A common chimpanzee is anywhere from three to five times stronger than Aroldis Chapman is, but that chimp’s fastball wouldn’t get ticketed in a school zone.
A 2013 Harvard study concludes this and further reinforces the notion by stating that the human shoulder is specially built with elongated muscles that store energy and release it much in the way a slingshot or a catapult does. For another anatomical comparison, our shoulders are the equivalent of a kangaroo’s legs, that allow them to sour through the air in a way that is immediately identifiable as one of their main traits as a species. Throwing prowess, born possibly out of natural selection and the need to be able to throw a rock or a spear in order to hunt for dinner, is equally an attribute of humanity.
Not only does this mean that if aliens come down and allow us to choose the contest that will determine the future of our planet that we better well choose baseball, but it sets the precedent that humans have been predisposed to being able to throw heat for ages. Yes, modern techniques mean that more guys are reaching their peak velocity than ever before. You are able to build more better baseball pitchers today due to strength training, better mechanics and nutrition, but the premise that Feller, McDowell or Koufax really were firing bullets out there seems reasonable when you consider human anatomy.
Officially, the aforementioned Chapman has been clocked at 105 mph. The Army would claim that Feller was comparable in 1946, but if my premise that modern processes and equipment are helpful then something needs to be reconciled. If Chapman and Feller have the same amount of predisposition for throwing hard, and Chapman has the benefits of modern society while Feller doesn’t, then what gives? Why doesn’t Chapman throw harder?
Well first, he might. If Feller was more on the low end of the 101-107 range, then there’s your answer right there. If not though, then there too might be a precedent already that while humans are the best throwers on the planet, we might have already peaked in terms of our ability regardless of all the additional training that we can do.
Radar guns first came en vogue in the 1970s as they were proliferated into the MLB at the suggestion and encouragement of Michigan State coach Danny Litwhiler. While there reliability has improved over the years, Nolan Ryan‘s 103 mph fastball clocked in the 1978 All-Star Game is a reading to be reckoned with.
In that same year, the World Record for the 100 meter dash was held by American Jim Hines who set the record in 1968 (making him a contemporary of Ryan, Koufax and McDowell) at a time of 9.95 seconds. Today the record is 9.58 seconds, set in 2009 and held by Jamaican Usain Bolt, nearly 4 percent faster than Hines. Chapman’s 105 mph fastball is just 2 percent faster than Ryan by comparison. Human foot speed has improved at a rate double throwing speed, and we are assuming that Ryan just happened to throw his fastest pitch ever at the 1978 All-Star Game (plausible, but maybe not likely). In truth, the precedent is there that the peak of human throwing performance has been set.
If that can be the case for the time between Ryan and Chapman, than what makes that time period different than from Johnson to McDowell? What reason do we have to believe that our human biology alone isn’t enough to be able to bring the cheese?
I suggest we have none. Walter Johnson threw hard. Just like McDowell. Just like Ryan. Just like Chapman. And just like our prehistoric ancestors, throwing four-seamers to knock dinner out of the sky.