The new documentary Fastball explores the classic showdown between pitcher and batter. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with director Jonathan Hock about his film, and with David Price, a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In September 2010, Aroldis Chapman, a rookie relief pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds, made history. A fastball he threw in the eighth inning of a game in San Diego was clocked at 105.1 miles per hour. It was the fastest pitch ever recorded in the major leagues, and it added to a century of lore and legend about the fastball.
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TIMOTHY VERSTYNEN: The pitcher is pushing the limits of how fast a ball can go. And that limit is coming close to the limit of how fast a hitter can make a decision. And so you have these two extremes of human performance doing this kind of dance right at the edge of where their biology is constraining them.
SIEGEL: That's psychologist Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University. The science, history and sheer marvel of the game's fastest pitch are explored in a new documentary called "Fastball." Jonathan Hock wrote and directed the film and joins us from New York. Welcome to the program, Jonathan.
JONATHAN HOCK: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: And the film features scientists like Verstynen and several players, including left-handed pitcher David Price of the Boston Red Sox who joins us from Fort Meyers, Fla., where his team spends spring training. Welcome to you, David Price.
DAVID PRICE: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Let's start, Jonathan, with you. How fast is a great fastball?
HOCK: You know, there are a lot of guys throwing 98, a hundred now, and that used to be blinding speed, and now it's kind of typical of what's coming out of the bullpen. But there's a lot more to it than just speed - release point, movement, late movement, especially
SIEGEL: David Price, there's a moment in the documentary where we see you striking out a man and throwing a ball, according to the speed gun, 100 miles per hour. What was that like?
PRICE: That was a first for me. I remember that moment very clearly, you know? I was in the bottom of the fifth. You know, my pitch count was at a hundred or higher, so I knew this was - you know, it was probably my last hitter.
I think it was a two-two count, and you know, just threw a good fastball up in the leg. He swung through it. And I just remember walking off the field to the first-base dugout. And I looked up 'cause they had a radar gun reading right there and in Detroit above our dugout, and I saw 100. But that was special.
SIEGEL: When you threw that pitch, could you feel that there was something different about this fastball from a fastball that might be clocked in at 97 miles per hour?
PRICE: No, I didn't feel any different. You know, I like to kind of play it to golf. You know, a lot of the golfers on the - on tour, you know, they're not - they're never swinger a hundred percent. You know, very rarely will they ever really go at a golf ball unless they really need to.
And you know, less is more. And I feel like if I can keep my mechanics in line and just get on top of that baseball, you know, I can still throw the baseball just as hard as if I was to hump up and try and really get after it.
SIEGEL: I want to play a couple of clips from "Fastball," from the film, that address the question of, say, the difference between a 92-mile-per-hour fastball and a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. First, at one point, the narrator, Kevin Costner, delivers a scientific comparison.
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KEVIN COSTNER: If the two pitches were thrown together, when the 100-mile-an-hour pitch reaches home plate, the 92-mile-an-hour pitch would still have 4-and-a-half feet left to travel.
SIEGEL: So that's the result of serious calculations. Brandon Phillips, the second baseman of the Cincinnati Reds, describes being a batter and looking at the difference between a 92-mile-per-hour pitch and a hundred-mile-per-hour pitch. He describes it a little bit differently.
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BRANDON PHILLIPS: When you're thrown a 92, you can read the Major League logo on the ball. You can see the seams. You can see all that. But when the guy throwing a hundred...
PHILLIPS: ...It look like a golf ball.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) It looks like a golf ball, David Price - back to golf.
PRICE: (Laughter) That definitely makes sense. You know, whenever you see a guy throwing, you know, upper-90s, a lot of people say that the baseball looks about the size of a bb, so I definitely get what he's saying there.
SIEGEL: One of the questions that you address - the big question that you address in "Fastball," Jonathan, is who actually threw the fastest fastball. And I was very surprised to learn how different the methods have been for measuring the speed of a fastball. Nowadays we have this radar gun that's measuring it. But before that, it was a much more random kind of science.
HOCK: Yeah. We sort of took it for granted when we began the project that the, you know, the current timings were just sort of the same as anything that had ever been timed before and when Aroldis Chapman hit 105.1, that was it.
But what we discovered with the help of the scientists from Carnegie Mellon - that the method they used over the years to scientifically time some pitchers, which hadn't happened that often before the radar gun - but it did happen, and the methods they did use were accurate. But the way they set it up was a little bit lacking.
SIEGEL: In 1939, as the movie shows us, Bob Feller, the great pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, wanted to be timed.
HOCK: Bob Feller was the first pitcher who really wanted to know how fast his fastball went. And he tried many ways of measuring this. And the first one and the most amusing one to watch is - he literally races his fastball against a police motorcycle. They filmed this. It was in Chicago. And you see this cop racing in on a motorcycle, going 86 miles an hour.
And just as he passes Feller, Feller, with his eye on the cop, winds up and lets go of the ball. And Feller's fastball hits the target before the cop going 86 miles an hour. And then Feller was in his street clothes, you know, with hard-soled shoes, pitching on the street without a mound.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) There's a scientific consensus in this film that a fastball cannot rise.
HOCK: Yeah. The idea is that when we're tracking an object in motion, we're not actually looking directly at the object. We're looking slightly ahead of it - a tenth, two-tenths of a second ahead of where it goes, and our brain then fills in the missing frames. And when we anticipate a ball going the normal speed - say, 90, 92 - our eye, as a batter, races to the spot where a 92-mile-an-hour pitch will cross home plate, and we swing there.
The hundred-mile-an-hour pitch thrown as a four-seamer, as David describes in the film, with backspin is going to create what they call Magnus force, which creates a slight lift on the ball. It doesn't actually lift the ball, but the ball won't fall. So it crosses the plate higher than the batter expects it to, and so his - he's literally seeing the ball rise because whatever part of his brain is interpreting what his eyes are seeing is actually making the ball rise.
SIEGEL: David, are you persuaded by what Jonathan just said, explaining the - what he would say is the illusion of the rising fastball?
PRICE: I really don't think the baseball can rise, but if there's anybody in baseball that could do that, it would be Darren O'Day just from, you know, his arm spot of where he throws and then him still being able to generate, you know, 87, you know, to 90 mile an hour that gives that look of that.
SIEGEL: We're on the eve of a new Major League Baseball season. Jonathan Hock, David Price, how exciting is that for the two of you?
PRICE: This time of year, you know, before the season gets going is always exciting. And then to be throwing with a new team and a new organization - that's always exciting as well.
HOCK: For me, the - baseball is the soundtrack of my summers for 50 years now. And there are two kinds of life we live every year. The six months where every night we can turn on the radio and put a ballgame on in the background is - that's the half of life I prefer.
SIEGEL: Filmmaker Jonathan Hock, whose new document is called "Fastball," and David Price, whose new team is the Boston Red Sox, thanks to both of you for talking with us.
HOCK: Thank you, Robert.
PRICE: Not a problem, thank you.
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SIEGEL: The documentary "Fastball" opens nationwide this weekend, and it's available On Demand.