On August 20, 1946 — almost 70 years ago — Bob Feller threw what was being called in the papers a “world record fastball.” Before his start against Washington, the U.S. Army had set up at home plate some sort of unwieldy contraption that was variously called a “Lumiline Chronograph” and “Sky Screen Cronograph.” The Army supposedly used this device measure the speed of rifle bullets.
At that moment in time, the world record in the 100-meter dash was held by Jesse Owens at 10.2 seconds. It is now Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58 seconds.
The world record in the 100-meter freestyle was held by Alan Ford, who had swam a special race in 1944 when the Olympics were canceled for World War II. He swam 100 meters in 55.9 seconds. Brazil’s Cesar Cielo now has the record at 46.91 seconds.
Les Steers owned the high-jump record then at six feet, 11 inches. The seven-foot jump was something of an obsession then, and it would another 10 more years before Charlie Dumas did it. The record is now eight feet, held by Cuba’s remarkable Javier Sotomayer.
All of this is mentioned to clarify what Bob Feller did that day in Washington. He was starting the game against the Senators (he lost) so it seems unlikely that he threw every bit as hard as he could for some quirky speed test.
Even so, his fastball sailed through the army’s speed measuring device and was clocked at 98.6 mph. That’s pretty good, right? If you went to the ballpark, watched a starting pitcher throw a fastball and then saw 99 mph pop on the giant radar gun, you’d be pretty impressed even now. The hardest throwing starter in 2015 was Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura, who averaged about 96 mph and topped out at 101.
But here’s the thing that’s easy to miss: Yordano Ventura and all pitchers today are having their fastballs clocked just as the ball is leaving their hands. Feller’s fastball was clocked as it was crossing home plate, 60 feet, 6 inches away.
What’s the difference? Well, I will leave that to the scientists of Jonathan Hock’s terrific new documentary “Fastball,” which is in some theaters on Friday and available on iTunes and Amazon and all those places. Let’s just say: It’s a BIG difference.
I should say, right up front, that I worked with Jon Hock on “Fastball,” which not only puts me one degree away from Kevin Bacon (I am in “Fastball” with Kevin Costner, and Costner was in JFK with Kevin Bacon) but also makes me a bit biased about the movie. Still, I was not THAT involved and what I love about “Fastball” has nothing to do with the parts I’m in.
There’s a theory out there that people are throwing the ball harder than at any point in baseball history. This is because 100-mph fastballs used to be a bit like shooting stars and now they light up radar guns in every stadium practically every night. Aroldis Chapman is the king of the 100-mph fastball — Statcast had him throwing the 62 fastest pitches in 2015 — but THIRTY-SIX pitchers broke 100 last year (thank you MLB.com)*. Every team seems to have at least one bullpen guy who, on the right night, can light up triple digits.
*I have to show you the top-five list of pitchers who broke 100 mph just you get a sense of the absurdity of Chapman:
5. Bruce Rondon, Tigers, 53 times.
4. Kelvin Herrera, Royals, 66 times
3. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees, 75 times
2. Arquimedes Caminero, Marlins, 77 times
1. Aroldis Chapman, Yankees nee Reds, 453 times.
And so many more 100-mph pitchers are on the way. At Royals camp, for instance, former closer Jeff Montgomery — who was unusual because he did not rely on a fastball but instead was a four-pitch reliever — finds himself wandering around wide-eyed. “These kids throw so hard!” he says shaking his head. “It’s amazing.”
But are pitchers really throwing harder than ever? There’s no question that MORE pitchers are throwing hard now than ever before but you might explain that like so:
1. More and more of the game’s best arms are coming out of the bullpen. When a pitcher comes into the game and just blows it all out for an inning, he obviously throws harder — he can often add two, three or four mph to his fastball compared to starters. Back to Kansas City, Wade Davis is a great example. As a starter, he averaged about 92 mph and almost never broke 95 mph. As a reliever, he AVERAGES 96 mph and will sometimes close in on 100.
2. There is so much more reliance on the radar gun today. It’s a star-marking device. A pitcher now knows that if he throws 100 mph, he has a fastpass to the big leagues and a place in someone’s bullpen. This means pitchers are now straining their arms to get every last mph. Which leads to:
3. Tommy John surgery and other medical advancements are putting pitcher arms back in the game at just about full strength. Matt Harvey, for instance, underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the whole 2014 season. In the days before Tommy John surgery, he likely would have been finished as a big league pitcher. But, as it stands now, he was one of the 36 pitchers who broke 100 in 2015.
Still, as compelling as it is to see so many pitchers throwing hard, this does not get to the original question of the fastball which is: Are people throwing HARDER than they ever did? We know the top sprinters are running faster, the top swimmers are swimming faster, the best high jumpers are jumping higher. But does anyone throw the ball harder than Walter Johnson … or Bob Feller … or Nolan Ryan … or Steve Dalkowski?
I don’t want to give away too much from the movie — all four of those men play a major role in it, as does Chapman and the revived Justin Verlander and the remarkable Bob Gibson and the ever-talkative Goose Gossage — but what I think “Fastball” does best is explain one of baseball’s great mysteries. Why does baseball feel unbound by time in a way that no other American sport does? Why is it that in baseball, you will routinely hear people say that men who played many generations ago — Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Oscar Charleston, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Satchel Paige — are the greatest who ever played the game? You would never hear that sort of thing in football or basketball or hockey. Why is baseball different?
As I think “Fastball” explains beautifully, the difference just might be the timelessness of the fastball. While athletes in every sport have become bigger, stronger and faster, while training methods and medical treatment have improved exponentially, while new drugs have enhanced players performances, the fastball remains. How hard did Bob Feller actually throw that day in 1946? Let’s just say that, when you see the final total, well, even Aroldis Chapman might be impressed.