Written by Michael MacIsaac (Contact & Archive) on June 02, 2008
“Smokey Joe (Williams) could throw harder than all of them." - Satchel Paige in Blackball Stars (1988)
"Mister, no man alive can throw a baseball harder than Joe Wood." – Walter Johnson
Baseball has, for eternity, been known as a sport whose tales of folklore, mystic feats, and incomprehensible athletic prowess have been as tall in the air as they are long in the tooth. However, one such tale that is seemingly drawing more and more towards an actual truth, believe it or not, is that of the fastball. Who is the world’s hardest thrower? How fast can a fastball go? Lefty Grove, Smokey Joe, and Joe Wood have all been heralded to the pedestal of most blazing arm alive, and with new radar technology tracking pitches up to an alleged 103 MPH, is there a “limit” as to how fast a fastball can actually go?
The explanation for this is as mystical as it is technical. When someone like Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in history, stands up and says that Steve Dalkowski, a man who never even made the Major Leagues, is the fastest pitcher ever, that already holds as much water to most people as some wacked out technical explanation. Today, with radar guns being a tool no scout goes to a ballpark without, a lot of fans trust ESPN SportsCentre’s highlight reel that blows up the speed of the pitch without hesitation. With the hopes of not straying too far away from straight-up baseball, is there something somewhere that proves the limits of pitchers? Well, let’s see.
Muscle mass doesn’t determine how fast a pitch goes, so says the Physics Factbook: it’s the amount of torque a pitcher puts on his or her body. Good news for pitchers staying away from steroids! Steve Dalkowski, who allegedly hit between 105 and 115 MPH, stood at 5’10” and weighed in at 165 lbs, soaking wet. Torque is a combination of arm speed, hip rotation, shoulder movement, leg kick, and the rest: the idea of pitchers trying to toy with their torque by kicking higher or reaching back farther is nothing new. How much torque could a pitcher torque if a pitcher could torque pitches? The modern day benchmark for an elite fastball pitcher has grown to be 100 MPH, and this is with good reason! Physiologists have argued that in terms of newton-meters (whatever that means,) 80 of them are required on your elbow to reach 100 MPH, and any more than this often results in a snapped elbow. Hence, 100 MPH should be the fastest pitch humanly possible.
But it isn’t. All folklore aside, the Guinness Book of Records holds the fastest pitch ever to be Nolan Ryan’s fastball that was a shade over 100, and the fastest pitch ever caught by a radar gun rocked in at an astounding 103 MPH from Mark Wholers during a Spring Training game. Are they super humans? Are they cheating? Of course not: the answer lies in the human body. Some bodies are built differently! There is a reason that not everyone is a Kerry Wood or a Walter Johnson, and sometimes, it can just be attributed to their internal makeup. The reason people get over 100 MPH is because some bodies just… let it happen. That means that you can just train your body to produce more torque in another area to hit the magical triple digits, right? Well, not so fast there either. It’s easy to develop a more sound swing or to work out to be able to pull the ball farther, yet pitching doesn’t always work that way. As most fans will know, humans naturally throw underhanded, not overhanded. By throwing more and more, the chances of doing further damaging rather than further conditioning is not only higher; its proven. With very, very few exceptions that I would argue prove the rule, pitchers slow down as time wears on.
The bioscientists and all their pocket protector-wearing friends all agree that 100 MPH is the ceiling for pitch speed, yet this has been overcome by the human body. Will we ever see the day where pitches consistently hit 120 or 130 MPH, like we have witnessed with the evolution of the slapshot in hockey and the car in auto racing? Well… the bioscientists might have us on this one. While radar technology only goes back to 1974, there is a persistent trend: pitchers are not getting faster. While the Live Ball Era may have jacked up home runs, it’s not because the pitches they’re hitting are going faster. The human body can only excel so much at an unnatural act, and the old phrase, “he pitches so hard his arm nearly falls off,” actually has a degree of truth to it when you look at human motion. The old story of Sidd Finch pitching a 168 MPH pitch actually isn’t possible. Not right now.
However, the ever-so-elusive conclusion to this entire discussion is this: we may actually never know what limits a pitcher can stretch his or her fastball to. Will the body go so far as to evolve a shoulder than can pitch faster? Probably not. Will everyone start getting put under the knife for Tommy John surgery by those who swear it makes their fastball faster to get up to 110 MPH? This isn’t really true either. Yet in the most recent years, we’ve witnessed a fiesta of young, fireballing talent grace our minds, hearts, and ballparks that appear to be taking our game by storm. Will we always have a pitcher who makes us wonder if he’ll ever hit 104, 105, 106? That, my friends, is for certain.