Shameless self-promotion dept... I wrote a magazine article on a similar topic a couple years ago. Here it is, in case anyone's interested...
THE 105-MPH BARRIER
Call it the 105-mph barrier. The baseball equivalent of the sound barrier or the four-minute mile, it’s the upper limit, that magical speed barrier no human being can surpass. And until some pitching equivalent of Chuck Yeager or Roger Bannister comes along, there will probably be no shortage of pitchers trying to throw the baseball faster than anyone has ever thrown it before.
Of course, nobody keeps official records of such things, but it appears the highest reading ever spit out by a radar gun is 103 mph, which has been reached at least twice: by the Braves’ Mark Wohlers in 1995 and the Tigers’ Matt Anderson in 1998. In fact, even the pitching machine sold by the Jugs company maxes out at 104 mph, so it’s a pretty safe bet that no hitter has ever had to face a pitch traveling faster than that.
“A velocity of 105 miles per hour is probably about the maximum you can expect,” says Robert Adair, a Yale physics professor and author of the popular book The Physics of Baseball. “Pitchers can’t throw faster than that for the same reason nobody broad jumps 40 feet. There’s nothing magic about it; there are simply limits to what human beings can do.” The speed of a blazing fastball equates closely with the fastest reported speeds in softball (104 mph) and cricket (100.4), but pales in comparison to other sports such as badminton (161.5 mph), tennis (163.6), and jai alai (188) – all of which achieve their high speeds using equipment other than the human body, such as a racket.
According to Adair, the typical pitch will slow down about one mile per hour for every eight feet it travels, meaning that, say, a Robb Nen fastball traveling 104 mph when released will only be going 96 when it crosses the plate. Radar guns take many different speed readings during the ball’s flight and instantly average them, producing the little red number that shows up on the display screen. If those red numbers seem to be higher now than ever before, there’s good reason for it. The most common radar gun in the 1980s, the Ra-Gun, never clocked a pitcher at over 100 mph, and gave readings that were consistently slower than today’s common Jugs brand guns. Measuring the same pitcher at the same time, the newer gun will consistently show a speed 4 to 6 mph faster than the old one. The reason for the difference, manufacturers say, is that the two brands take different numbers of readings into account when computing the average speed of each pitch.
The first scientific test of a pitcher’s speed came in 1912, when pitchers Walter Johnson and Nap Rucker visited the Remington Arms Plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to have their velocity tested by a chronograph, a device that required the pitchers to throw the ball through a set of copper wires spaced five feet apart. (It was usually used to measure the velocity of speeding bullets.) Not only were the two men pitching in street clothes and on flat ground, but the device measured the pitches at the end of their flight, after they’d lost several miles per hour of initial speed. Johnson tested at 83 mph, Rucker at 77. Two years later Johnson was tested again, this time on a ballistic pendulum. “You throw the ball, and it sticks in clay or mud or something, and the pendulum swings up on impact,” Adair says. “By measuring how high the pendulum swings up, you can calculate how fast the ball goes, and you can do it quite accurately.” The device measured Johnson at 99.7 mph.
In 1946, Bob Feller was tested at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds on a military device that used photoelectric cells to measure speed. His pitch had an average speed of 98.6 mph, meaning the ball was likely traveling 102 or faster when it left his hand. Never one for modesty, Feller often claimed to possess films that actually proved the initial velocity of his pitch was 117 mph – a claim Adair scoffs at. “No way,” the physicist says. “Some people are naïve and claim to have films showing an object traveling at such-and-such a speed, but they just don’t understand the distortions that can come into photography.”
Though there’s no consensus on the matter, the pitcher most often cited as the fastest of all time never even made it to the majors. Steve Dalkowski, a 5-foot-10 lefthander in the Orioles farm system, was so fast (and so wild) that one of his pitches tore off a batter’s ear in the Appalachian League. Another time he broke a batter’s arm; another time, he shattered an umpire’s mask, putting the ump in the hospital. In 1958, Dalkowski’s speed was tested using the same device that had measured Feller 12 years earlier. The cards were stacked against Dalkowski – he had pitched the night before, he was throwing in street clothes, he was on flat ground instead of a mound, and he was so wild that it took him 80 pitches to even get one inside the device’s measuring range – yet he still clocked at either 96.8 or 98.6 mph, depending on who you believe. Dalkowski’s longtime catcher and manager, Cal Ripken Sr., always insisted that under better conditions the reading would have been 110 mph. An alcoholic with a reported IQ of 65, Dalkowski never learned to control either his demons or his fastball. He ended his nine-year minor league career with a record of 46-80.
Of course, there was at least one pitcher who broke the elusive 105 mph barrier with room to spare. That was Sidd Finch, the tall, reclusive left-hander from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, who in the spring of 1985 entered Mets training camp under a shroud of secrecy. Finch was a Harvard dropout, an aspiring monk, and a world-class French horn player – and he could also throw a baseball 168 miles per hour with perfect control. New York fans went into a frenzy when George Plimpton broke the story in Sports Illustrated, salivating over the magazine’s photos of the goofy-looking Finch working out with the Mets. But tellingly, Plimpton’s article quoted no physicists explaining how it was humanly possible to throw that fast. Even more tellingly, the story was published in the SI issue dated April 1, 1985. After a few days of chaos, people realized they had fallen for the mother of all April Fool’s jokes.
After decades of random, somewhat unreliable speed tests, baseball’s radar gun era began in the mid-1970s when Danny Litwhiler, an ex-major leaguer then serving as baseball coach at Michigan State University, acquired a police radar gun and found it useful in measuring his pitchers. Litwhiler quickly began spreading the gospel of the gun, and the device made its first major league appearance in 1975 when the era’s two influential pitching dynasties, the Orioles and Dodgers, began using it. Over the past three decades it has revolutionized the game, especially in scouting. Since a prospect’s fastball is the only thing about him that can be objectively measured, more emphasis was placed on finding hard-throwing pitchers than ever before. In recent years, though, the pendulum has begun to swing back the other way. Teams that emphasize baseball skills more than raw potential – like the Oakland A’s and Houston Astros – have discovered quality players whom teams obsessed with speed hadn’t even considered. “Velocity is extremely important; however, I think we probably put a little too much importance on it,” admits Doug Laumann, director of scouting for the White Sox.
While hitting three digits is always impressive, the ability to throw a single 102 mph pitch – as ex-Devil Ray Jim Morris did in his famous 1999 tryout – is meaningless to many scouts. “When I want a scout to tell me how hard a guy’s throwing, I don’t want him to tell me what his one particular fastest pitch was,” Laumann says. “I want him to tell me, 80 percent of the time, what does this guy pitch at? It’s an average of all the pitches that we look for.”
Even though the radar gun is the most reliable device yet invented, it’s far from foolproof. In addition to the speed differences between the guns themselves, the readings can be affected by a number of other factors, such as where the gun is positioned in relation to the pitcher, whether the pitch being measured is high or low in the strike zone, the marksmanship of the scout using the gun, and the presence of other radar guns in the vicinity. “When there’s too many of them in the same spot, they don’t seem to be real accurate,” Laumann says. “Some of these games you go to, there’s 60 guys with guns, and you might as well just lock it up and put it back in your car.”
So who’s the fastest of all time? Nolan Ryan, Dalkowski, Feller, and the two Johnsons – Randy and Walter – are all good candidates, and all have been measured between 98.6 and 102 mph. But of course, those results are dependent on pitching conditions as well as the accuracy of the measurements. While Dalkowski’s speed was measured on only one pitch, Randy Johnson has probably had a radar gun aimed at every major league pitch he’s ever thrown. And many legendary speedballers, including Satchel Paige, Amos Rusie, Sandy Koufax, and Smokey Joe Williams, were apparently never measured at all, their speed now relegated to the world of anecdotes, tall tales, and grainy films. The identity of the fastest pitcher in baseball history will never be known for certain – which is exactly what makes it such a great debate.
If radar gun readings are so dependent on conditions, then what’s the ideal environment for the 105 mph barrier to be broken? As with hitters, it helps to be in Denver. Because gravity’s downward pull on the ball is strongest at sea level, the higher the elevation, the easier it is to throw fast. “A fastball is actually a shade faster at Coors Field than it is at Shea Stadium,” Adair says. “It’s not a big difference, but it’s measurable. And wind makes a difference too. If you’ve got a 10 mph wind behind you, I’d expect you’re going to gain a mile per hour or so on your fastball.” If you want to set records, then, take Randy Johnson on a day he has his good fastball, put him in Coors Field with a 30-mph gust at his back, and look out.
So is it possible that one day some Finchian pitcher will come along and break the speed record to smithereens, as Bob Beamon did with the long jump record at the 1968 Olympics? Not likely, the experts say. As training and strengthening methods improve, there could be some very slight increases in top velocities. But forget about breaking the 105 mph barrier; today’s pitchers have likely reached the upper limits of human performance. Says Adair: “I don’t think you’re ever going to see someone who throws the ball faster than Randy Johnson.”