In 1884, professional baseball legalized the overhand delivery of baseball pitches, according to This Day in Baseball. Ever since, baseball players, fans and the media have been obsessed with pitching velocity.
For example, baseball fans and the media are preoccupied with the speed at which pitches can be delivered. Batters rue the increasing number of pitchers who throw at triple-digit speeds.
Earliest Pitching Velocity Measurement Attempts
As early as 1913, Popular Science Magazine wrote about a camera used at Remington Arms to measure the speed of munitions. In order to measure baseball pitching speed, researchers used the camera to measure the pitching velocity of the fastest pitcher of that era, Walter Johnson. Sadly, although the camera was successful for military purposes, it was ineffective in accurately measuring Johnson’s speed.
According to EFastball, there have been other attempts to accurately measure the speed of pitched baseballs, including these devices:
- Cathode ray oscillograph
- Photoelectric cells
- Luminating chronograph
- Gravity drop interval recorder
- 35 mm hand-crank camera
- Infrared laser radar
- Cameras that record 50 ft/sec frames
- Jugs/Ray radar guns
- Pitch F/X tracking system
- Moving motorcycle
Many of these devices were not originally intended to measure pitching velocity. Instead, they were developed for other purposes and used by some of the leading scientific minds in the corporate world, such as:
- Dumont Industries
- U.S. Army
- Aberdeen Proving Grounds
- Remington Arms
- Popular Science Magazine
- Rockwell International
Statcast: A More Reliable Pitching Velocity Measurement System
Most of the devices I previously mentioned could measure the speed of a pitched baseball. But since those devices weren’t employed during actual baseball games, their results lacked authenticity, which led to disinformation and heated debate.
Ultimately, these measurement problems were solved by the invention of an automated electronic system known as Statcast, according to the Major League Baseball website.
In 2015, the Statcast system was installed in all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. It yields complex information about:
- Batted ball speeds and angles
- Player running speed around the bases
- Pitching velocity
Statcast is a high-speed, highly accurate tool developed to analyze players’ movements and athletic abilities. Prior to the existence of Statcast, professional baseball used other pitching velocity measurement tools:
Statcast measures the velocity of each pitch at the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand. It provides pitchers with a more consistent and accurate measurement of their velocity.
But what about pitchers who are known to be hard throwers, but their velocities don’t measure up to 21st-century standards? Are they really inferior from a pitching velocity standpoint, or is their slower pitching speed a result of substandard measurement?
Pitching Velocities Today and Yesterday: A Comparison
There are baseball pundits today who argue that modern strength training techniques along with coaching of state-of-the-art, optimum pitching biomechanics has led to a quantum leap in human athleticism. This change has allowed pitchers to throw baseballs harder today than ever before.
However, do present-day baseball players like Aroldis Chapman, Jacob DeGrom, and Jhoan Duran really pitch with more velocity than previously acknowledged “hard-ballers” like Bob Feller, Steve Dalkowski, and Nolan Ryan? Probably not.
A phenomenon at 18, Bob Feller broke into the major leagues in 1938. Nicknamed “Rapid Robert,” Feller was immediately viewed by big league hitters as one of the fastest pitchers they had ever seen. His recorded pitching speeds ran the gamut:
- 81 mph measured by a photoelectric meter
- 98.6 mph using photoelectric cells technology at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds
- 104 mph using a speeding motorcycle
- 107.6 mph measured with an electronic-zone device
This vast range of pitching velocities is a good indication of the inaccuracies of the measuring devices of Feller’s era.
Even more curious than Feller or Ryan is the case of Steve Dalkowski. Signed professionally by the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1950s, Dalkowski was never able to harness his incredible fast ball. He spent many seasons in the minor leagues and always led the league in strikeouts and walks.
Crude attempts to measure his pitching velocity were mostly unsuccessful. However, others who saw him pitch agreed that his top speed had to be somewhere near 110 mph, notes Baltimore Magazine.
One minor league manager who batted against Dalkowski described the experience: “I stood as deep in the batter’s box as I could, and as far away from the plate as I could, and simply prepared myself not to get hit by any pitches. It would either be a walk or a strikeout as I didn’t intend to swing the bat!”
Even in his prime, Nolan Ryan’s pitching velocity measurements varied according to the different devices used to measure his speed:
- 98.6 mph with Doppler laser radar
- 100.9 mph according to infrared radar
- 108.1 mph according to Statcast
With this range of pitching velocity measurements, it is hard to tell what Ryan’s peak velocity is.
Aroldis Chapman, Jacob DeGrom and Jhoan Duran
Current pitchers capable of a high pitching velocity are numerous, and their pitching velocities are easily compared because of Statcast. For instance, MLB says that Aroldis Chapman pitching velocity was 105.1 mph in 2014 using Pitch F/X. Since the Statcast implementation, Chapman routinely exceeds 100 mph and continues to have this pitching speed today.
Jacob DeGrom’s pitching velocity has been measured at a peak of 101.6 mph according to the Major League Baseball website, but the unusual aspect of his velocity is that it’s maintained over the course of many innings. In addition, DeGrom’s fluid pitching motion appears to lack much effort.
The latest pitching velocity phenomenon is Jhoan Duran, a relief pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. He recently threw the fastest pitch recorded in the last five years at 104.6 mph according to Baseball Maniacs.
Is There a Pitching Velocity Limit?
So what are the upper limits for pitching velocity? Researchers know that the rapid rotation of the upper arm in the pitching delivery is the fastest athletic motion the human body produces.
However, it comes at a physical cost. All of the torque produced in the pitching process can eventually lead to shoulder and elbow injuries that are the bane of professional pitchers.
Researchers at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Alabama, have studied pitching velocity and determined that throwing much faster than 105 mph may not be possible. They have also determined that the same adjustments to a pitcher’s biomechanics and strengthening of the entire kinetic chain have diminishing returns after a pitcher has reached the 105-mph threshold.
Knowing Pitching Velocity Is Exciting, But Only One Measurement of Pitching Success
For now, pitching velocities are recorded and displayed for every pitch in all major league ballparks. Baseball fans enjoy knowing the speed of each pitch, even though experts understand that velocity is only one measure of pitching success.
Hitters notice a pitcher’s pitching velocity, but they are more concerned with making solid contact with the baseball. After all, even accomplished professional baseball players fail seven out of ten times (while batting an excellent .300) but a well-executed 100 mph fastball will always be their worst enemy.
Sports Programs at the University
For learners and sports enthusiasts who are interested in pitching velocity and other areas of modern-day sports, The University offers several sports-related programs, including:
- B.S. in sports and health sciences
- B.S. in sports management
- M.S. in sports and health sciences
- M.S. in sports management
- B.S. in esports
For more information, be sure to contact our Admissions team.