The Science Of Baseball: What Is The Fastest A Pitcher Can Throw?
    By Hank Campbell | April 5th 2009 03:53 PM | 40 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Unless you are a true baseball fan, you have probably never heard of Bob Feller.   Maybe you have heard of Nolan Ryan.   They were classic power pitchers.   They threw hard and they threw for strikes.

    Even if you are a baseball fan, unless you live and breathe the Detroit Tigers, you have probably never heard of Joel Zumaya.

    Right.  Who?    While playing in the American League Championship in 2006, he threw a fastball clocked at 104.8 MPH, the fastest in history.      How can a guy who threw that fast not be on the cover of every Wheaties box in the civilized world?    Because the following year he was 1-4 with a 4.28 ERA; hardly the stuff of legends.

    In two months, a 20-year old from San Diego State named Stephen Strasburg could shatter the draft pick signing bonus record by securing as much as $15 million guaranteed, handily beating the $10.5 million those zany Chicago Cubs gave pitcher Mark Prior from  USC in 2001.  Why?  Because Strasburg has been clocked at 103 MPH and hits 101 quite often.  103 is something only officially done by two other players in history, both of them in the major leagues.(1)   That's not supposed to be done by college kids and it's part of what makes baseball superior to football or basketball, where you can quit college and be an All-Star your first year in the pro leagues.    Baseball success is an elusive mistress - but she returns your phone call promptly if you throw 103 MPH.

    Why is it so difficult?   Is there a cap on how fast a ball can be thrown?(2)    The awesome power of physics is going to answer that, just like we discussed the physics of a moving baseball and the farthest home run ever hit.

    First, let's be practical about how blazing fast 104 MPH is.    A 90 MPH fastball, the go-to pitch and speed for the top echelon of pitchers, is travelling at 132 feet per second.   Since the ball is closer to the batter when it is released and because the batter is in the middle of the plate depth, we are really only talking about 55 feet to see a pitch rather than just over 60.    That means the batter has .4167 seconds to react.    Boosting that speed to 104 is bordering on unthinkable to hit (3) but it explains why a lot of pitchers can be so successful without triple-digit speed.

    So if we know exceptional humans can pitch 95 MPH and up, we at least have some ranges to work with, just like we know a human will likely never run a 30 second mile - there are physical limits to the possible.    Basically, it takes energy to throw a ball.  

    We discussed drag forces on a ball before and we know that at the moment of release a ball has about 1/6th horsepower of energy.    A horsepower-second is  the energy of a 1 HP motor running for 1 second, which would lift 550 lbs. one foot.

    If a throw takes .11 seconds that means an average force on the ball of 12 lbs. - a mean acceleration equivalent to 40 G's.   Yep, 40  times gravity.  So a pitcher is transmitting power of 1.5 horsepower to the ball but his body is also in motion, the total power is more like 3 HP.   It takes 20 lbs. of muscle to generate 1 HP so 3 HP is obviously impossible using just a human upper body.   This is why pitchers talk about the importance of leg strength(4) - 60 lbs. of muscle has to come from somewhere.

    Is there a demon in the air at 105 MPH?

    So back to how fast a pitcher can throw.   In my favorite movie, The Right Stuff, some engineers and pilots in the late 1940s felt like the sound barrier was a hard limit to airplane speed - the plane would come apart if you tried to go beyond.   Yet Chuck Yeager broke that sound 'barrier' in late 1947 (5) and from then on records got broken time and again.

    So is there a sound barrier, a demon in the sky, for baseball, or do we just need a Chuck Yeager?   

    Maybe there is a demon.  Or at least a body barrier.    Like I mentioned in Note 4, there is a lot of energy in stored tendons at the mid-point of throwing a baseball.   Glenn Fleisig, a biomechanical engineer who studies pitching at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., subjected cadaver elbows to increasing amounts of rotational force. His experiments showed that an average person's ulnar collateral ligament (UCL - the part that connects the the humerus and ulna in the elbow)  breaks at about 80 Newton-meters.   The torque on an elite pitcher's elbow when he throws a fastball?     About 80 Newton-meters.  So pitchers are already doing things that would destroy a normal person's arm.

    So unlike running or swimming, there hasn't been a huge leap in pitching speed because pitchers were already pretty good decades ago but, like we have discussed in previous articles, conditions that impact the ball help.

    We established that a fastball is faster in Denver.   If Stephen Strasburg, the fireballer from San Diego State, makes the majors and continues to grow in strength the way previous major league pitchers have done, playing in Denver with a 30 MPH wind at his back could have him throw a pitch at 110 MPH.   One of those records, like Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, that would be very tough to beat until we start putting tennis rackets on the shoulders of baseball players.

    Here, just for fun, are four types of pitches you can throw to get you out of most pick-up games you come across on your way home - with your dignity intact.  Fastball, a 2-seam fastball, a curveball and a (circle) changeup.   Just don't generate too much torque.



    (1) In fairness to Bob Feller, radar guns did not exist when he pitched.   In fairness to common sense, being clocked at '104 MPH' because they used a motorcycle going that fast is not really going to be considered scientifically valid.

    Ted Williams, arguably one of the best batting eyes in the history of the game, who faced Bob Feller and numerous others, instead said Steve Dalkowski was the fastest pitcher ever.    If you've never heard of him, it's because he had a career record of 46-80 and a 5.59 ERA - in the minor leagues.     So speed is not everything.   However, should you happen to like great baseball anecdotes, here are some Dalkowski gems:

    * He was once pulled in the second inning of a game because he had already thrown 120 pitches.
    * He once hit a batter in the head so hard the ball rebounded to second base (that's over 127 feet).
    * In one game, three of his wild pitches penetrated the backstop screen which is supposed to protect fans.
    * He once threw a ball through the outfield fence to win a bet.

    They tried to measure his speed at the Army Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md.  but he had to throw the ball through a metal box about the size of home plate, through which a laser was being beamed, and couldn't hit the target.   There was also no mound there but the consensus among people who watched him play in games said he threw 115 MPH in actual pitching conditions.   Unfortunately, he hurt his elbow fielding a bunt in an exhibition game in 1963 and was never the same - he also never got to play in the major leagues.

    (2) Let's hope it's not 160 MPH, as in George Plimpton's The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.  His catcher had to practice by snaring balls dropped out of the Goodyear blimp, so they could reach terminal velocity.  Plimpton's Sports Illustrated article on the matter came out  April 1, 1985, the kind of April Fool's prank most of us only dream about.

    (3) Unthinkable to some.    Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had ridiculously great batting eyes.   As much as modern fans want to hiss at Barry Bonds because of steroids allegations, there is no doubt his batting eye is in the top 10 in history.   But Stan Musial, who would be as famous as Joe DiMaggio if he hadn't played in a small market like St. Louis, once told a rookie the secret to batting was hitting the top third of the ball if he wanted a grounder, the middle third if he wanted a line drive and the bottom third if he wanted to pop it up.    Clearly Stan Musial was not using eyeballs the way ordinary players, much less regular people, do.

    (4) It also tells you why pitchers blow their arms out or they just wear down.   At the mid-point of the throw, the tendons of the arm are storing all that energy and then it is released as spring-energy from those stretched tendons.    Imagine the strain!

    (5) Classified, of course, so the commies didn't send spies from Hollywood to steal the secret of really fast planes.    But, in the days when journalists did journalism and not primarily liberal good works, word still got out.   Here is my Time magazine from 1949 when the world learned of it:


    The Physics of Baseball, Robert K. Adair, Harper Perennial, New York, 1994
    Men At Work, George F. Will, Macmillan Publishing Group, New York, 1990


    Scientific American has baseball science too.   Okay, their stuff may actually be better than mine but I bet most of their writers can't hit a curveball.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Or know what one is.
    Mmmmm ... magnus force.   That's the movie Clint Eastwood would make, if an Eastwood could make baseball movies.   I should have used this in my first baseball article instead of all those equations; then maybe  other science sites could understand:

                             Magnus Force
         Velocity          Drag

                             Spinning ball
    Baseball and the origins of planetary systems.

    From Talk Like A Physicist.
    Becky Jungbauer
    That would be a great photo if it were actually a baseball and not a tennis ball...but it's cool nonetheless! I like the whiskery projections.
    Yup!  I knew it was a tennis ball.  I was just seeing who was awake.
    I knew it was a tennis ball the first time I saw it.  I once dissected a whole tennis.
    I thought Becky's understated sarcasm was going to be the best part of the exchange until I read ...
    I knew it was a tennis ball the first time I saw it. I once dissected a whole tennis.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Yeah, I'm going to have to step it up if I want to beat Patrick at puns and humor.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I went to a book reading/discussion/signing with my hero and secret crush Ira Flatow, and he used the Bernoulli effect and related Magnus force to describe how airplanes fly. Who knew Dirty Harry had so many connections to science?
    he used the Bernoulli effect and related Magnus force to describe how
    airplanes fly. Who knew Dirty Harry had so many connections to science?
    Becky: it's a pity nobody picked up on your very witty pun.

    I can just imagine Dirty Harry as a barnstormer, talking to a prospective passenger.

    I know what you're thinking:

     'did he load 6 jerry cans of gas or only 5?'

    You’ve got to ask yourself one question:
    ‘Do I need to make a risk aversion calculation?’   Well,  do ya, punk?“
    For the benefit of Brits: baseball 101.

    step 1 - the pitcher throws a ball, really hard, like he really wants to kill someone.
    step 2 - the ball hits the guy who's just sort of sitting there watching the game real close-up.
    step 3 - it all happens so fast that the guy with the bat gets the blame and gets sent off, and rightly so -
    after all, he's the only one who came onto the pitch with a lethal weapon.

    That's about all there is to it, really.

    Suggestion to Brits: if you are ever in the USA and get invited to watch a game of baseball -
    take a pocket calculator.  That way you need never complain of boredom.
    Becky Jungbauer
    At least baseball can be explained and understood, unlike cricket - which for some reason seems to include bowling, a pseudo-sport that should be enjoyed indoors with beer and funny shoes.
    The rules of cricket were fully explained in a trilogy of five books by that famous mathematical wizard -
    Douglas Adams.
    Suggestion to Brits: if you are ever in the USA and get invited to watch a game of baseball -
    take a pocket calculator. That way you need never complain of boredom.
    I took a Scottish friend to a game(*) and explained the basics but he was clearly lost so I just told him to do what I do when the batter got a hit.   They got a number of hits and I would stand and yell "Run!" at the batter so he would too and yell something charmingly Celtic like "Run, ya wee faerie!"   

    Finally he was understanding the game without my assistance but then the batter got a base on balls and no one else jumped up except the Scot who still yelled "Run ya wee faerie!" or something charmingly Celtic.  He noticed everyone looking at him strangely so I said, "He got 4 balls.  That's a walk"  and he looked stunned and yelled out to the batter, "Then walk with PRIDE, man!"

    (*) Never happened, just a segue for that joke.
    Right!  I checked the link, Hank.

    Let's see.  I make that faux pas from the batter followed by faux pas from the Scot, so
    the final score is faux pas + faux pas =  huit pas, n'est ce pas?
    How many other science sites have multi-language, cross-cultural puns?  Not many I'll bet.  Now I am working on a way to do it in pluperfect subjunctive.   I clearly need to raise my game a little.
    How many other science sites have multi-language, cross-cultural puns?  Not many I'll bet.  Now I am working on a way to do it in pluperfect subjunctive.   I clearly need to raise my game a little.
    You would need to learn Latin.
    The 'rules of grammar' of English were derived from Latin and Greek.
    English doesn not have a pluperfect subjunctive.

    However, from memory, in a Steven Pinker book, (Words and Rules?):
    "Can you tell me where to get schrod?"
    "Gee, I never heard it said in the pluperfect subjunctive before."
    That's a lot funnier if you include the part about getting off a plane and looking for seafood ...
    Hank: thanks for jogging my memory!

    You insight leaves me wishing with hindsight that I'd had the foresight to recite the whole thing rather than incite such a brisk response to what was really just a load of cod.
    Real Baseball Intelligence (RBI), a leading resource in the evaluation of amateur baseball talent and draft coverage, has ranked Stephen Strasburg the #1 prospect in the 2009 MLB Draft. View his free scouting report (with video) at

    Nice article.

    How much of pitching do you think has to do w/speed? Versus, I'm not sure, the other types of pitches? & I wonder at what speed a 'demon' (ie, a disproportionate drop in his probability of hitting the ball) hits the batter in his response times?

    It would be interesting to map out the probabilities, at each MPH speed, of a ball being hit; or if there would be a way to determine, along the distribution, the batter's marginal loss of hitting a faster ball by the pitcher's marginal amount of increased effort at throwing a faster ball.

    Some of it is subjective.   'Ocularity' is the combined term for the power of a batter's eyesight while batspeed determines how much 'time' a batter has to see the ball before making a decision.   Gary Sheffield has high bat speed, for example, so he can wait longer (and we are really only talking about .4 seconds so 'longer' is fairly miraculous to most of us)  but a player like Albert Pujols has the highest 'ocularity' in the game right now.

    Ted Williams says he hit so well because he could see the rotation of the seams on the ball(!).  It gave him an advantage because he knew which way it would break, meaning he was more likely to get the 'sweet' spot of the bat on the ball.  

    The Physics Of Baseball by Robert K. Adair p.31
    The Physics Of Baseball by Robert K. Adair p.31

    The fastball is the go-to pitch because it is the easiest to throw for a strike.  The other ones require additional movement.   

    In my estimation, movement and change in speed is better than pure velocity.  If I can change the movement by 5 inches and the speed by 5 MPH but it looks like a fastball to the batter, it's got a lot better chance of being an out if he hits it at all.
    (2) Let's hope it's not 160 MPH, as in George Plimpton's The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.  His catcher had to practice by snaring balls dropped out of the Goodyear blimp, so they could reach terminal velocity.  Plimpton's Sports Illustrated article on the matter came out  April 1, 1985, the kind of April Fool's prank most of us only dream about.
    It would have been a great prank, except that the terminal velocity (e.g., after having been dropped out of the Goodyear blimp) is ~74mph.  The catcher would have noticed.

    Hank, I was aware of Zumaya.  Who did the Tigers play and lose to in the World Series in 2006?  The St. Louis Cardinals.
    ...we have a kid named "Ubaldo Jimenez" who was pitching at a game I went to last year (Rockies) and I watched him throw 5 pitches in a row of 101 mph and then dropped a 72 mph change-up and two more @ 101 mph. Amazing display of endurance as it was in the 6th inning. He's still pretty green and rather sketchy with his control but you gotta love the desire.... the way the Tigers have had other phenom's with big numbers...they had a kid named Anderson (?) who regularly threw 102 mph and had to be "convinced" to slow it down to 98-99 mph. Don't know what happened to him but he was really wild and batters "never" dug in against him as far as I know.

    I think Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan are the only two really top end power pitchers who had long careers.   I know Randy Johnson throws pretty hard but a lot of his successs is due to his ridiculous angle of approach.   Any time a guy hits three digits you want to give him a shot.    Once Sandy Koufax slowed down he became Sandy Koufax and before then he was just too erratic.
    21 year old Neftali Feliz threw 101 in his Rangers debut.   That's smokin' fast for a young guy - or any guy.  Of course Stephen Strasburg throwing 103 is sheer madness to try and hit but 101 is outrageous and control is even harder.

    4 Ks(*) and no walks in 2 innings?   Any pitcher would take that.

    Luckily he will be a starter eventually.  No starter can keep that up for 7 innings.  I think.

    (*) It has been noted that one of the Ks was Jack Cust which, next to NL pitchers, is sort of a gimme, but even 3.5 Ks with no walks in 2 innings pitching 99-101 MPH is sweet.
    Verlander does it day in and day out.

    He's consistently throwing mid 90's for the entire game and throws pitches in the triple digits in the 7th and 8th.

    There have been a number of analyses on why someone can suddenly have a late-stage career surge and it usually comes down to how many innings they pitched young and then how many they are allowed to pitch later.  Verlander was held to 200 innings early and in 2008 looked to be a collapse at age 25 when he had a career high innings pitched and ERA.  Now he has blown up and is even better than he was before.

    The year after his collapse he was able to pitch even more because they left him in games longer and that seemed to help him but likely his body has also matured.  Lower innings at an early age regardless of pitching quality, seems to correlate to smarter pitching (based on experience) and endurance later, which means better performance.

    He is currently just behind Eckersley in wins and that may be a good career path - once he gets a little older, he may still become an MVP caliber closer and the team may be able to decrease wear on his arm.  Tim Linecum sailed through age 25 pitching 200+ innings with no problem but his strikeouts go down every year so it may be catching up to him.
    What about me, sport?

    I could travel 108 mph out of the pitcher's hand. I was measured at 101.9 mph by the time I was 10 feet in front of the plate.

    Please, zoom zoom was a piker.

    With Strasburg on the long-term DL due to an ACL tear (up to 18 months) it might interest people to know another pitcher has hit well over 100 on the radar gun -  Cincinnati Reds prospect Aroldis Chapman was clocked at 105 mph Friday night.

    And he's a lefty!

    Becky Jungbauer
    Southpaws are in their right mind, of course. And lefties are even given a little wiggle room in velocity, so that's just crazy how fast he threw. I like how they called Chapman the Usain Bolt of baseball - not quite the perfect analogy but we get the idea.
    Aroldis Chapman was summoned from the bullpen and made do by making history Friday night, throwing the fastest pitch recorded in a major league game, 105-mph.
    Aroldis Chapman hits 106 mph on radar - or not.   

    Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who got the last three games off to get over a tender elbow, worked the ninth inning of Monday night's loss to the Pirates and threw a pitch that registered 106 mph on the scoreboard but was clocked at 103 on another pitch tracker.
    satchel paige

    Like Feller, the evidence is anecdotal.   I want to believe Cool Papa Bell ran faster than light too, since he was so fast he shut off a lamp and was in bed before the room got dark - but I'd need documentation.
    Hank, maybe you can answer my question since you seem both knowledgeable and down to earth when it comes to facts that are often blown out of proportion. I never got any clear feedback on the fastest pitch ever thrown... I realize there are variables. Of course, there is the accepted statistic of occurring during a legitimate game. Then there are the off the record, so to speak, acccounts of pitchers throwing in practice or exhibition if you will. What is your opinion of the "artillery" means of measuring speed?

    A lot of people don't realize there are quite a few guys hitting triple digits in the minors, but they usually blow out their rotator's prematurely before ever hitting the majors. What's your take on Bob Feller and his top speed?

    If you watch enough pitches, or even video of pitches, your 'ocularity' improves - much like it is easy for us today to see the 'lines' around the Tie fighters in "Star Wars" whereas in 1977 those graphics were revolutionary to our untrained eyes.   To anyone who sees a lot of pitches, Feller threw fast - really fast - so he likely hit a hundred miles per hour in spots just like players say, because all video of him is in the 90s whether a radar gun shows it or not.  There is video floating around of Nolan Ryan throwing with a camera above the catcher's mitt and it is scary unless you are a major league catcher; most of us would bail out after seeing one of those come at us.

    A number of books in the 1980s and '90s sought to analyze how best to strengthen a pitching arm and it seems to be just what you say; they are so eager to throw hard and get a big contract they do not properly build up strength, especially since they learn a lot of other pitches at a younger age which adds to the stress.  If a normal cadaver tendon snaps at the force generated by a normal pitcher during a fastball, the strain is terrific without proper conditioning.  It would seem to make sense to have a strict total innings count for a younger pitcher until they reach the age of 26-27 but baseball is already well behind the NFL and the NBA, where people are excited about the drafts because rookies will rejuvenate a team, whereas in baseball it will be 4 years before a player makes the club - pushing back that excitement for young players even more by limiting the pitches may not be practical from a fan excitement perspective (and thus merchandise) but it would save money on injuries.

    Someone with even the ocularity of Albert Pujols or Ted Williams would likely have no more advantage over Feller than they would have had against Greg Maddux because those pitchers had good control, but I would feel less bad when Feller made me look stupid because at least he threw hard.
    Point taken Hank. So it is your belief that Feller, at his best, hit 100 or maybe 101 at tops??? You seem to know more than I do about this. The reason for my inquiry is due to an ongoing diatribe I have with one of my friend. lol I can only imagine what the great Nolan Ryan would have done if he had the luxury of the high pitching mound once afforded to pitchers...

    thanks for the response

    Interesting note about Nolan Ryan's fastest pitch. When it was clocked, using what was at the time a state-of-the-art laser radar system (similar to lidar), the speed was measured approximately ten feet from home plate. Today, the official practice is to measure the speed of a pitch approximately fifty feet from home plate (just a few feet from where it leaves the pitcher's hand, in other words). There is a neat website, called efastball, that uses basic physics to extrapolate the actual speed of Ryan's fastest pitch were it measured using today's standards. The result? More than 108 miles per hour. When Ryan was measured during broadcast games in the 90's, the standard was to measure 50 feet from home plate as well. So he was comparably fast to the fastest pitchers at the time when he was more than 40 years old. When he was younger he was throwing 10 miles per hour faster. Pretty amazing huh?