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