A Tall Tale of the Tape?
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Five of the top six pitchers on the list of the hardest throwers in baseball last season (based on the number of times each hit 100 mph or faster on official stadium radar guns, as compiled by "The Bill James Handbook 2006") have bodies that average roughly 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds. They are Daniel Cabrera, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Farnsworth, Seth McClung and Bobby Jenks.
The sixth pitcher on the list, in second place behind Cabrera with 18 pitches of 100-plus mph, is Billy Wagner -- the Philadelphia Phillies' closer last season, now with the New York Mets -- who is 5-11, 200 pounds.
Wagner's place on such a list (in fact, he topped the list in 2003, with 159 pitches of 100-plus mph) poses an obvious question: How does someone so small throw the ball so hard? And not surprisingly, the person with the least insight into the answer was Wagner himself.
"I pretty much think it's God-given," said Wagner, a 34-year-old left-hander. "I'm not going to question it."
However, Wagner, who threw several 99 mph fastballs at RFK Stadium on Wednesday night, did reveal what he considers to be the key factor when his fastball is at its best: Essentially, he achieves his highest velocity by throwing with the least effort.
"I throw the hardest when I'm the most relaxed," he said. "I try not to squeeze [the ball] too tight. If I try to throw the ball hard, I can't. I don't have nearly the velocity and movement. But when I'm relaxed and comfortable and my mechanics are on, everything seems to be in sync."
Alan M. Nathan, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the key is energy transfer from the larger muscles of the body -- thighs, chest and hips -- to the smaller muscles in the arm, and finally to the baseball.
"It's called a kinetic chain," Nathan said. "Much of the energy comes from the larger muscles -- not the arm."
Glenn Fleisig, research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, said another factor is "external shoulder rotation," which can be demonstrated by raising one's hand, as if asking a question in class, then pulling it back behind one's head.
Technique also matters. "Pitchers who maximize velocity have the proper timing sequence," Fleisig said. "They stride toward home plate. Then, immediately after the front foot contacts the mound, the pelvis has to square around and face home plate. And just after that, the upper shoulders have to square around and face home plate. Having a little delay there allows the pitcher to use his trunk."
But that still doesn't explain why the majority of classic flamethrowers -- think J.R. Richard (6-8, 222 pounds), Roger Clemens (6-4, 235) or Randy Johnson (6-10, 230) -- are huge physical specimens.
"Having longer arms and a bigger body does help," Fleisig said. "It's a real basic physics thing. . . . How fast you can move your fingertips, which is where ball is, depends on two things -- how fast you can rotate your shoulder, and how long your forearm and hand are. If two guys have the same shoulder velocity, the guy with the longer arm will throw it harder."
But that brings us to the anti-Wagners -- pitchers blessed with huge bodies whose fastballs, if they were racecars, would get lapped by Wagner's.
Listed at 6-11 and 260 pounds, Washington Nationals reliever Jon Rauch is the tallest pitcher in major league history. Though he was once considered a power pitcher, shoulder injuries have robbed him of much of that power, and last season his fastball was clocking in at around 90 mph. This year, as he regains strength from a shoulder surgery last season, he is hitting 94 mph -- still well below Wagner.
We're not experts on physics or biomechanics, but because Rauch is about 15 percent bigger than Wagner, if he were to possess the same ratio of size to speed as Wagner, by our calculations he might be able to throw 115 mph.