Heat Reaches a Boiling Point

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

We wish we knew 23 years ago what we now understand about pitching mechanics, because we never would have fallen for the great Sidd Finch-Sports Illustrated hoax of April 1, 1985. We would have known immediately that the pitching prospect pictured in his New York Mets uniform, with his bizarre windup, could not have thrown his fastball 168 mph, as purported in George Plimpton's famed story.

How would we have known this? Because the ligaments and tendons of Finch's throwing arm would have exploded.

The speed of Finch's fictional fastball was the most memorable detail from Plimpton's April Fools' hoax. And baseball is no less obsessed by velocity today than it was 23 years ago. Arguably, given the advances in technology that make radar readings more widespread, baseball is even more obsessed now.

"Way too obsessed," said Florida Marlins pitching coach Mark Wiley, who wielded the radar gun as a Colorado Rockies scout the previous two seasons. "I've heard scouts say they wish one organization, as an experiment, would just get rid of the guns. Just don't send your scouts out with them. Just watch [the pitchers] pitch. Sometimes I think I agree with that."

From Walter Johnson measuring his fastball against a speeding motorcycle, to the photo-cell devices used to gauge Bob Feller and his contemporaries, to the rise of radar-gun readings in the past quarter-century or so, baseball folks have always been fascinated by the relative speed of various pitchers' fastballs and the simple question: Who throws the hardest?

Here at MLB Sunday, however, we're obsessed with a different, though related, question: As the outer boundaries of human capability in other sports continue to be expanded (the constant setting of world records in swimming, the steady drop in the 100-meter dash records, etc.), why haven't we seen a corresponding improvement in the body's capacity to throw a baseball harder?

Why, in other words, do the hardest throwers still measure a couple of ticks above 100 mph, same as they did in Nolan Ryan's day?

The answer, according to Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. -- in a nutshell -- is that while the muscles of the body can become stronger and more explosive, the tendons and ligaments upon which pitchers rely most heavily can only take so much torque before they snap. And that limit appears to be somewhere just north of 100 mph, no matter the height, weight and strength of the pitcher.

"The problem with baseball pitching is that it's a balance between throwing as fast as you can and not getting hurt," said Fleisig, an expert in the biomechanics of pitching. "If the muscles get too big and strong, it leads to more overwhelmed tendons and ligaments, and before it will lead to greater performance, it will lead to more injuries. In other sports, the athletes aren't in danger of getting hurt every time they perform.

"Our biomechanics studies show the tendons and ligaments [in pitchers] are just about at the maximum in terms of how much they can take."

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the list of some of the hardest throwers in the game also includes some of the pitchers who are most frequently injured (as well as a lot of guys who have trouble throwing strikes).

And it is also not surprising that no human has ever been known to throw a baseball 110 mph, let alone 168 mph -- at least no one who didn't wind up picking little, fleshy bits of ligaments and tendons from his teeth afterward.

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