Speed Kills

Cedar Rapids Gazette sportswriter Jeff Johnson, who covers the Kernels, had an excellent lengthy article published May 28 on the Baseball America web site. Click Here to read the article, but a BA subscription is required.

Titled “Walden Expecting to Light Up Radar Guns Again,” the article is largely about Jordan Walden’s occasionally touching 100 MPH in velocity. So far in 2008, “his heater has regularly sat around 93 mph and has gotten as high as 96,” Jeff wrote.

“No, he’s not a finished product. There’s work to be done on his slider and changeup, and he needs to be more consistent with the command of his fastball,” Jeff notes.

All this obsession with velocity is fine, but if you talk to professional pitching coaches they’ll tell you that velocity is pretty far down on the priority list.

This shocks the average fan, who has radar gun readings flashed at him on stadium scoreboards after every pitch.

The late Howie Gershberg, an Angels’ minor league pitching coach who passed away from cancer in 2003, was revered by his pupils. Howie and I recorded a series of interviews between 1999 and 2002. Click Here to locate the interviews in the FutureAngels.com Audio Gallery.

Howie said the four elements of a pitch in order of priority are: (1) location, (2) movement, (3) velocity and (4) deception.

Peter Gammons’ column in the latest BA quotes Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson as saying that pitching “is about (in order of importance) location, change of speeds, movement and, finally, velocity.”

What good is a 100 MPH fastball if you can’t throw it for a strike? And even if you can, major league batters can hit a 100 MPH fastball if it has no movement.

I did some quick calculations today to figure out how fast it takes in a fraction of a second for a pitch to travel from the mound to home plate — 60 feet, six inches. The calculations ranged from 75 MPH (my velocity) to 100 MPH (Jordan Walden’s velocity).

Of course, that’s an average MPH. The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand at a faster speed than what it’s travelling when it arrives at home. Air resistance affects the ball as does the tug of gravity.

Here are the results:

100 0.413
99 0.417
98 0.421
97 0.425
96 0.430
95 0.434
94 0.439
93 0.444
92 0.448
91 0.453
90 0.458
89 0.463
88 0.469
87 0.474
86 0.480
85 0.485
84 0.491
83 0.497
82 0.503
81 0.509
80 0.516
79 0.522
78 0.529
77 0.536
76 0.543
75 0.550

These are rather astonishing numbers.

The difference between me and Jordan is a little over a tenth of a second.

The difference between a 90 MPH fastball and a 100 MPH fastball is about 1/25 of a second.

The difference between a 95 MPH fastball and a 100 MPH fastball is about 1/50 of a second.

So what’s the big whoop about 100 MPH?

As I’ve written many times, the keys to hitting are fast hands and excellent hand-eye coordination. I’ve heard the average velocity on a major league fastball is about 90 MPH, which means that a major league hitter has .458 of a second to see the ball exit the pitcher’s hand, adjust to its location, movement and speed, and hit the ball squarely (or let it go by).

When you realize that the difference between a 90 MPH fastball and a 100 MPH fastball is only 1/25 of a second, you start to see why it’s not that big a deal for a major league batter to adjust his timing to hit a 100 MPH fastball that doesn’t move.

This is why location, movement and changing speeds is more important.

Location means throwing the ball to a target set by the catcher that’s unlikely for the batter to hit the ball squarely. Movement means the ball isn’t straight — it curves, it slides, it knuckles, it cuts. Many pitches don’t break until they near home. To make the math easy, let’s assume the break occurs in the last third of that distance. For a 90 MPH fastball, that’s the last 15/100 of a second before it arrives.

Batters compensate by studying the rotation of the pitch so they can try to recognize what the ball will do as it approaches the plate. But very few batters have such excellent eyesight. Ted Williams used to claim that when he was in a hot streak, he could see the seams on the ball. When he was a pilot in the Air Force, his eyesight was so good he could spot enemy aircraft before his colleagues.

When Bill Stoneman became GM, the Angels instituted a program in fall instructional league that required the young pitchers to throw only fastballs and changeups. It saved wear on their arms, but more importantly it taught them to change speeds. Howie Gershberg had a word for this — the batter would “mis-hit” the ball because the changeup threw off his timing, so critical in adjusting to the ball’s movement, location and velocity.

In Jeff Johnson’s article, he wrote that Jordan Walden has more work to do on his slider and changeup. Pitches that involve movement and change of speeds.

People will get all excited if Jordan hits 100 MPH again. But he’ll win a lot more games if he learns to locate his pitches and masters his secondary pitches.

One comment

  1. twinkytodd

    Well, Stephen, when you have a team as bad as the Kernels are you have to try to get people excited somehow. There isn’t much for him to write about – except the Midwest League low team batting average or the atrocious bullpen.

    Too bad the Kernesl re-upped with the Angels early…they got what they deserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s