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General  | Blog  | 3/16/2009

The Fastball and Velocity

Jerry Ford     

First of all we need to address the fact that there is much more to pitching than having a Major League fastball.  The fastball alone is far from good enough when it comes to reaching the higher levels.  There are many very successful pitchers who lack outstanding velocity.  Young kids need to understand that pitching involves much more than simply possessing a strong arm.  They also need to understand that arm injuries are commonplace for pitchers.  The list of important things that can lead to success is very long.  Mechanics, arm action, arm speed, body type, off speed pitches, breaking balls, command, conditioning, mentality, repetition, movement, angle, etc.  That is just a partial list.  Most of what is written here concentrates on one pitch, but it is undoubtedly the most important pitch in baseball.

The Enemy
In order to understand pitching it helps to understand the enemy…. The hitters!  Hitters hit best what they see the most often.  In high school ball, that might be a high 70s fastball.  In college it might be an 85-88 fastball.  In the Major Leagues that would be a 90-92 fastball.  Hitters have the most trouble with the things they find unusual.  When it comes to speed… In high school that might be an upper 80s fastball, college a low to mid 90s fastball, MLB a upper 90s fastball or better.  Some claim that the unusually slow stuff also works.  I think it does in short spurts, but remember that good hitters are good hitters because they adjust quickly.  They hit BP every day, so adjusting to lower speed is not as difficult as adjusting to the rare high velocity pitches.  Of course this only pertains to the fastball and everyone knows there’s more to pitching than just the fastball.  Even the fastball itself can be much different from one fastball to another.  Location and movement can make the slower fastball much tougher to hit, ie. Greg Maddux. Note: Some might actually think the pitcher is his own worst enemy.  That is certainly true at times.

Young Pitchers
Young pitchers need to allow themselves to gain velocity naturally.  This is often mistaken to mean never throwing hard!  There is a fine line between taking things as they come and training the arm to throw hard.  It should be noted that pitchers gain velocity at different stages.  Some reach their max at a very young age, others have been known to reach their peak velocity in the mid 20s.  There are way too many variables to consider as to why that happens.  It is my belief that gaining arm strength does require throwing hard.  This does not mean throwing too much.  We work closely with Rick Peterson and he works closely with Doc Andrews.  Rick’s major emphasis is on mechanics, some very technical stuff that can predict injury.  More on that later, but Rick is going to revolutionize pitching science and we are very happy to help him.

Once again… This is not to say the fastball is the only important ingredient in becoming a successful pitcher.  Some will never throw with high velocity, but will be very successful in high school and even college baseball.  There is even a chance that a pitcher lacking good velocity will make it big in professional baseball.  However, if the goal is to become an early round draft pick and especially if a pitcher is right handed and lacks velocity, that is just wishing into the wind.  The fastball and good fastball velocity is the one thing that nearly every early draft pick pitcher has in common.  There simply isn’t any early draft picks that throw in the low 80s.  This should be enough incentive to make sure you don’t ignore this most important ingredient shared by most of the top pitchers.   It doesn’t mean 86-88 mph won’t work as well as 90 plus, it simply means low 80s will not open the big door with all the money behind it.  However, it might open the small door and still give you a chance.  It’s not a matter of what some might want to believe… It’s closer to a fact!

I keep reading about breaking balls being used more and more by young pitchers.  We have seen lots of high school pitchers that rely on their breaking ball to win games.  We have seen young kids with very good curveballs and well below average fastballs.  We have talked to parents who complain that we over estimate the importance of the fastball and velocity.  Of course, once again, there is much more that goes into making a pitching prospect than the ability to throw a good fastball.  The fastball alone will not produce success unless it is in the rare fastball category.  This rare category changes with each level of play, but in the end it would be in the mid 90s and above area.

The reason I decided to write this is because of the ongoing debate involving youth pitching and arm care.   The debate over whether or not the curveball thrown properly is a safe pitch for youngsters is not my major concern.  Proper mechanics and technique used to throw the curveball can probably make this pitch usable at a young age.  Proper technique is the key, though.  The curveball is a hard pitch to master, especially when it comes to commanding the pitch.  So years of practice is likely to help develop this pitch over time.  My biggest problem is the young kids being taught and trying to master 5 or 6 different pitches.  I also believe the slider/cutter and especially the split finger pitches are among the most dangerous pitches for a young arm and should be avoided at a young age.   Not being part of the medical profession, I’m basing all this on common sense and experience.

The Radar Gun
There are some, even in the medical profession, who claim the radar gun is causing  injuries.  I suppose this could actually be true to some extent.  However, I don’t think throwing with outstanding velocity is the major problem.  Throwing hard with insufficient rest, too many pitches, insufficient stretching and warm up, insufficient recovery time between throwing events or after injury, lack of conditioning, lack of knowledge, and many other things cause most of the problems.   The number one culprit is bad mechanics!   Trying to throw hard is not the problem, in fact it very well might be the biggest secret for success.  If the mechanics are solid the pitcher will find he can actually throw harder and with less effort in most cases.   If the mechanics are bad the pitcher is simply trying to throw harder than what his body will allow and that can be a problem.  Every young kid that has been blessed with a good arm is going to want to use it.  Every baseball player with a good arm has thrown the ball as hard as he possibly can, many times, as a young boy.  This has been going on since man started throwing rocks or snowballs.   Without trying to throw hard, is it possible to develop a Major League fastball?   It’s just very important to learn how to throw hard and also throw correctly.  And that can be different from one pitcher to the next.  There is no clone for the perfect pitcher.  The very best come in many sizes and styles.

Blaming the radar gun, is like blaming the speedometer for your car accident.  It’s not the speedometer’s fault, it only shows the speed the driver is traveling.  However, if you continually drive at a high speedometer reading… The resulting radar gun reading can cause you some problems.  The radar gun can cause a pitcher to want to throw hard, but so does a big crowd, a big game, or a bunch of scouts hanging around without any radar guns.  So should scouts quit watching pitchers?  After all, it’s a fact, they really are interested in those who can throw the hardest!  I find it odd that most people claiming the radar gun is a problem are not among the parents or the kids who can light up the radar gun.  You don’t need a radar gun to see that 80 mph and 90 mph are much different.  No scout is going to get that confused and grade the 80 mph pitcher higher.   Yes, some young pitchers tighten up and go that extra notch beyond perfection which only slows down their arm.  The tension/tightness actually slows the arm speed and it is the arm speed that creates the torque that many claim is most dangerous to the arm.

So in order to limit injury is it possible the radar gun can actually be beneficial?  I really don’t think so, but I also don’t see the radar gun being the problem that many make it out to be.   BTW, I’ve never seen any of those anti radar gun medical specialists at our events.  It took lots of hard work and time for them to become an expert in the medical field.  How do those guys learn so much about what happens in baseball?  I would have no idea on how to perform a surgery.  Yet when it comes to injuries in baseball, I have a good idea of those things that cause most of them.  I’ve seem many injuries happen while performing running skills.  Should we blame the stopwatch?

Trying Too Hard
Speaking about pitchers trying too hard… The same thing happens to hitters that go that one notch beyond their perfect swing.  The desire to create additional bat speed can create tightness which results in slower bat speed and less control of the bat.  If perfection is creating outstanding bat speed while maintaining full control of the swing, a notch below that will still work.  A notch above that perfect swing and a good hitter turns into a bad hitter.  Who should we blame for that?  Why not just educate the kids?

Rather than too much controversy at one time, let’s get back to the fastball. 
The fastball, always has been and always will be the most important pitch in baseball.  Young pitchers would be well advised, and usually are by good pitching instructors, to work on the fastball as the primary pitch.  To first develop good mechanics and then learn and work to develop that all important velocity.  Granted, velocity is not the only thing, movement and command are equally important and maybe even more so in the end.  It’s just that without decent velocity, the end is likely to come sooner than you realize.   There are always exceptions, but there are not enough exceptions to ignore the truth regarding the fastball.  I should add that most of what is written here is geared towards those who have dreams of pitching at a very high level in the future.  It has been proven over and over that pitchers can be very successful at the lower levels and even sometimes in college or pro ball without having a good fastball.

The thing that many people want more than anything else are the facts.  What any one person might claim should never be enough to satisfy us, we should all want to see some proof.  Sometimes even the proof can be debated, but it at least creates some thought and that is always a good thing.

Below are some statistics taken from the Major Leagues last year.  This study involves 85 starting Major League pitchers.  Keep in mind that there are no relievers involved and many of those relievers would be among the highest velocity group.

NOTE: The numbers came from “Baseball Info Solutions” (numbers rounded off)

MLB starters “average” fastball velocity last year
62 of the 85 MLB starters averaged 90 mph or above. Those whose “average” fastball was 93 mph or better included ( Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez, Ervin Santana, Josh Beckett, AJ Burnett, Tim Lincecum, Edwin Jackson, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Zach Greinke, Jeremy Guthrie, Matt Garza)  Remember, this study involves starting MLB pitchers only!

 of the 85 averaged 86 or below (Wakefield, Moyer, Livan Hernandez, Maddux, Zito, Rogers, Byrd, Mussina)  not sure about Wakefield, but the others all threw 90+ when younger.  Of those 8, only Moyer  at 41% FB and Wakefield at 13% FB were below 50% of their pitches being something other than a fastball.

MLB starters percentage of pitches that were fastballs
Only 12 of the 85 MLB starters threw fastballs less than 50% of their pitches. All but two of the 85 MLB starters threw a higher percentage of fastballs than any other pitch.

(Wakefield - Knuckleball) and (Litsch - Cutter) being the only exceptions.

48 of the 85 MLB starters threw fastballs more than 60% of their pitches, even Maddux and Livan Hernandez who averaged velocity of 86 mph or less… (Maddux 69% fastballs, Hernandez 72% fastballs)

MLB starters who threw the highest percentage of fastballs
Daniel Cabrera (83% FB, 15% sliders, 2% change)
Aaron Cook (82% FB, 12% sliders, 4% CB, 2% change)
Mike Pelfrey (81% FB, 13% sliders, 6% change)

MLB starters who threw the highest percentage of curveballs.
Ben Sheets (33% CB, 62% FB, 5% change, BTW he is an upper 90s guy, too) 
AJ Burnett (29% CB, 65% FB, 5% change, 1% cutter, BTW he throws in the upper 90s) 
Ricky Nolasco (27% CB, 51% FB, 16% cutter, 1% slider, 5% change)  

MLB starters who threw the highest percentage of sliders
Armando Galarraga (39% sliders, 49% FB, 12% change)  
Randy Johnson (35% sliders, 52% FB, 13% change, he used to throw higher % of FB when younger and throwing100 mph) 
Ervin Santana (34% sliders, 61% FB, 1% CB, 4% change, BTW, he throws upper 90s)  
Ian Snell (33% sliders, 62% FB, 5% change, he throws low to mid 90s).
Derek Lowe (32% slider, 61% FB, 7% change, he throws 90 mph)
Johnny Cueto (32% sliders, 61% FB, 7% change, he throws mid to better 90s)  

MLB starters who threw the highest percentage of changeups
Cole Hamels (32% change, 55% FB, 13% CB, his fastball averages 90.4 mph)
Edinson Volquez  (32% change, 55% FB, 4% slider, 9% CB, his fastball averages 94 mph)  
Johan Santana (29% change, 60% FB, 11% slider, his fastball averages 91.2 mph) 
Jair Jurrjens (26% change, 62% FB, 12% slider, his fastball averages 92 mph)  
James Shields (26% change, 45% FB, 19% cutter, 10% CB, his fastball averages 90.4 mph) 

MLB starters that didn’t throw highest percentage of fastballs
Tim Wakefield (13% FB, 81% Knuckle, 6% CB, his fastball averages 72.9 mph)
Jesse Litsch (24% FB, 44% cut FB, 11% slider, 12% CB, 9% change, his fastball averages 90 mph)

Cy Young Winners last year
Tim Lincecum average fastball was 94.1 mph, he threw (66 % FB, 2% sliders, 14% CB, 18% change) 
Cliff Lee average fastball was 90.5 mph, he threw (70% FB, 1% slider, 6% cutter, 10% CB, 13% change)

So what does all of the above tell us? 
I know what it tells me… There is no question as to which pitch is most important.  There is no question as to the importance of velocity, especially at the beginning stages of a baseball career.  All pitches are important, but the one pitch that is present in most every Major League pitcher, not named Wakefield, is the fastball.  It also shows that it’s possible to be successful in the Major Leagues with lesser than MLB average velocity.  But outside of Wakefield, these guys all threw above average velocity in the beginning.  (Maddux was throwing 94 mph as a scrawny junior in high school)

It also shows that for the most part the guys that throw lower velocity are some of the oldest players in the league and with the most experience.  So young pitchers should either work hard developing a good fastball or wait until they become 40 or older.  Actually the age thing won’t work because you also need the experience that goes with it and you get that opportunity by starting out with a good fastball.   It is so much easier to subtract from velocity in order to increase movement and command than it is to add velocity while still trying to increase movement and command.

The reason for all of this… 
I get tired of hearing how unimportant velocity and having a good fastball are and how every hitter can hit a good fastball.  Well, good hitters actually do look for fastballs, after all, there is lots of proof that the fastball is by far the pitch that the hitter will most often see (read above for proof), so hitters better be able to hit that pitch.  At the same time, that just means that developing a “good” fastball is even more important for pitchers.  A weak fastball is not an attribute in any way.

Finally, once again, it is possible to be a very successful pitcher without having a great fastball.  Especially at the lower levels.  However, the better your fastball the better your chances for a bright future.  Never underestimate the fastball!  The soft tossing group might not want to understand.  Some people might be confused about all of this, but the radar gun never gets confused, it doesn’t have any favorites and it could care less who is on the mound.  Some say things like he is just a thrower not a pitcher.  Well what specific skill besides “throwing” would relate closer to pitching.  Why do so many good throwers end up being pitchers?  Anyway, the guy with the great arm doesn’t care how many radar guns are pointed at him.  In fact, here is the way it works… The goal should be to get to that level where lots of radar guns are pointed at you.  That is a very good thing!   And if you want to make sure your arm never suffers an injury… Do not throw a baseball!

Actually there is so much more to talk about when it comes to being a successful pitcher, but I’ll leave that for later.