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RADAR LOVE
TOM VERDUCCI
April 04, 2011
Fascination with the fastball (a.k.a. smoke, cheese, cheddar, heat, gas) is as old as baseball itself. But now everyone—scouts, fans, Little League dads—is obsessed with differentiating between fast and faster. It's the golden age of speed freaks: one nation, under the gun
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April 04, 2011

Radar Love

Fascination with the fastball (a.k.a. smoke, cheese, cheddar, heat, gas) is as old as baseball itself. But now everyone—scouts, fans, Little League dads—is obsessed with differentiating between fast and faster. It's the golden age of speed freaks: one nation, under the gun

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—A scout's report on Walter (Big Train) Johnson, 1907

Every millisecond counts. A respectable heater, at 92 mph, takes 400 milliseconds to reach home plate, assuming it leaves the pitcher's hand about 5½ feet in front of the rubber. Last year 24 pitchers (minimum: 60 innings) averaged 95 mph or better with their fastballs—those took 398 milliseconds to arrive home. Chapman's 105.1-mph heater traveled the same distance in 360. The blink of an eye takes between 300 and 400 milliseconds.

"There's not much difference between 98 and 100," Gwynn says, "but after that it's kind of a blur. You've got to go up there looking for a fastball, so if Chapman throws his slider for a strike, there's not much you can do. Being lefthanded, that's not a good time against him. Righthanders probably see it a little longer—a little."

Velocity is the eye candy of pitching, especially with radar gun readings flashed in ballparks, on television and in online game accounts. General managers, managers and coaches all love velocity too, because speed allows for a greater margin of error. The 17 hardest-throwing starting pitchers last year, whose fastballs averaged at least 93 mph, combined for a 3.43 ERA and a .601 winning percentage (244--162). The 17 softest-throwing starting pitchers, who averaged 89 mph or less, had a 4.13 ERA and a .476 winning percentage (185--204).

Heat creates energy at the ballpark, going all the way back to 19th-century fireballer Amos Rusie, who threw so hard that he helped persuade the game's architects to move the distance of the mound from 50 feet to 60'6". But now the quantifying of velocity has added to the buzz. In fact, the radar gun readings at the ballpark often get a bigger reaction from fans than the pitches themselves.

Chapman can cause a stir simply by warming up, as happened during his major league debut last Aug. 31. "You could see fans started moving to the bullpen to watch him," says Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty, "and then when he came into the game, they started moving behind the plate."

Listed at 6'4" and 185 pounds, Chapman is a skinny bundle of fast-twitch fibers with an arm as flexible as a garden hose. Part of the wonder of Chapman is that he doesn't look all that powerful, at least until he uncoils toward the plate with an especially long stride. "I look at how his delivery works, how much the trunk and back and big muscle groups are involved, and there's a lot behind the ball," says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "But look at [6'10"] Randy Johnson. He was a short-strider with a very limited lower half. You can't say, Let's take all the hard throwers and look at the delivery and find a common thread."

Ask Chapman where the velocity comes from, and it might as well be his diet ("In the beginning, I liked Cuban food. Now I like everything"), viewing habits ("Five to seven soap operas a day") or superstition on the mound ("I wear underwear that is old and kind of ripped up. I can never take that away").

Says Chapman, "Those mechanics things are for science people. When I'm pitching I do things the same way. Sometimes I put more power into ones than the others. I think you're born with speed, and then I think the work I did since I was little helped me a lot. I don't know. It's something my Lord gave me."

Velocity may be heaven sent, but measuring it is a man-made convention that has helped to change the game.

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