"I started traveling with a gun in the early '80s," says Joe McIlvaine, a special assistant to the general manager for the Twins who was scouting director for the Mets then. "Before that it was really hard to gauge velocity, especially if you were out at night on a dimly lit field. It could trick you. A guy could look so much faster under those conditions. I once recommended a kid I saw at night. When the scouting director came out to see him and brought his gun, the kid was throwing only about 79 miles an hour. I felt awful. But those were the challenges back then."
The Red Sox have pregun scouting reports on file that defined velocity with words such as rapid or firm and rated prospects overall with a simple scale of 0, 1 or 2. The human eye made for a much less accurate gauge of speed, but it helped launch legends. None was bigger or more cinematic than Steve Dalkowski, a pitcher Cal Ripken Sr. once estimated threw 115 miles an hour.
Joe Reardon (manager): "He walked 18?!"
Larry Hockett (coach): "It's a league record."
Reardon: "Struck out 18."
Hockett: "League record. And he hit the radio announcer, a sportswriter, and the bull mascot twice—also league records. Joe, the guy's got some serious s---.
—From Bull Durham
Pitchers who throw hard are drafted higher, sign for more money and get more chances to fail than those who don't. That's because the baseline of velocity, like the baseline of foot speed, can increase only so much. "With young guys," Price says, "we feel like if he has arm strength, we can teach him how to pitch, how to clean up his delivery, how to take velocity off the ball and make it spin a certain way. But you can't teach arm strength. You can't guarantee that a kid who has a good body and good delivery and is throwing 84, in three or four years he'll be throwing 94."
Not without steroids, at least. Pitchers learned they could add speed with illegal drugs. Righthander Dan Naulty, for instance, a 14th-round pick of the Twins in 1992, told the New York Daily News in 2007 that his fastball jumped from 86 to 95 mph in three years with a regimen of steroids, human growth hormone and amphetamines. "Steroids definitely made pitchers throw harder," says one AL general manager. "And that is why the crackdowns on age falsification and performance enhancers have been big issues in Latin America. If a kid in Latin America shows enough arm strength, he's going to get signed. But for a long time, when you had trouble verifying age and with drugs available, it was buyer beware."
Says Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, a Dominican native whose average fastball velocity of 96.1 topped all starters who qualified for the ERA title last year, "Ninety is a very big number in the Dominican. So is 16. You know if you can throw 90 in a workout for scouts when you are 16 that you can get signed. Everybody knows how important 90 is."