I threw so hard I thought my arm would fall right off my body.
—SMOKEY JOE WOOD, on the last two outs of Game 1 of the 1912 World Series
The arm can withstand about 80 Newton-meters of torque on the elbow before the joint snaps. Pitchers who can reach 100 mph press against this limit every time they throw, which is why you are unlikely to see someone who is freakishly faster than everyone else. The giveaway was in the biomechanics when George Plimpton created Sidd Finch and his 168 mph fastball for Sports Illustrated in his April Fool's Day classic of 1985. Unlike sprinters, swimmers and jumpers, pitchers are not becoming much faster. But better training has produced more arms with elite velocity.
"I think we're at the limit," said Glenn Fleisig, research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham. "For these hard throwers to stay healthy, a big thing is to listen to their bodies."
A study published last year by Brandon D. Bushnell, an orthopedic surgeon in Rome, Ga., and colleagues followed 23 pitchers over three seasons to determine if there was a link between velocity and elbow injury. Nine of the pitchers hurt their elbows during those three years. The study concluded that "pitchers capable of throwing at a higher maximum ball velocity had a higher risk of elbow injury and that the players throwing at the highest velocity had injuries requiring surgical reconstruction."
It's a simple enough link: The harder you throw, the more torque you put on your elbow and shoulder. And the younger you are when you develop high velocity, the more at risk you are to the effects of stress and overuse. Until Chapman came along, the Tigers' Zumaya owned the fastest recorded pitch: a 104.8-mph hummer in the 2006 American League Championship Series. He has since suffered repeated injuries to his right arm and elbow.
Said Fleisig about high velocity, "It's a blessing and a curse."
Though new technologies, such as Pitch f/x, can track the speed and break of a delivery on its path to the plate, radar readings used on television and in ballparks can be manipulated for entertainment and competitive reasons. Home teams, for instance, have been known to show lower readings for the visitors, trying to cause their pitcher to doubt his stuff or to try harder. The radar readings have become as much a staple on scoreboards as runs, hits and errors. Many teams clock pitches in spring training. When Jacob Turner, a 19-year-old prospect for Detroit, threw in a 10 a.m. simulated game last month in Lakeland, Fla., a dedicated scoreboard lit up with his readings.
"Yeah, I look at it," says Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard, who led all pitchers with at least 60 innings last year in average fastball velocity (97.9 mph). "I'll get a ball back and start rubbing it up, and then I'll take a peek at the board. Usually it's when one felt really good coming out of my hand and I think, I wonder how fast that one was?"
I threw him an 87-mph fastball, and he crushed it. Last year I averaged 96. Now when I reached back, it's just not there. I can't believe that I forgotten how to throw heat.