Three thousand, seven hundred forty-three pitches into last season, Tigers righthander Justin Verlander peered in at Shin-Soo Choo of the Indians and decided on the most basic, brutal means of getting him out. It was the bottom of the seventh on Sept. 29, and Verlander, finishing his sixth year in the majors, intended his next three deliveries to be his last of 2010. So he became the nine-year-old kid at the pitch-speed booth in a Class A ballpark, or the teenager at the county fair with only a pyramid of milk bottles standing between him and the stuffed animal that would light up his girlfriend's face.
All of which is to say Verlander went all Charlie Sheen on Choo: He channeled Rick Vaughn, the fictional flamethrower played by the actor in the first two Major League movies. "I tried to throw it as hard as I could," said Verlander, whose average fastball velocity of 95.4 mph last year was the highest among American League starting pitchers. "I had two outs, and I knew it was my last inning of the year."
With Detroit and Cleveland out of contention, Verlander put on a light show—the lights belonging to the digital pitch speed readout on the scoreboard at Progressive Field. Verlander struck out Choo on three straight fastballs that lit up the Tigers' radar gun at 102, 102 and, on pitch number 3,746, 101. "A lot of adrenaline," Verlander says, "always helps."
Something is up in major league baseball: velocity. By any name—cheddar, cheese, heater, hummer, dead red, express, number one—the almighty fastball fascinates us like never before, thanks not only to the ubiquity of those throwing it but also to the ubiquity of those clocking it and displaying it. Welcome to Radar Nation, where the ideal velocities resemble temperatures in Phoenix in July.
Among the crop of young arms that helped turn 2010 into the Year of the Pitcher are some delivering so much heat that they are pushing world records and the very fibers of their bodies. Last season marked the debuts of the hardest-throwing starting pitcher and the hardest thrower—ever. The Nationals' 21-year-old rookie Stephen Strasburg (average fastball, according to the website Fangraphs: 97.3 mph) packed ballparks and boosted television ratings until he blew out his right elbow in just his 12th big league start. And Reds rookie reliever Aroldis Chapman, now 23, hit triple digits on the radar gun with regularity, including a lightning bolt to Tony Gwynn Jr., then of the Padres, on Sept. 24 that was clocked at a world-record 105.1 miles per hour.
Three months ago Chapman walked into a tattoo parlor in Miami to make sure the historic radar gun reading acquired more permanence. On the underside of his left wrist is a baseball with a trail of orange flames behind it and an inscription that reads 105.1 mph. What kind of editing might be required if Chapman throws even harder? "I'm going to leave it there," Chapman said this spring through his interpreter and friend, trainer Tomas Vera, "and I'll put 106 on my car."
Chapman is an aficionado of cars that—surprise!—go fast, and he has tagged his Lamborghini, Mercedes and Porsche with a series of vanity plates that began with 102 mph and are up to 105 mph. Asked what travels faster, his fastball or his Lamborghini, Chapman chuckled and replied, "No se," then decided, "Lambo."
The fastball is the Lamborghini of pitching: Sexy and sleek, it turns heads as it passes by with a dangerous if darkly pleasing whoosh. From Walter Johnson to Bob Feller to Steve Dalkowski to Nolan Ryan to Sidd Finch to Nuke LaLoosh to Rick Vaughn to Colt Griffin to Joel Zumaya to Chapman, the fastball has blazed across baseball history, leaving a vapor trail of stories true and imagined.
In sorting out fact from fiction, here's some advice: Don't blink.
You can't hit what you can't see.