The Fastest Fastball Challenges the Speed of Thought

Nate Boyle
fastest fastball
Photo credit: apardavila on Best Running / CC BY

Before he was famous for smiling incredulously after Jose Altuve smashed his slider over the fence and eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs, Aroldis Chapman was known for one thing:

Slinging heat.

The Cuban flamethrower famously pitched the fastest fastball on record back in 2010—a 105.1-mph heater during a AAA game.

That number is staggering, but it also makes you wonder what it’s like to be on the opposite end of that ridiculous four-seamer.

What does triple digit heat look like inside the batter’s box?

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out that any 100-mph-plus-fastball creates the illusion of rising by the time they reach Homeplate.

What could create such a visual when that’s not happening?

Here are some facts about what it’s like for major league hitters to look down the barrel of the most electric fastballs in the league:

  • A 100-mph fastball takes .375-. 4 seconds to reach the plate
  • The blink of an eye takes roughly .3-.4 seconds
  • So the brain must identify the pitch in .075-.1 seconds

In that lag time, the hitter decides where the pitch will land and what pitch it is. This decision is made in the motor area of the brain – which is an automatic mechanism. The hitter’s brain tracks the ball by taking quick snapshots of the ball and its trajectory.

Moreover, the fastest fastballs may create holes that can’t be processed quickly enough. Meaning, the ball outraces the hitter’s eyes, and they’re unable to track the object in motion with 100% consistency.

Why do fastballs look like they’re rising

The fastest fastballs seem to rise as they approach the plate, despite not doing so in any way.

And while hitters inability to track the ball might have something to do with that sense, there’s a bit more to it:

Frequently, fastballs are thrown with backspin. This technique produces a Magnus effect, which generates an upward force on the ball. As a result, the ball falls less rapidly than expected, leading to what looks like a rising fastball.

You can sense a baseball thrown by a top-of the rotation power pitcher, according to former Yankee Derek Jeter in the excellent documentary Fastball:

“Oh, you can definitely hear a fastball,” “You can hear it whizzing by you. It sounds like trouble is what it sounds like. If you’re facing someone with some control problems, it can be a very, very troubling experience.”

Derek Jeter

In the last area, many hitters swear that an outstanding fastball rises as it gets near them. Of course, the ball is still going down because of gravity and air resistance when delivered by any pitcher throwing overhand. That’s just physics.

The apparent rise compared with slightly slower pitches “is the difference between where [the hitter’s] brain is telling him the ball is going to be and where it is when it approaches home plate,”

Carnegie Mellon University physicist Gregg Franklin in Fastball

But Bryce Harper of the Philadelphia Phillies, winner of the 2015 National League Most Valuable Player Award, disrespectfully disagrees.

“I think scientists are crazy if they think that. I mean, Craig Kimbrel: it looks like his fastball rises every time he throws it. They need to grab a helmet, grab a bat, and get in the box because they don’t understand what’s going on up there.”

The truth about Aroldis Chapman’s heat

At times, just like the rising fastball illusion, the actual radar clocking of Aroldis Chapman’s heater might be as well.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig has explained that baseball pitchers generally throw about 5-mph slower than they’ve been clocked. There are variables with the radar gun (such as manufacturer and positioning) that impact the pitch tracking.

Even if Chapman’s clocked pitch speed might be inaccurate, it’s accurate to say that today’s technology is better than Bob Feller’s pitch against a motorcycle. Nonetheless, according to the documentary, adjusting Feller’s pitch with today’s motorcycle-less standards registered at 107.6 miles per hour. 

Although not entirely up to the standards of Mr. No Hitter and baseball’s all-time strikeout leader. According to the Doppler laser radar readings used in 1974, Ryan’s 108.1 MPH reading would be the clubhouse leader.

Pitching has changed over the seasons

A triple digit fastball is a lot faster than it used to be. But is it because of strength training improvements, greater torque from improved mechanics? Or are old school flamethrowers used to more innings.

The pitch was measured by Pitch F/X, a system that tracks the speed and movement of every pitch thrown in major league games. While a radar gun would be slightly faster (because it directly measures the ball as it leaves the hand), the Pitch F/X system is considered more precise. Besides, a radar gun can read several mph faster (because of beam width, not because of any inherent measurement error) but has less accuracy across pitchers.

Why does Major League Baseball now register this pitch as a 105.8 mph fastball? Over the past decade, Chapman’s speed has become nearly a mile per hour faster.

How can that be? Inexplicably, it all comes down to device settings and setup.

More heat, please

On average, a major league pitcher throws his fastest fastball about three mph harder than he throws his average fastball. The pitcher saves his fastest pitches for strikeouts, a way to get a swinging third strike while retaining the luxury of being a little riskier when ahead in the count.

And throughout baseball history, be it the hall of fame starting pitcher, an all star relief pitcher brought in for the ninth inning, or a complete game no hitter happening out of the blue; the fastest fastballs have continually teased at the next great.

Enter Luke Little, a 19-year old left-handed pitcher from Charlotte, selected by the Cubs in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft. Before his junior season at East Mecklenburg High School in North Carolina, Little’s fastball never reached 80 on the radar gun.

And that viral video was no fluke; rather, the result of years of purposeful coaching and athletic development. Little was still growing into his 6’8″ frame, adding ‘man’ strength, and working with pitching coaches on neuromotor skills, biomechanics and speed training.

Let’s keep that elbow together and avoid Tommy John altogether, so we get another Bryce Harper rant in a few years. Or maybe he is a career minor leaguer with mythic tales of 110 mph fastballs, like the great Steve Dalkowski. With baseball, you never know.

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