The current state of MLB is defined by extremes. Between the heavy-hitting sluggers who smash home runs at record-breaking rates and the hard-throwing pitchers who force them to frequently strike out, the highest level of baseball is an unreasonably demanding place to compete. For pitchers, finding new ways to throw accurate, barn-burner fast strikes has long been the way to stay ahead of the curve.
Are those days over? Is the high speed arms race finally coming to an end?
How fast is a fastball?
Every era of baseball has a player with the ability to throw heat in ways that seem to defy time and space. In today’s game, that player is arguably Aroldis Chapman. He once had an average fastball speed of 101 mph, although his average speed has dipped in the last year, his consistent velocity sticks out even among a class of pitchers packed with triple-digit throwers.
What makes high-level baseball impressive isn’t just these wild fastball speeds, but the fact that they can be hit at all. The human eye can barely follow the movement of a ball thrown above 75 mph. What MLB hitters accomplish on a daily basis is nothing short of a miracle of intuition, experience, and raw skill.
When hard throwers break through their own limits, like Chapman himself did when he threw 105 mph heat at J.J. Harding, the results are nothing short of shocking.
The fastballs of the past compared to today
Chapman’s throws may seem like a uniquely modern accomplishment. Many baseball fans speak of his capabilities as the endpoint of decades of linear increases in speed.
That perception isn’t unfounded. There are far more fastballs topping out at 100+ mph today than ever before. The current crop of pitchers throws harder and faster on average, and fans have taken notice.
Yet, unbelievably, Chapman’s best is likely a few miles per hour short of some of the generational talents of the past. For example, Nolan Ryan’s pitches were measured differently from today’s pitchers, so with current equipment, he likely topped out at a reality-bending 108 mph.
That means even with the mind-blowing fastballs we see today, there could well be upcoming talents that could bump up the fastball game even more in the near future.
The upper limits of human ability
The constraints of physics, and the human body, are the cap that prevents fastballs from climbing beyond 110 mph. But more specifically, it’s throwing these types of pitches consistently that limits just how much MLB pitchers can continue to rely on this particular tool as frequently as they do.
Trying to condition young players for the regular triple-digit throwing has already led to a huge spike in youth baseball injuries. In MLB itself, the results speak for themselves, with many teams suffering from an ongoing scourge of injuries drastically affecting the quality of their pitching.
As effective as fastballs are, is it sustainable to consistently run up such high top speeds if it means risking losing your best pitchers to Tommy John surgery for a year or more?
In this sense, we have likely reached the logical endpoint of the MLB pitcher fastball arms race. Barring a major surgical advancement, there is no getting around the simple fact that consistently throwing fast will send about 25% of pitchers out of the game for 12-15 months at a time at least once in their careers.
Returning to throwing as Nolan Ryan did
While the frequency of hard-throwing may be near, or already at, the upper limit, there is still the specter of Nolan Ryan’s incredible 108 mph feat.
There will likely be another pitcher with the raw physical ability required to throw that hard in an MLB game again. They may already be active in the game, although injuries from consistent hard throwing have kept even the likes of Aroldis Chapman from pulling it off.
With science pinning down 110 mph as the upper limit of what even the strongest, most conditioned human arm can handle, we may not see any pitches that go much faster. And maybe that’s just fine. What makes baseball shine is finding ways to play the game smarter, so we should all look forward to what comes after our current era of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, injury-prone pitchers.