Often, when people hear that I am a pitcher, their first question is “how fast do you throw?” As a pitcher, coach and avid student of the art and science of pitching for well over a couple decades it pains me to answer the question. Answering with a quick two digit number makes me an accomplice to stripping the craft of pitching to the point of being naked in a New Hampshire snowstorm. It is unfair and cruel.
It is actually a reasonable question. It is just that it forces me into an answer that over simplifies what comprises an effective pitcher. I believe people ranging from baseball laymen to major league scouts over value velocity. Don’t get me wrong, velocity is a key to effective pitching, but it is given too much weight.
The most important element to effective pitching is command of the fastball. Just like in real estate, location is critical. Hitters would rather see a fastball at 90 mph waist high over the middle of the plate than an 85 mph on the black low and away. I just saw Tom Glavine of the Mets open this MLB season on Sunday against the Cardinals. He threw his fastball between 82-84 mph (he hit 86 twice) and the Cardinals scored only one run in six innings. Let me put that in perspective, the average MLB fastball is 90 mph, 83 mph is a good high school fastball.
To bring my point home take a look at these stats from last year. The pitcher with the slowest average fastball in the National League last year was 21 year veteran Jamie Moyer (he started the year in the American League), second slowest was four time Cy Young award winner Gregg Maddux, fourth was two time Cy Young award winner Tom Glavine. In the American League it goes as follows, the second slowest pitcher was last years All Star game starter and World Series game winner Kenny Rogers, fourth slowest was Cy Young award winner Barry Zito and sixth was the perennially formidable Mike Mussina. These "slow" throwing guys are some of the top pitchers in the world. All the while, the minor leagues are loaded with guys who can throw well into the 90’s and will never throw a pitch in the Major Leagues.
So, why are people obsessed with velocity? The same reason they love fast cars, the dunk, the knock out punch and the home run. It is exciting and macho. It speaks to the testosterone part of the love affair people have with sports. And yes, I am guilty of loving it too. I enjoy throwing a splitter in the dirt that the batter chases. I enjoy throwing a curve that freezes the batter like a deer staring into headlights. But there is nothing like rearing back throwing the high hard one and watching the batter swing through it while the ball pops loudly in the catchers glove, dust fly’s from the mitt and the ump signals strike three!!! God, I love that!
In reality it is very rare to have the kind of fastball that a pitcher can blow by a good hitter at will. Typically, a pitcher that throws hard will have success until they enter a level in which it no longer works, then they are lost. A pitcher who throws 90mph probably breezed through every league they played in through high school and even many colleges. Then suddenly throwing 90mph over the heart of the plate doesn’t work any more. Instantly, they need to make adjustments or they fail. Unfortunately, this type of pitcher has had so much success with their fastball that often their instinct is to try and throw harder to work their way out of trouble. That approach does not work. When pitchers try to muscle the ball they will most often either lose velocity or incrementally increase the velocity at the expense of movement and location, this is a terrible trade off. Another reason it is not a good idea to muscle up is that it increases the probability of getting injured. When the experienced pitcher gets into trouble, ala Glavine, he will take something off a pitch or throw within his usual velocity range but make sure to throw a good pitch. A good pitch means it is located well, moves well and has good deception or any combination of the three. The pitch will have reasons behind it. Every pitch is sensitive to context; this is how a good pitcher can make a batter look silly on a 72 mph pitch.
Now that I have exhorted my views on how velocity is overrated, let me sing its praises. No pitcher in his right mind would ever turn down MPH on his fastball. Velocity allows a pitcher to make mistakes and get away with it more often than a soft tosser. A pitcher with command and great velocity has the potential to be superstar. Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens had command (of more than one pitch) and great velocity, which is a horrifying combination to batters. I would also like to clarify that guys like Glavine, Maddux, Zito, Rogers and Moyer excel at the Major League level not only with great command of their “slow” fastballs but they have splendid secondary pitches. Glavine has a great changeup, Maddux has devastating movement on his sinker and a excellent changeup, Zito has an incredible curve ball and a good changeup, and Moyer has a superb change, good curve and an uncanny ability to mix his pitches so that batters are constantly off balance. Lastly, there is a limit to how slow a fastball can be while still maintaining its place as the foundation of every pitchers repertoire. I don’t believe a pitcher can survive in the Major Leagues without a fast ball that is at least in the low 80’s, and that is a rare breed.
So at the risk of sounding like a wise guy, next time someone asks me how fast I throw I might tell them fast enough to make hitters swing ahead of my changeup.