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Did Pitchers always throw as hard as they do today?


glorydays

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It's late and I am up watching the Ken Burns' "Baseball" series being replayed on MLB Network. Watching the pitchers - and hitters - I got to wondering... did pitchers pitch as fast in the early 20th century as they do today?

I had often heard that Rex Barney had one of the best arms during that era and probably hit the high 90's before he hurt his arm. But IMO watching the pitcher's mechanics (all arm, very little leg) and the fact I saw Ruth taking giant steps towards the pitched ball, I just can't believe that pitchers were consistently able to throw anywhere near as fast as they do today.

I'm not saying that I am right - or wrong...

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Walter Johnson was said to have had one of the best arms ever. They figured he atleast threw in the upper 90's if I remember correctly......

On an interesting aside (well atleast interesting to me) My third grade teacher was Walter Johnson's Granddaughter.

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Yes, they threw as hard. Kids did a lot more throwing back then as they grew up, usually rocks. Accuracy could be critical to putting food on the table.

Since they didn't have radar guns, there's not really any objective way to answer the question. If you had an old movie of Walter Johnson and had some way to calibrate the film speed, you might be able to calculate the velocity of his pitch from the time it took to reach the plate after he released it. I doubt if the film resolution would be sufficient to get within 2-5 percent, but establishing exactly how fast the film was being transported through the camera would probably be impossible to determine.

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Yes, they threw as hard. Kids did a lot more throwing back then as they grew up, usually rocks. Accuracy could be critical to putting food on the table.

Since they didn't have radar guns, there's not really any objective way to answer the question. If you had an old movie of Walter Johnson and had some way to calibrate the film speed, you might be able to calculate the velocity of his pitch from the time it took to reach the plate after he released it. I doubt if the film resolution would be sufficient to get within 2-5 percent, but establishing exactly how fast the film was being transported through the camera would probably be impossible to determine.

This was on Johnson's Wikipedia page (without a citation, so take it with a grain of salt):

Although a lack of precision instruments prevented accurate measurement of his fastball, in 1917, a Bridgeport (Conn.) arms laboratory recorded Johnson's fastball at 134 feet per second, which is equal to 91.36 miles per hour (147.03 km/h). This speed is not unheard of today, but it was virtually unique in Johnson's day, with the possible exception of Smoky Joe Wood.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Johnson

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I always thought The Big Train thru harder than that, but I guess it's the stuff of legend. I think what really set him apart, he had the oddest pitching motion. There's some great slo-mo vid in the Ken Burns of it. Kind of a side-armed slinging motion. He probably threw as hard as anyone in his day, and had that deception working too.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnSasG3P5d4

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Koufax threw very hard.

Johnson was supposedly to be in the high 90s. Remember that in Johnson day the hitters used much heavier bats. So even if it is true that he threw 90 mph at top speed....the hitters had bats as much as 50 oz in weight.

Also in Johnson day, pitchers would not throw 100% effort on ever pitch. They would pick there moments to unload.

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This was on Johnson's Wikipedia page (without a citation, so take it with a grain of salt):

I'm skeptical. Someone needs to add a [citation needed] to that blurb.

From Baseball Almanac: Fastest Pitcher in Baseball

So how fast was Feller? The Meter to Record Feller's Speed article mentioned it was specifically going to examine his pitching speed. Satchel Paige, who could bring on the heat himself, believed Feller was the fastest and told teammates, "If anybody threw that ball any harder than Rapid Robert, then the human eye couldn't follow it." Feller once mentioned that he was clocked at 104 mph at Lincoln Park in Chicago. He also claimed he was clocked at 107.9 mph in a demonstration in 1946 at Griffith Stadium. At the Aberdeen Proving Grounds he was measured using the ever-popular speeding motorcycle test, once used in 1914 with Walter Johnson who reached 99.7 mph, and Feller reached 98.6 mph. The results of the test from the "new meter" were reported the day after the initial article:
Humphreys' 'Hard' Un' Faster Than Feller's, Meter Shows
CLEVELAND (AP) - Three Boston Red Sox threw a baseball 122 feet a second into a new photo-electric pitching meter yesterday. Three Cleveland Indians could do only 119 feet.
Pitchers were not included in yesterday's test but "unofficially," Bob Feller of Cleveland threw three balls into the meter from a distance of 20 feet. The best mark he recorded was 119 feet. His less-touted teammate, pitcher Johnny Humphreys, recorded 127 feet. There will be a contest for pitchers later.
Jimmy Foxx, Jim Tabor, and Roger Cramer made it a clean Boston sweep with a first-place tie in yesterday's fielders contest.
The best the Indians could do was a tie at 119 feet by Ben Chapman, Julius Solters and Jim Shilling.
Cleveland men who developed the speed meter said the only comparable scientific marks were made in 1917. Walter Johnson threw the ball 134 feet a second, Christy Mathewson 127 and "Smoky Joe" Wood 124. Their speeds were shown by a gravity drop interval recorder.
Source: Richmond (VA) Times Dispatch, June 7, 1939.
The results from the "contest for pitchers" have never been found. Since machine testing was rare and uncommon we are left with a scientific void about historical flamethrowers.
I'm skeptical of unverified claims, and of the accuracy of the equipment which supposedly measured the velocities of Johnson and Wood. I don't believe there was that much of a difference between the velocities of pitchers in Johnson's era and today.
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I am rewatching the series little by little, and today I started Inning 2. In the discussion of Walter Johnson, the great point was made that it really doesn't matter if he was as fast or faster than the pitchers today, but that he was SO much faster than most of the pitchers at the time.

So even if he was only throwing in the low-90s, most pitchers were probably in the mid-80s, so that would be a significant difference. Especially since as was mentioned there were other factors like the hitters' bat-speed and likely the way that he pitched.

There was a quote in there from (I believe) Ty Cobb about the first time Johnson pitched against Detroit as a rookie, and how the Tigers were lulled by his pitching motion and stunned by the speed of the pitch. So that could easily have an effect, too.

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Two hard throwing pitchers that stand out in my mind were both Orioles. Bob Turley and Steve Dalkowski.

Turley supposedly could hit 100mph and a quick check found this reference:

"Turley picked up the nickname Bullet Bob in Baltimore, but not because he threw harder than anybody else. Look magazine wanted to time his fastball for a story. They borrowed a bullet timer from Aberdeen Proving Grounds and set it on home plate. Turley fired his fastball through the bullet timer at just over 98. By today's standards, with radar guns aimed at the pitcher's release point, that would be 103. A fastball loses about five mph by the time it reaches the plate."

Dalkowski, who never made it to the majors, was truly the stuff of legends.....

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Dalkowski

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I think there have always been some pitchers who could throw about as hard as anyone can today. The difference is that today there are many, many, many more pitchers who can throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, and many, many, many more who do it all the time.

In Walter Johnson's era most pitchers threw at about 75% effort unless there were runners on base or a really good hitter was up. That kind of thing persisted to some degree until at least the 1970s. If you're throwing 75 mph fastballs most of the time it isn't a wonder that guys could pitch 40 games/330 innings.

When I was a kid in the early 80s announcers would regularly say that a MLB average fastball was in the high 80s. Today you're barely considered a prospect unless you can hit 90. Guys like Scott McGregor would win 18 games throwing junk that even Jamie Moyer wouldn't try today.

Also, I'd take any velocity measurements from the pre-radar gun era with a barrel of salt. Anybody who says a guy from 50 or 100 years ago threw 107 mph is probably coming from the same storytelling tradition that has Ruth or Josh Gibson hitting 900-ft home runs.

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I think there have always been some pitchers who could throw about as hard as anyone can today. The difference is that today there are many, many, many more pitchers who can throw in the mid-to-upper 90s, and many, many, many more who do it all the time.

In Walter Johnson's era most pitchers threw at about 75% effort unless there were runners on base or a really good hitter was up. That kind of thing persisted to some degree until at least the 1970s. If you're throwing 75 mph fastballs most of the time it isn't a wonder that guys could pitch 40 games/330 innings.

When I was a kid in the early 80s announcers would regularly say that a MLB average fastball was in the high 80s. Today you're barely considered a prospect unless you can hit 90. Guys like Scott McGregor would win 18 games throwing junk that even Jamie Moyer wouldn't try today.

Also, I'd take any velocity measurements from the pre-radar gun era with a barrel of salt. Anybody who says a guy from 50 or 100 years ago threw 107 mph is probably coming from the same storytelling tradition that has Ruth or Josh Gibson hitting 900-ft home runs.

With you on this...I clearly remember credible "heaters" being high 80s, and a guy that could top 90 was a "flame thrower." I'm not talking ancient history. Times change.

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Two hard throwing pitchers that stand out in my mind were both Orioles. Bob Turley and Steve Dalkowski.

Turley supposedly could hit 100mph and a quick check found this reference:

"Turley picked up the nickname Bullet Bob in Baltimore, but not because he threw harder than anybody else. Look magazine wanted to time his fastball for a story. They borrowed a bullet timer from Aberdeen Proving Grounds and set it on home plate. Turley fired his fastball through the bullet timer at just over 98. By today's standards, with radar guns aimed at the pitcher's release point, that would be 103. A fastball loses about five mph by the time it reaches the plate."

Dalkowski, who never made it to the majors, was truly the stuff of legends.....

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Dalkowski

I was thinking of Dalkowski but couldn't remember his name.

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