A high velocity fastball is like a great score on an IQ test or the SAT: At some point, it doesn't mean that much, in and of itself. Once hard-throwing pitchers advance from high school or college into the professional ranks, they find themselves surrounded by a lot of pitchers who also throw very hard, and hitters with the bat speed to crush a 96-mph fastball.
Lateral movement becomes more important than velocity. A 92-mph fastball that sinks or veers is better than a straight 96-mph fastball. Two summers ago, Toronto pitcher Roy Halladay went to the minor leagues to develop movement on his fastball, and after making some major adjustments, he is 16-3 and among the most dominant pitchers in baseball.
And velocity was never a problem for Halladay. "He was throwing 96 or 97 mph," said Buck Martinez, the former Toronto manager, "but he was actually getting hammered. His fastball was straight, his curveball was inconsistent."
Halladay, like a lot of pitchers, threw the ball with mechanics that brought his arm angle straight over the top -- like a pitching machine. It is a delivery that kept the ball spinning on a centered, balanced axis, the kind of rotation that does not foster movement.
The movement comes when the ball is thrown with its axis and rotation off-center. "Some of it is arm angle, finger pressure, hand and wrist position, the grip on the baseball," said Mike Flanagan, the 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner and now the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
A pitching machine delivers a baseball from an angle of 12 o'clock, Flanagan noted, but if you angled the machine in such a way that the ball was delivered from 10 o'clock, or 11 o'clock, "you would see a lot more movement."
Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown slings the ball with a low three-quarter motion, throwing his huge body into each pitch, and hitters say his sinker of 92-94 mph probably had as much movement as any in the last decade. Boston's Derek Lowe has a sinker that veers sharply down and in.
Yankees closer Mariano Rivera essentially succeeds by throwing just one pitch -- a cut fastball that breaks sharply inside on the hands of left-handed hitters. He uses the pitch so often that catcher Jorge Posada sometimes does not bother giving a sign.
In 1996, when Rivera first established himself, he blew away hitters with his easy, deceptive motion and a high, four-seam fastball that blew threw the upper quandrant of the strike zone. Rivera subsequently discovered his cutter while playing catch in the outfield with teammate Ramiro Mendoza: Rivera figured out that if he simply cocked his forefinger and middle finger slightly to the left as he threw the ball, he changed the rotation on the ball -- shifting it off-center -- without compromising his velocity. Mike Mussina, Rivera's teammate, says that when you play catch with Rivera and he throws his cutter, the ball rotates to your right.
In other words, if you were playing catch with the Earth, and North America and South America descended down the center of the ball, it would look as if the Earth was spinning from Alaska toward the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean as it approached you, slightly cockeyed. Rivera figures this is why his cutter moves so much.
"There's a lot of feel, a lot of touch," said Flanagan. "Some pitchers don't have it. You'll look at the videotape with them and they'll see the movement, but don't realize it themselves when they throw the ball. You're talking to them and you say, 'Can't you feel that?' And they don't.' "
Halladay does now, after making his adjustments. He has so much movement on his pitches that he simply aims the ball down the middle, and then allows the natural movement of his refined pitches to take the ball to the edges of the strike zone. After he made the changes, Halladay said, "It was a relief. I could go out and rely on the movement and really didn't have to worry as much about being right on the corners, and I could get away with a lot more."
And with that, Halladay developed -- like a kid with a high SAT score who found some street smarts, as well.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.