The Mighty Fastball

The following is an excerpt from Rob's new book "The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James), which is published by Fireside. Click here to purchase your copy. Click here to also read Rob and Bill's Tuesday chat. Rob Neyer writes four times a week as an ESPN Insider.

Throwing a fastball is different from throwing a curve, throwing a slider, or throwing a knuckleball in that it is not so much a skill as it is a talent. Thus, a history of the fastball is not so much a history of the skill as simply a record of the talent. This may overstate the fact; there are different ways to throw a fastball, and there is much skill involved in the use of the animal.

From the beginning of baseball, long before baseball separated itself from the cluster of other games with which it shares an ancestry, throwing hard has been a part of the game. George Zettlein, a pitcher whose glory years were the years of the National Association (1871-1875), was alleged by old-timers to have thrown as hard as Walter Johnson. I don't believe them, but then, I wasn't there with a radar gun, so what do I know?

The rules of baseball, in its infancy, discriminated against throwing the ball hard. This understates the fact; the rules deliberately tried to keep the pitchers from throwing the ball too hard. The basis of the game was the interaction between fielders and hitters; the pitcher was not supposed to upset the apple cart by striking people out or walking them.

Thus, it is hard to really believe that any pitcher from the 1870s, throwing underhanded and supposedly with a stiff wrist and a stiff elbow, could have gotten speed on the pitch comparable to Walter Johnson. The Zettlein comment is a characteristic comment, in two ways:

1) Everybody in history who had a decent fastball has, at some point, been described as being faster than Walter Johnson, and

2) The old-timers get faster and faster as they get older and older.

I don't mean (2) above in a snide sense, that old players are inclined to romanticize their youth. That's true also, of course, but what I meant was this: that players are most impressed with the first really good fastball that they see. Honus Wagner, who batted against Cy Young in the 1890s and faced Walter Johnson in several exhibition matches, said that Young threw harder than Johnson. Charlie Gehringer, who batted against the young Lefty Grove and, many years later, the young Bob Feller, said that Grove threw much harder than Feller. That's the typical response; it doesn't provide much real evidence that Grove was faster than Feller. When Charlie Gehringer first saw Bob Feller, he had been in the major leagues for ten years. He had seen a lot of fastballs. When he first saw Grove, he was more like "Wow, never saw anything like that before."

In the first half of the 1880s, baseball switched gradually from underhand to overhand pitching. This increased the speed with which the ball was thrown, and thus brought into the game the first generation of true fastball pitchers. But when that switch was made (1882-1887) there were a generation of young boys who began working with an overhand delivery when they were twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. As you would expect to be the case, when those boys matured, they were faster than the pitchers before, who had mastered the overhand delivery in mid-career.

The fastest of that generation is easy to identify: it was Amos Rusie. Rusie, Cy Young, and Jouett Meekin, who all threw harder than anyone had ever seen before, forced the National League in 1893 to move the pitching mound back from fifty feet (where it had been since 1881) to sixty feet and six inches.

So far, I have been equating "thrown real hard" with "good fastball." It is, of course, not simply being thrown hard that makes a fastball a good pitch. There is also the issue of movement. Jeremy Hill, a minor leaguer currently the property of the New York Yankees, has been known to hit triple digits on the radar gun, and throws 98-99 consistently. But his pitch is fairly straight and his motion is not deceptive, so people still hit it.

From the time baseball switched to overhand pitching, some pitchers have known how to make a baseball "hop" or "jump," and some people have known how to make a baseball sink. (Yes, yes, Egbert; we all know that a baseball does not literally jump in mid-air, it merely appears to do so to the batter. Very good; now sit down and shut up.) Ted Breitenstein, a .500 pitcher for the Cardinals and Reds through the 1890s, threw a rising fastball. Nig Cuppy, a minor star with the Cleveland Spiders, threw what he called a "jump ball"-a rising fastball.

In the Dead Ball Era (1903-1919), a "hopping" fast ball was prized, because it led to strikeouts, pop ups, and fly balls, which were generally not dangerous in that era. In the lively ball era (beginning in 1920), the "sinking" fast ball was more prized, because it kept the ball in the infield, and kept down the number of home runs.

However, while some pitchers could make a ball hop and some people could make a ball "sink," there is no evidence of any major-league pitcher, before 1950, doing both, or switching between one and the other (Satchel Paige threw two distinct fastballs in the 1930s, when he pitched in the Negro Leagues. But neither of them was a sinking fastball.) Pitchers universally seemed to regard the movement of their fastball not as a function of strategy, but as a gift from the heavens. "My fastball had a natural sink to it," they would say, or "My fastball had a pretty good hop to it," or "I had pretty good speed, but my fastball was straight, so I had to keep it away from the middle of the plate." Although certainly some very few pitchers would learn how to make "their" fastball hop or how to make "their" fastball sink, there is little evidence, before 1950, of an understanding that the movement on a pitcher's fastball was not simply an endowment of nature, but was a consequence of grip, release, and spin.

Nick Cuppy expressed this idea succinctly in 1908, in a book called How to Pitch (John Foster). "That there is such a thing as a jump ball I believe is universally conceded," said Cuppy, "but like other pitchers I am in the dark as to its cause. I am positive that it exists, for I have been able to get it myself." Forty years later, there is little evidence of much better understanding. Dan Daniel reported of Wilcy Moore that Moore "owed his relief success to his strange sinker, which he never could explain. It was a natural delivery and he really did not know how to throw it." About Curt Davis in 1939, John J. Ward wrote, "His fast ball is a natural sinker." Sam Nahem, an early-1940s pitcher, said, "I often wish that God had given me movement on my fastball, but he didn't." Floyd Bevens, quoted in 1947: "I have a sinker, but it is a natural delivery." Mel Harder said, years after his career, "My fastball was a natural sinker." Bob Lemon, same exact words. Phil Marchildon, a 1940s pitcher, said in his book that "it was estimated that my fastball traveled about ninety-five miles per hour. The movement on it was so distinctive that it became known around the American League by the name 'Johnny Jump-Up.' "

The apparently universal assumption was that each pitcher was endowed by nature with a unique movement on his fastball, and that was simply what he had.

Curt Simmons (see Curt Simmons entry) changed that, and probably Curt Simmons didn't figure it all out by himself; probably he was taught something by an older pitcher, and built on it.

In any case, Simmons threw both a sinking and a rising fastball, and by the mid-1960s, many pitchers had begun to do this. Teenagers Wally Bunker (1964) and Larry Dierker (1965) threw the two fastballs, even as very young pitchers. Fergie Jenkins emerged as a star in 1967, throwing a rising fastball to right-handers, a sinking fastball to lefties, and Tom Seaver won the Rookie of the Year Award, also mixing up his fastballs. Don Sutton threw the two fastballs, as did Bill Stoneman. Bob Veale (mid-1960s) said his two best pitches were his fastball and his low fastball. The practice just exploded in the mid- to late-'60s; all of a sudden everybody was doing it (although the press never picked up on this; there was never a spate of stories discussing the new trend).

By the mid-1970s, even more variety in fastballs was beginning to appear. Goose Gossage, though he never used the term "cut fastball," could make his fastball "ride" or "tail." Other pitchers of that era also could, but they lacked any very specific vocabulary to talk about it, and thus our understanding of how these pitchers used their fastballs is far from perfect.

The term "split-fingered fastball," which emerged about 1980, is somewhat misleading, since no one really thinks of a splitter as a variation of a fastball. The term "cut fastball," which emerged in the mid-1980s and is now used to describe almost everything, is an example of the language trying not very successfully to catch up to the complexity of real life.

Fastballs do different things ... they sink, tail, hop, sail, ride, etc. We have, at this point, three terms in common usage to describe these pitches: four-seam fastball (or rising fastball), two-seam fastball (or sinking fastball), and cut fastball (which is used for any pitch which is released without a snap of the wrist, but which breaks either left or right as it nears the batter).

For many years, some pitchers would be described as throwing a "light" ball (an easy pitch for the catcher to catch) or throwing a "heavy" ball. You don't hear that much anymore.

It seems clear, to me, that the specific part of the language has not really caught up with the diversity of fastballs which are thrown by major-league pitchers, and that more terms will develop over the next twenty years to fill in the gaps. We have lots of adjectives for fastballs, but very few nouns. Over time, the term "cut fastball" is likely to develop a more clear and limited definition, just as the term "slider" did, and just as the term "curve" did. The term "cut fastball" at this point has a very general and imprecise description. As time passes, the language will continue to evolve.

The Best Fastballs Of Each Half-Decade
In the article about fastballs, I wrote that a history of the fastball is not so much a history of the skill as simply a record of the talent. I said this to set up the following set of lists, which are intended to be simply a careful and fairly extensive record of the talent.

Who had the best fastball of the years 1955-1959? There are four necessary characteristics of a great fastball:

1. It is thrown very hard,
2. It moves enough, or is thrown with enough deception, that it is difficult to hit,
3. The pitcher has some control over it, and
4. The pitcher is able to throw it consistently over time.

The first and fourth characteristics are the most important ones. Control ... sure, that's tremendously important, but "having good control" is not what we mean by "having a great fastball." It is common to hear said "He's got a great heater, but he doesn't have control of it." This phrase, if you think about it, clearly implies that control is not what we mean when we say a pitcher has a great fastball. It's a separate characteristic, necessary to make the fastball useful.

If a guy can throw a fastball 100 miles an hour, but he can only throw it a few times a game, you don't think of that as being in the same class with the Nolan Ryan/Roger Clemens fastball, because those guys could throw the fastball 100 times a game. This feeds also into what I might describe as the David Clyde problem. When David Clyde passed the thirty-year anniversary of his pathetic few major-league successes, many stories were written about him, and in those stories old players were quoted as raving about David Clyde's fastball ... greatest fastball I ever saw, buddy.

I drew up a list of the best fastballs of the early 1970s, and David Clyde doesn't make the list. People will read the list, and some of you will look at the early 1970s, and you'll look for David Clyde, and he's not there, and so you'll think that I'm just not aware of the things that batters said who had to face him, or that I'm aware of them but I don't believe them.

But that's not true; I am aware of them, and I do believe them. It's just that ... well, does that make him Nolan Ryan? Does that make him Vida Blue? There are too many other guys with better evidence.

In any five-year period, there are forty guys who are claimed by somebody to be as fast as Walter Johnson, or as fast as Bob Feller, or as fast as Nolan Ryan, as fast as whoever the standard is at the moment. People made the same exact sort of comments about Pete Broberg that they did about David Clyde. We have the same kind of quotes about Gary Gentry, claiming he was faster than Seaver. The fastest known radar reading from that era, other than Nolan Ryan, was for John D'Acquisto. You've got Goose Gossage in that pot -- a young Goose Gossage. You have to sort out those claims somehow. Steve Busby threw a no-hitter as a rookie, threw another the next year, won the Rookie of the Year award and won 40 games over the next two years, although he was injured and ineffective for the last two months of that second year. He was throwing a sinking fastball. Don't you reckon the batters who faced him, when he was throwing a no-hitter (or one of his several near no-hitters) were fairly impressed with his fastball? Steve Carlton went 27-10 with a terrible team one year in there, throwing high fastballs (the slider didn't become his best pitch until two years later). We have quotes about Steve Carlton when he first came up, comparing him to Sandy Koufax-but, since he is Carlton, those kind of quotes don't even make the file for him, because there is so much other stuff. Which is better evidence about the quality of his fastball: 27 wins, 300 strikeouts, or some guy thirty years later talking about what an awesome fastball David Clyde threw that one afternoon?

Bob Brown, a pitcher with the Braves in the 1930s, went 14-7 in 1932, but won only sixteen games in his career. Beans Reardon, a longtime umpire, insisted that Brown was the fastest pitcher he ever saw-faster than Grove, faster than Feller. Well, okay ... but does a fastball that wins sixteen games rate higher than a fastball that wins 300? Not usually.

Of course, the business of rating the best fastballs of each era is somewhat haphazard. I didn't bat against any of these guys, and I haven't read every word written about them. Take the lists for what they're worth. The best fastballs of each half-decade, beginning in 1880:

"The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James) is published by Fireside. Click here to purchase your copy.