- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The word "imposing" didn't exactly spring to mind when Billy Wagner was a 5-foot-3, 135-pound high school pitcher in Virginia, and his fastball registered 78-83 miles per hour on a good day.
Nature would eventually take its course. Wagner sprouted six inches and gained 40 pounds in a calendar year, and he was athletic enough to play baseball and football at Division III Ferrum College. A little time in the weight room coupled with the proper instruction, and that pokey fastball suddenly reached 92 in his freshman year.
Wagner prefers to downplay his radar gun readings, but his diminutive stature and overwhelming stuff make him a novel commodity in the majors. Wagner has relied on his dominant fastball, slider and closer's mentality to save 324 games and make four All-Star teams in a 12-year career with Houston, Philadelphia and the Mets.
The 35-year-old left-hander recently took a break from working on his new split-fingered fastball at Mets camp and shared his thoughts on the topic of velocity with ESPN.com.
I think Larry Dierker had the best explanation for my fastball. He compared me to Nolan Ryan because of our big legs and strong wrists. The wrists allow you to just reach out there and really get a lot of spin on the ball. I think it's God-given. I don't want to psychoanalyze it and make it more than it is. It's just throwing a baseball. It's not curing cancer.
For me, it's important to have balance and for everything to be together. Joel Zumaya and guys like that are so big, they don't have to be in sync to throw hard. I have to be in sync. Good mechanics have a lot to do with your velocity.
In high school, my mechanics were really bad. I was like those guys who pitched in the old days -- all ass and elbows coming at you.
When I was at Ferrum, there was a pitcher named Darren Hodges who had just gotten drafted by the Yankees in the 10th round. He was back at school working before spring training, and I was throwing in the pen and he came over and watched me. Darren said, "I want to show you something," and he just slowed my mechanics a little bit. All of a sudden, I was there.
I can tell you a couple of stories. I remember growing up and watching Rob Dibble face Ron Gant in Cincinnati. Dibble is throwing bullets. He throws a 100-mile-per-hour fastball up and in and Gant hits a bomb. That was my first indication that throwing hard isn't always going to get it done.
In my first year in Philadelphia, I threw my first two pitches 100 [mph]. Then my third one was 99, and the fans were booing. So that tells you more people are looking for the velocity than anything.
Velocity allows you to make more mistakes, but if you can't control it you're not going to be around very long. But you will get second and third looks from teams because you throw hard. Somebody will say, "I can fix his mechanics. I can help him."
There are guys like that in every camp. Ambiorix Burgos, who's here with the Mets, throws 103, but one minute it's over here and the next pitch is over there. He'll always have a job because people will say, "Wow, he throws hard. Let's see if we can change his mechanics and help him."
One guy I like to watch is Roy Oswalt. He's special because he throws hard and he knows how to pitch. But the guy I follow as a role model is Trevor Hoffman, because he's a true pitcher. He goes out there and gets a lot of swings and misses on his changeup. He gets a lot of quick outs and he's quick with his job.
Now that I'm 35 years old, I can't just step out of bed and throw 97 like I did when I was 23. If you talk to Trevor, he'll tell you, the hardest thing as a power pitcher is to say, "I'm going to throw a changeup and I want them to hit it." For me, it took a while to get that confidence where I could say, "So what if they hit it?"
But that's what pitching is about. My goal is to get to the Hall of Fame, but I can't define my career by strikeouts. I want it to be defined by people saying, "He threw hard, he located, and he led his team to the World Series." That's how you define your career."