- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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We interrupt major league baseball's fascination with radar guns to point out the following velocity-related tidbit, courtesy of the Bill James Handbook:
The fourth-slowest fastball in the American League last year, at 85.8 miles per hour, belonged to Barry Zito of the Oakland Athletics. You might have heard of him: In December, the San Francisco Giants signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract -- the largest deal in history for a pitcher.
Zito is and always has been a craftsman, a pitcher more inclined to beat a hitter by setting him up and outsmarting him than simply cutting it loose. That puts him in the team photo with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer, throwbacks whose late-career gun readings couldn't get them pinched driving on Interstate 10 from Phoenix to Tucson.
Gun readings are so ingrained in the modern psyche -- like the superimposed yellow line that signifies the first-down marker in televised NFL games -- that you wonder how we ever existed without them. They help fill dead air for broadcasters and provide insight for beat reporters in game stories. They're a graphic staple on television, readily available on the Internet and on prominent display on ballpark Jumbotrons.
Who could have predicted that so many fans would postpone that trip to the nacho stand to watch Joel Zumaya hit triple digits? But this is the world we inhabit.
For all the talk about Jim Leyland's understated brilliance, Dave Dombrowski's shrewd acquisitions and the feel-good vibe the Tigers generated last season, perhaps the biggest lesson imparted by Detroit's 2006 American League championship club was the impact of power arms. Starter Justin Verlander rode a dominant fastball to the Rookie of the Year award, and the only way Zumaya could have been scarier was by lugging a chain saw to the mound.
Perhaps coincidentally, several other teams will be sporting a power look in the late innings this year. The Chicago White Sox bullpen consists of Bobby Jenks (6-foot-3, 280 pounds), Andrew Sisco (6-10, 270), Matt Thornton (6-6, 235), David Aardsma (6-4, 205), Mike MacDougal (6-3, 185) and Nick Masset (6-4, 235). Step in the batter's box against them -- or cut them off at the postgame buffet -- at your peril.
"I'm the finesse guy of the group," said Sisco, whose fastball routinely hits the mid-90s.
In Florida, rumored deals for Armando Benitez and Jorge Julio have failed to materialize and the Marlins appear ready to hand their closer's job to Matt Lindstrom, who was acquired by trade from the Mets in November.
Lindstrom, 27, makes for a neat human interest story, given that he hails from Idaho and once traveled to Sweden on a Mormon mission. The Marlins are more impressed with his 98 mph fastball. As VP of player personnel Dan Jennings recently observed, "He can throw a marshmallow through a battleship."
In Milwaukee, hard-throwing Francisco Cordero will be set up by the harder-throwing Derrick Turnbow and Jose Capellan -- guys with such overpowering stuff they make you start the bat yesterday to catch up.
It's natural for big-league clubs to try unpolished power pitchers in the bullpen, said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, because good arms are scarce and young pitchers who throw hard can flourish in short doses without the seasoning necessary to develop their secondary pitches.
"If good starting pitchers are that rare, why shouldn't Jose Capellan or Zumaya be starters?" Melvin asked. "It's because you need four seasons of minor-league development to do that. I think pitchers in the back of their minds think, 'I can get to the big leagues quicker if I throw one or two innings.' "
And in an age when six decent innings earn a starter high fives all around, it's always great to make the opposition cast anxious glances toward the bullpen. This isn't exactly revolutionary. It's been 17 years since Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton, the "Nasty Boys," helped Cincinnati to an improbable World Series sweep of Oakland.
Even before that, velocity and "fun" went hand-in-hand. In 1988, Dodgers pitcher Jay Howell formed a club called the Brain-Dead Heavers, with six conditions for membership: (1) no changeups, (2) throw as hard as you can, (3) change speeds by throwing harder, (4) absolutely no location, (5) little attention paid to mechanics, (6) never read the scouting reports. A young pitcher named John Wetteland was part of the fraternity until he violated policy by working on a curveball.
"You want your pitchers to maximize their stuff, but you don't want them to compromise their mechanics and location to find the extra velocity. There are as many 94 or 95 mile per hour fastballs going out of the ballpark as there are 88 mile an hour sinkers
-- if not more."
-- Bryan Price, Diamondbacks pitching coach
The big difference these days is the seemingly endless wave of pitchers who pop the mitt so hard you can hear it in the bleachers. Maybe that's a product of weight training, performance-enhancing drugs or simple human evolution.
"These kids are coming out of high school at 6-6 and 230 pounds," said former big league outfielder Larry Walker, an instructor in the St. Louis camp this spring. "I think men in general are just getting big, and with that comes all the power."
Baseball, in some respects, sends mixed messages about velocity. Throughout the game, instructors tell young pitchers that velocity is secondary to "pitchability" -- that movement, location, deception and a well-devised game plan are a much greater determinant of success.
But when scouts try to project which high school pitchers have a chance to make the majors in five years, the young Jamie Moyer-types land in the reject bin and the hard throwers sign the big bonuses because of their "high ceilings."
It's easy to see why: Teams think they can mold that 6-3, 210-pound brain-dead heaver into a finished product with the ability to command the strike zone. But you can't teach a crafty 18-year-old how to throw hard.
"When you're a high school or college kid or a young player coming over from a Latin American country, the gun readings typically get scouts excited," said Arizona pitching coach Bryan Price. "I think the theory in professional baseball is that velocity gets you signed, and getting people out gets you to the big leagues."
The great ones ultimately figure out how to mesh the two. Randy Johnson was 29 years old and pitching in Seattle when he finally learned to harness his natural skills and drastically reduce his walk totals. That's when he morphed from a hard-throwing enigma into the Big Unit.
"There are lots of kids who throw hard and lots of kids who don't know what to do when they're throwing hard," Johnson said. "I would much rather have the velocity, like I did when I was younger, than start incorporating how to utilize it and actually be able to pitch with it."
Talk to hitters, and they'll tell you that a straight 98 mph fastball down the middle is eventually going to get pounded. Big leaguers either have too much bat speed or the ability to anticipate a pitch and respond by starting the bat early, a phenomenon commonly known as "cheating."
Gun readings fuel debate because fans love them, but they can be a distraction. Price recalls how Norm Charlton used to sneak peeks at the gun in Seattle, but only because he wanted to make sure there was enough differential between his fastball and splitter to keep hitters off-balance.
"If a pitcher throws a curveball at 74 and the hitter is on it, he might say, 'Maybe I'll drop the next one down to 70 and see if I can get this guy out in front of it,' " Price said.
Some pitchers are more ego driven. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer recalls how former Orioles manager Earl Weaver thought radar guns were valuable as a tool to determine if a pitcher's stuff had declined as a game progressed. Heaven knows how Weaver would have regarded Armando Benitez, who was so velocity obsessed in Baltimore that the Orioles shut off the scoreboard readings when he was on the mound.
"Benitez would throw a pitch and then look back at the gun reading," Palmer said. "It was counterproductive. His arm was great, but his neck was killing him."
The best measure for judging a pitcher's mettle is seeing how he fares when he loses that extra zip. It's instructive when Billy Wagner, who has hit 100 mph on dozens of occasions, calls San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman his professional role model because of Hoffman's economical approach.
Last year, Wagner threw an average of 17.2 pitches per inning and 4.18 pitches per at-bat, compared to 14.7 and 3.73 for Hoffman. Wagner finally realized, at age 35, that he can dial down the velocity at times and ease his workload. He's even tinkering with a split-fingered fastball this spring in an effort to coax more ground balls and faster innings.
Baseball people who've been around a while routinely cite the example of Frank Tanana, who evolved from a power pitcher into a master finesser after arm surgery. He's the patron saint of adaptability.
But when the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., posts gun readings on ESPN, it's hard to convince a new generation of pitchers that faster isn't automatically better.
"That's probably the No. 1 thing that we have to get across to our guys," Price said. "You want your pitchers to maximize their stuff, but you don't want them to compromise their mechanics and location to find the extra velocity. There are as many 94 or 95 mile per hour fastballs going out of the ballpark as there are 88 mile an hour sinkers -- if not more."