The heartbeat of the game of baseball is the battle between the pitcher and the batter – one man with a ball, one with a stick. As the pitcher winds up and the batter zeroes in, both of their bodies tense up and suddenly spring into action against each other. All actions of the game arise from that confrontation, sixty feet and six inches and barely a second in the making.
As explained in the fascinating new documentary FASTBALL, that seemingly arbitrary
distance is actually a nearly perfect balance point between the two players on either side of the ball. From that distance, a pitch thrown as fast as a human being can possibly throw – somewhere just above 100 mph if you are an elite pitcher – is delivered at a speed that is right at the threshold for how quickly the most talented of hitters can see, process, and react to the pitch. At that highest level of execution, batters and umpires alike swear the ball “rises” as it reaches home plate – something that physics tells us is impossible.
Steve Dalkowski - the fastest pitcher to never make the majors?
That’s just one of the mysteries, myths, and memories investigated and revealed in FASTBALL, based on the original idea by the film’s Producer, Thomas Tull, who also produced the feature film “42” and who is a Board Member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The film features interviews with dozens of former players, from legendary Hall of Famers to up-and-coming All-Stars. FASTBALL documents the history of the “fastest” pitcher – from Walter Johnson’s famous speed of 122 feet per second, to Bob Feller’s post-war record of 98.6 mph, to Nolan Ryan’s “officially” clocked best of 100.9, to the current speed gun king Aroldis Chapman’s 105.1.
But it also remembers the many stories and statistics surrounding the greatest fastball pitchers of all time. Sandy Koufax’ perfect game is remembered with rarely seen footage shot from behind home plate; the intimidating stares of Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Bob Gibson are echoed in the observations of modern-day fastball mavens Chapman and Craig Kimbrel; and early problems with wildness ultimately lead to two very different careers for Hall of Famer Ryan and former phenom Steve Dalkowski, the fastest pitcher in history who never made it to the majors.
While players, historians, and scientists might disagree on who was actually the fastest pitcher in history – and yes, the film does the math and seems to come out with a very clear verdict that might come as a surprise – FASTBALL tells the story of the game itself. Filmed at baseball’s most hallowed grounds, from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to Yankee Stadium to the sandlot field in Weiser, Idaho, where Walter Johnson's fastball changed the game over a hundred years ago, the film provides unparalleled insight into both the mechanics and the mythos of our National Pastime.Some background on the science behind the "verdict" regarding the game's fastest pitcher of all time. The methodology to calculate the speed of a baseball pitch has varied over time. Only very recently has it become standardized. Pitch velocity is now measured 50 feet from the plate, or approximately 10 feet after it leaves the pitchers' hand. Earlier rudimentary measures of pitch speed were done calculating velocity nearer or past 60 feet six inches, i.e. where the plate would be. By adding in the decline in the velocity of the pitch over distance (a constant), the scientists were able to recalculate the speed of earlier pitchers so they could be compared on a level playing field. I won't spoil the surprise but instead leave my readers guessing pending their review of the movie. Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, Aroldis Chapman...who is the fastest pitcher of all time?
The movie does whiff on one point, however. While there is a great deal of discussion about the physical challenges in hitting a 100 mph fastball, the movie misses the boat when discussing why such a pitch is so difficult to hit. While the reaction time to judge the location of a fastball and swing if in a hitting zone is extremely brief, a fact well documented in the movie, major league hitters can do successfully adjust to hit 100 mph pitches. What makes a good fastball such an effective weapon is that the batter doesn't always know it is going to be a fastball - it could well be an off-speed pitch such as a changeup or slider, a pitch that looks a lot like a fastball until it breaks. These off-speed pitches throw off the batters' ability to focus solely on timing the fastball. Indeed the great fastball pitchers discussed in the movie all had strong off-speed pitches.
I highly recommend Fastball.