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Why Walter Johnson may still be the fastest pitcher ever

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  • Why Walter Johnson may still be the fastest pitcher ever

    When comparing players from different eras, it's pretty much accepted as Gospel that today's athlete is superior to those who played at the turn of the century.

    Certainly, this theory bears out when you look at sports like track, where modern runners leave the sprinters of yore in the proverbial dust. The stopwatch doesn't lie -- guys like Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe wouldn't even qualify for the modern Olympics with the times they posted in their heydays.

    But it occurs to me that the same thing cannot be said about fastball pitchers. If the stopwatch doesn't lie, neither, then, does the radar gun.

    On August 20, 1974, the Guinness Book of World Records clocked Nolan Ryan's fastball at 100.9 miles per hour during a game against the Chicago White Sox.

    A generation later, Mark Wohlers hit 103 mph in a 1995 spring training game, while an Armando Benitez fastball clocked in at 102 mph during a 2002 game at Shea Stadium, according to baseballalmanac.com. Bobby Jenks, Randy Johnson and Rob Nen also threw 102-mph fastballs in recent years.

    These fastballs are only slightly swifter than Ryan's heater thrown more than 30 years ago --and it's likely Ryan reached 102 or 103 mph in games where a radar gun was not being used.

    The gap in years between Ryan's 1974 radar gun reading and the velocities posted by modern speedball merchants is telling.

    Modern nutrition, training techniques and a host of other variables have taken place over the last 30 years, leading to faster runners. And yet, those same advances in training and nutrition do not seem to have translated to fastballs.

    You could make the argument that training habits in Ryan's day were closer to those employed during Walter Johnson's era than they are to modern methods. In the 1970s, for instance, weight training was still eschewed by most of the baseball establishment. Many of the techniques used during the '70s weren't too different from those used in the deadball era.

    And yet, despite the huge advances in training technology we've seen in the last 30 years, there has not been an appreciable jump in the fastest pitchers' speed.

    Is it flawed logic, then, to assume that there probably wasn't a huge difference between the speed of pitchers in the 1970s versus the speeds posted by Johnson, Grove, Feller, etc.?

    When comparing Ryan to modern pitchers, I'm sure there are some variables to consider, such as the difference in speed gun technology that has taken place since the 1970s. But, even accounting for these differentials, the fastball Nolan Ryan threw on August 20, 1974 is right up there with the best fastballs baseball has to offer more than 30 years later.

    So, I think it's a mistake to automatically assume that Walter Johnson wasn't a patch on today's speed kings, just because he played a few generations ago. Advances in training techniques do not seem to have affected the high hard one.
    Last edited by Victory Faust; 02-18-2006, 09:14 AM.
    "Hey Mr. McGraw! Can I pitch to-day?"

  • #2
    johnsons fastball was clocked by 100 before i believe, in 1914

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    • #3
      Two things to keep in mind

      The ability to throw fast are muscles that cannot be enhanced, at least not with today's technology, or else P's would be body builders and not tall and lean

      Johnson threw a bigger, darker, less tightly wound ball for most of his career...so even if he topped 98 mph...it was faster then a white ball thrown 103 mph today

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      • #4
        which makes all the more amazing

        The size of the Babe's bat. Wonder if he would choke up against Walter or did he take his customary full cut.
        Also, when you look at Chan Ho Park he could regularly hit 100. He wasn't that much bigger than a player back in the days of Johnson. I recall being at Safeco and watching him throw on the sidelines in the bullpen. He let loose some pitches that were just amazing.
        Johnny
        Delusion, Life's Coping Mechanism

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        • #5
          Victory - I did a lot of research on the topic of Johnson's speed a couple months ago that I posted here:

          http://baseball-fever.com/showthread.php?t=37240

          The tests that were used prior to 1946 were antiquated but at least give us an idea of how fast old-timers were. The only documented test that I found on his speed showed he threw 83. But that measured the speed as it traveled between 60 to 75 feet from the point of release. That translates to a low 90s time by modern means of measurement. Also 1) he was in street clothes 2) he was not pitching off a mound and 3) he only threw 3 pitches that tripped the wires. Under game conditions I have no doubt he could throw close to 100. I found some other stories articles that claimed he was timed at 99.7 but I haven't found anything to document the source of this story.

          Feller was clocked at 98.6 in 1946 and that was based upon a few pitched prior to the start of a game. Unlike today where every pitch is timed, in my opinion it's likely he could have topped that mark many times. Also, his 98.6 was based upon the speed as it crossed the plate. The ball loses several MPH from the release to when it crosses the plate so his 98.6 translates to about 102-103 using the same point of reference as a modern gun.

          I think that the best speedballers from the past could throw as hard as any of the top pitchers of today.
          "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

          Rogers Hornsby, 1961

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          • #6
            Can't they take old film from a game, and using stop action photography, get it down to the 1/10,000 or whatever of a second how long it took to get to the plate? Then, once we know it took whatever number of microseconds (what is that, a thousand? I think but I'm not sure) or whatever you use to travel 60 feet, 6 inches, the rest is pure math.

            it seems to me that they're too in love with technology, and are going about this the wrong way if such films are extant. (There's a word you rarely see on baseball-fever.com, at least in that way, sounds like I'm an archaeologist :-) What is more precise, a radar gun that might be off by a few seconds, or a film projector that can tell you the exact time the ball left the hand to the microsecond, the time it reached the glove, and the exact distance travelled (admittedly probably more like 65 feet given arm angle, etc. - something that can done mathematically again.)
            Last edited by DTF955; 02-18-2006, 11:43 AM.
            If Baseball Integrated Early - baseball integrated from the beginning - and "Brotherhood and baseball," the U.S. history companion, at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Baseballifsandmore - IBIE updated for 2011.

            "Full House Chronology" at yahoo group fullhousefreaks & fullhouse4life with help of many fans, thanks for the input

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            • #7
              there are old game films of johnson?

              anson used to say that rusie was faster than johnson

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              • #8
                There probably are, or at least of him warming up. I know there are of Feller because I remember one time seeing a highlight reel from the 1948 World Series.

                I guess you also need to know what's a fastball, too, when doing this, but that wouldn't take that long.
                If Baseball Integrated Early - baseball integrated from the beginning - and "Brotherhood and baseball," the U.S. history companion, at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Baseballifsandmore - IBIE updated for 2011.

                "Full House Chronology" at yahoo group fullhousefreaks & fullhouse4life with help of many fans, thanks for the input

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                • #9
                  so who's the fastest throwing Johnson, Randy or Walter?

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by DTF955
                    There probably are, or at least of him warming up. I know there are of Feller because I remember one time seeing a highlight reel from the 1948 World Series.

                    I guess you also need to know what's a fastball, too, when doing this, but that wouldn't take that long.
                    When I was at the HOF back in 1997 they had a fuzzy video of Walter Johnson pitching. I was mesermized by it. His delivery was so fluid, so devoid of extra movement, sidearming it like cracking a whip.

                    Yankees Fan Since 1957

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by blackout805
                      so who's the fastest throwing Johnson, Randy or Walter?
                      For my money, I'd bet on the Big Train. He had to be fast to garner as many K's as he did when facing batters who:

                      * knew they were getting a fastball because for the most part that's all he had until later in his career
                      * dug in at the plate knowing he wouldn't throw at them
                      * choked up just trying to meet the ball as opposed to today's slugging types
                      * knew he would be around the strike zone because of his good control

                      Yankees Fan Since 1957

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                      • #12
                        I've read where Jim Maloney was timed at 99.5 MPH in the 60's so I don't doubt that Drysdale,Koufax, Gibson etc. could bring it at or near that speed.

                        Walter Johnson and Bob Feller have clips of them throwing on Ken Burns anthology. There's one of Feller throwing a fastball in slow-motion. I thought about doing the same thing and counting the number of frames it took to get to the plate and calculating the speed. The problem is that it appears that the film was made in slow-motion and so I can't figure out the shutter speed.

                        I slowed down the clip of Johnson and can see the tail and head of the ball in one frame. But the film was also shot in slo-mo so I haven't been able to figure out the shutter speed and hence the pitched speed.
                        "Batting slumps? I never had one. When a guy hits .358, he doesn't have slumps."

                        Rogers Hornsby, 1961

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                        • #13
                          I don't know much about Lefty Grove, but if I had a choice of hitting against Bob Feller or Walter Johnson or NOLAN RYAN, I would pick Walter Johnson

                          ... because he had better control than Feller or Ryan, and Johnson really feared hitting a batter with his fastball. I couldn't hit off any of the three, but with Johnson I have a better chance of ending the game alive.
                          Luke

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