The radar gun was invented over 50 years ago, but since its introduction, it has been used primarily by two types of people. First, it has been used by highway police. Second, it has been used by baseball scouts.
And while some highway patrolmen have moved on to more advanced equipment, a scout without his radar gun is like a fish out of water. So the question is: why is speed so important?
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Most would accept the proposition that, all other things being equal, it's better for a pitcher to throw harder. A 95 mph fastball is better than an 85 mph fastball, given similar movement and location. But sometimes it can appear as though the only guys who really get a fair shake are the guys who light up the speed guns. I bet you've wondered why. I know David Murphy has:
Baseball is an American game, and Americans like things big and loud and fast. A quarter pound of beef on a bun is not big enough for us, so we doubled it. Twelve ounces of soda is not enough for us, so we made it 20. And, yeah, the environment is nice and all, but who really wants to drive a Prius over a Hummer?
But unless you know how to control the trappings of the American lifestyle, you end up overweight with high cholesterol and a hole in the ozone.
See? Makes perfect sense.
Baseball Prospectus's in-house scout (and Managing Partner), Kevin Goldstein, has offered an explanation. From his article, unambiguously titled "Throw Hard or Go Home":
[W]e now know the velocity of every pitch thrown in the big leagues, and when measuring the data against the basic theory of the scout, the numbers support his theory, and on a staggering level.
That said, obviously there are exceptions to the rule. Asserting that, if you throw hard, you will get to the big leagues is not an absolute truth; baseball has no absolutes. But the inverse—all those who get to the big leagues throw hard—that's almost all the way there. Is command important? Yes. And secondary pitches? Absolutely important as well. But the leading statistical indicator for getting to the majors might not be measured by any spreadsheet or formula, but may instead be found on the radar gun.
By his calculations, 92 percent of all right-handed pitchers in the major leagues have at least average velocity (in other words, at least a 50 on the 20-80 scouting scale, or in other other words, 89 mph average fastball velocity).
While Goldstein allows that there may be exceptions, his claim is that velocity is at least a necessary component for big league success. And in the cases where it is not, there are some very serious secondary factors at work, which are:
- secondary offerings
- physical size
- deceptive delivery
It might be reasonable to argue that, absent average fastball velocity, a pitcher would need at least two of the above attributes. Goldstein cites Chris Young, who has physical size (6'11") and a deceptive delivery. This also helps to explain why certain pitchers can age relatively gracefully, while others seem to fall off a cliff when their velocity declines.
But doesn't that seem, like, unfair, man? Well, maybe, but nobody said life was fair and that goes doubly for baseball.
For one thing, baseball nerds on the internet LOVE guys who can barely throw in the 80s. Look at R.J. Swindle. Or Charlie Haeger. Or R.A. Dickey. Or Chris--excuse me--Disco Hayes. I mean, for the love of God, look at #callupdisco. The guy doesn't even have 50 IP at Triple-A! Can a few thousand nerds in their moms' basements be wrong?
Well, maybe. But maybe not, says Bill James via Joe Posnanski (he who wrought the Disco beast):
[M[aybe some team (say the Pittsburgh Pirates) simply decides that they will stop scouting and acquiring anyone who throws 90-plus mph. Just stop. You throw 95? Good for you, we’re not interested.
[M]y feeling is that if you have decided to just stop looking at the 95 mph guys and focused ALL YOUR ENERGIES on these slow-throwing guys, well, I think the chances are pretty good that you would get some, most or even all of those [few soft-tossers who could be major leaguers]. Why? Because, generally speaking, other teams are not investing much effort in scouting people who top out at 83. They are not scouting those players, they are not making much effort sign those players, they’re not spending draft picks on those players.
[I]f you choose to value command and quirkiness and control and utterly devalue the radar gun, you should be able to corner that market.
Well, it's definitely an interesting idea. Posnanski uses the idea (and, somehow, E=mc^2) to show that baseball teams are extremely risk-averse: they'd rather fail being conventional than take the risk of failing by being unconventional.
One of the things I like about baseball is that it has archetypes. Sure they're corny and too easily fallen into, but they persist because they reflect a certain truth. There really are middle infielders who cover their uniforms in dirt and hustle on every play, even if that doesn't make them any more valuable.
And two of the most persistent pitcher archetypes are (1) the hard-throwing young pitcher with no control whatsoever and (2) the old, crafty left-hander who could barely break a windowpane with his fastball.
And it's kind of true. For every Neftali Feliz (that video is genius by the way), there are a dozen Kyle Farnsworths, Joel Zumayas, Jose Capellans, Andy "Sisquatch" Siscos, Mark Wohlerses, and Daniel Cabreras.
But maybe that archetype of the hard thrower with bad control blinds us to the truth that Kevin Goldstein has realized. Maybe hard throwers get more chances because fastball velocity is hard to find, and if you've got it there's always a chance everything will click and you'll become Bob Feller.
I was reminded of this as I was reading RJ over at DRaysBay. He wrote a great piece about B.J. Upton and his haters, but this part stuck with me:
We don't need these generalizations based on who gives the best quotes or gets their jerseys dirty to actually enjoy baseball and understand the players better. Buying into these illusions created by others simply hurts the understanding of players if nothing else.
Active players are, by and large, devoted to their careers through retirement, and even then you still see retired announcers, coaches, and scouts. It takes a special kind of deviant to put in those kinds of hours without going insane. We get a ton of entertainment value from the committed; don't give them disincentive by feeling the need to mold them.
The point here is that archetypes hang around because they're easy. And the longer they hang around, the easier it is to spot guys who fill up the bins we have in our minds. And that only reinforces what we think we know.
So yes, don't blame the scouts who bring speed guns to minor league guns. (In my experience, sitting with the scouts behind home plate is by far the best place to watch a minor league game--they're the ones who actually know what they're talking about.)
But also let's remember that guys can beat the odds. That's why we like them. As much as sabermetrics exists to remind us about concepts like regression to the mean and attrition rates and "health is a skill," it also serves to remind us just how rare and fantastic excellence is. And when that excellence comes from somewhere unexpected, well, then I do believe it's time to Disco.
Who was your favorite hard-thrower who flamed out due to poor control? Favorite crafty lefty?