MLB Pitchers Are Giving Radar Guns A Workout

Steve Inskeep talks to Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal about his story on high octane pitchers, and how more Major League Baseball pitchers are throwing at faster speeds than ever before.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Major League Baseball teams are beginning their seasons this week and you could be forgiven if you blinked and missed the opening pitch - since pitchers are throwing harder than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the best arm in the Reds organization, maybe the best arm in all of baseball right here, with Aroldis Chapman coming into the ballgame.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIT BASEBALL AND CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One-o-three.

INSKEEP: You could hear the slap of the ball in the glove there as Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman threw a pitch a few years back. He consistently throws at speeds of over 95 miles per hour. Some pitchers have thrown that hard for years but Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal reports that the number of high speed pitchers is dramatically increasing. He's on the line. Mr. Futterman, welcome to the program.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How do the numbers of super fast pitchers today compare with, I don't know, 10 or 15 years ago?

FUTTERMAN: Well, about 10 years ago there were 20 pitchers who threw more than 700 fast balls more than 95 miles per hour. Today, last season, there were 62. So what's happening is, you know, the maximum speed isn't really going up but the number of pitchers who can reach that ceiling or hitting that maximum speed is really just exploding.

INSKEEP: OK. You're saying that the number has tripled. We did mention Aroldis Chapman. He's one of the hard throwers. Who are a few of the others?

FUTTERMAN: Oh, well, you've got a guy named Carter Capps out in Seattle. He's generally considered the hardest thrower consistently, and his average fast ball last year was about 98.3 miles per hour. And then you have some other guys: Trevor Rosenthal over in St. Louis, Jason Motte, he's also in St. Louis. You've even got some guys who are starting the season in the minors like Dylan Bundy of the Orioles who, you know, hit 100 miles an hour in high school. And he's just 20 years old at this point.

INSKEEP: What is happening that is making it possible for so many more pitchers to throw so hard?

FUTTERMAN: I think it's a greater understanding about how a human body throws a baseball really, really fast. And from what I can tell a lot of this started sometime in the '90s when radar guns really became ubiquitous. You know, and now we go to a baseball game or we watch on television, and we see the speed at which every pitch is thrown. It's up there on the scoreboard, it's on our television is when we see it. And not only that, you go to a little league game and there's a bunch of dads who are clocking their nine-year-olds and telling you, you know, my kid is throwing 58 yesterday.

I mean, so there's been this obsession with velocity. And the reason there's been an obsession with velocity is because you get paid to throw really fast. It's that one measurable characteristic that scouts can look at and say we know this guy can throw really fast so we're going to pay him a lot of money when we draft him.

INSKEEP: OK. So it used to be more of an art. Now it's becoming more of a science. But I have to ask, Mr. Futterman, because I'm remembering when home run hitting dramatically increased in the 1990s. People were impressed, then began asking why, and eventually we learned the baseball steroid scandal, the performance enhancing drug scandal. Is anybody suspicious as fast throwing pitchers increase their numbers?

FUTTERMAN: Well, look, I'm a sports writer. So at this point I'm always going to be suspicious. But having said that, if we were attributing this to steroid use, then home runs, runs scoring offense, that should be going through the roof as well. And that's been going through the floor. Home runs are way down, scoring is way down, batting average is way down.

So it seems that the steroid rules that baseball has passed in the last few years has acted as something of a deterrent. And it's hard to believe that in a locker room or a clubhouse, only the pitchers are using the drugs. Usually if somebody's using something, everybody's using something.

INSKEEP: Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.

FUTTERMAN: Oh, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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