You Shall Know Their Velocity
Statistics have permeated the operation and enjoyment of baseball, so much so that they play a role in the everyman's arguments. Numerical quibbling isn’t what has maintained my interest in baseball or other sports. Talking about the games—sometimes illogically, always passionately—has. It’s been that way since elementary school; only the language has gotten saltier.
As much as I love statistics and their myriad applications, it troubles me to see athletes reduced to decimal points and percentages. It doesn’t matter how infallible the numbers are, they deflate the human aspect of being a sports fan: Loosely organized, overzealous debate featuring just a whiff of B.S.
Tim Wendel’s High Heat, recently released in paperback, maintains the spirit of that frivolity. It’s a delightful, informative account of the author's “improbable search” to find “the fastest pitcher of all time,” a quest that can’t be verified with numbers. Realizing this, Wendel submits to the capricious wonder that is throwing a baseball very, very fast. Scouts, coaches, and managers share a similar wonderment. Whether you're eight or eighty-eight, this simple act leads to an amazement that can only be measured with a radar gun. High Heat celebrates this pure joy and awe and leaves the calculator work for the good folks at Baseball Prospectus.
To better appreciate Wendel’s quest, it helps to know that with enough coaching and a strong enough arm, a pitcher can learn how to throw a curveball, a slider, or even a knuckleball. No amount of training can get a pitcher to throw faster. Speed is an ineffable quality. The same way that only a handful of women walking the planet can be deemed beautiful, only a precious few will ever throw a baseball like Nolan Ryan did. Favorites endure through the generations. Baby boomers may talk about Bob Gibson and Raquel Welch in the same reverential tones. As a child of the 1980s, I can wax poetic about Dwight Gooden, the Mets’ fire-throwing prodigy with the Rockette leg kick, and the painful radiance of Michelle Pfeiffer.
Beauty and speed are unstable commodities: Look at Lindsay Lohan or Gooden, whose talents withered with drug use and surgery. Steve Dalkowski could throw one hundred and five miles per hour, but his dangerous lack of control—both on and off the field—rendered him a kooky icon in minor league lore who’s best known as the inspiration for Tim Robbins’s character in the movie Bull Durham. Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and Randy Johnson got lucky. Each had control issues until concerned parties refined their mechanics so that pitches nipped the plate instead of batters. The only thing that could stop J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros was a stroke, which ended the intimidator’s promising career in 1980 at age thirty. Today’s prospects are babied and protected with strict pitch counts and lots of prep work. Not that it matters. “Many of the top fireballers who have preceded [David] Price have gone through similar ordeals,” writes Wendel of the Tampa Bay Rays’ coddled prize, whom he profiles in High Heat. “The best not only survived: they rose to the occasion and often became icons of the game. As for the rest? They never came close.”
Legendary old timers Walter Johnson and Bob Feller grew up strapping lads who toiled outside—“I could pitch all day after doing those chores,” Feller says of growing up on a farm. But there’s no archetype for the fast pitcher. Puny Billy Wagner could suddenly throw in the low 90s in college. Beanstalk-skinny Tim Lincecum’s unconventional, effective wind-up (developed by his father, a parts inventory employee at Boeing) is a pitching coach’s nightmare. “Anybody who can throw hard can look at somebody else who throws hard and see the familiarities,” the star pitcher tells Wendel. “It’s kind of like we’re talking the same language. That’s why I can’t figure out why so many scouts and baseball people mess up. If you can bring it, why worry about what a guy looks like, how he does it?”
Speed alone won’t keep pitchers alive. Wendel talks to Tommy John about the revolutionary, eponymous arm procedure that saved his career. Now commonplace, Tommy John surgery actually allows pitchers “to throw the ball harder and faster when they return.” The author examines the sordid history of the beanball, dissects a pitcher’a mechanics (Wendel, to his embarrassment, gets his scientifically tested), and highlights the value of a good catcher.
Wendel does find the fastest pitcher of all time, a selection that shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. The rest of his choices probably will. That’s expected. High Heat isn’t a precise and orderly book. Like having a conversation with a supremely informed and eloquent fan, you’ll find the usual array of diversions and revelations and personal observations. But damned if you don’t devour the book with a smile on your face and a refreshed perspective.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.