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Jerry “Sully” Sullivan of the Buffalo News knew what readers cared about when he wrote up Stephen Strasburg’s final minor-league game. “What a disappointment! Five innings, 89 pitches, and Strasburg hasn’t reached 100 mph on the gun! “ Sullivan typed last week, with slight sarcasm. “A few fastballs hit 99 mph, but that’s it.”
Until the second inning of his major-league debut Tuesday, Strasburg hadn’t yet thrown a pitch measured at 100 mph during any of his appearances as a pro. Baseball people will tell you many of his other minor-league numbers—the 7-2 won-lost record, the 1.30 ERA, the 65 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 55 1/3 innings—are drool-worthy, too. But it’s the velocity of his fastball, which is a stat that the Elias Sports Bureau, the official keeper of all of baseball’s precious numbers, won’t even recognize or catalog, that holds sway. (“Maybe someday, if measuring technology gets better,” an Elias official tells me when I ask if the organization has considered changing its policy.)
Sports Illustrated ran a Strasburg profile last week that led off its roster of his “near comic-book pitching powers” with a mention of his “100-mile-an-hour fastball.” The spots in the Nationals’ new Strasburg radio campaign start with a voice of the gods trumpeting the newcomer’s “103 mile-an-hour fastball.” (Only three other pitchers in baseball history—Mark Wohlers, Matt Anderson, and Joel Zumaya—have been credited with that speed.)
There’s almost no baseball number that isn’t confusing or open to interpretation—Nats reliever Tyler Clippard’s ERA after the first month and a half of the season showed how misleading a stat can be. (And my mom is still complaining about a Washington Post game story from last week that dropped “OPS” twice into the copy without explanation. I don’t know what that means either, Ma.)
But everybody gets a 100 mile-an-hour fastball. It’s the baseball equivalent of the four-minute mile or the perfect SAT score, encroaching on superhuman and Stupid Human all at once.
So speed sells. The reports that Strasburg was throwing triple-digit heat during his last year at San Diego State helped push his asking price to a record $15.1 million after the Nats drafted him. But suddenly, in a town that hasn’t cared about baseball since 1925, Strasburg’s arrival was bigger news than Albert Haynesworth’s disappearance.
On Craigslist, one of the 459 posters on the site who as of Monday night was hawking tickets to the Game offered a pair for $600. The pitch: “You’ll be right near home plate to watch every 100 mph fastball sizzle!” The Lerners’ record payout to the untested college boy now seems like a bargain.
“There’s so much more to pitching, obviously,” says Phil Wood, the host of the official post-game show of the Nats radio network and the gold standard of local baseball historians. “But if you can throw a baseball 100 miles an hour, that sets you apart. You could say that will catch people’s eye.”
Speed has been the hottest topic about Strasburg for a while. “Stephen Strasburg brings 100 MPH fastball to Syracuse” was the headline of April 29 story in the Syracuse Post Standard announcing Strasburg’s ascension to Triple A ball. The San Diego Union Tribune also wrote about the hometown hero’s AAA move, and in that piece said that Syracuse GM John Simone was worried that the speed readout used on the team’s scoreboard, which was designed to handle only pitches with two-digit speeds, would “explode or something” if Strasburg played to his triple-digit reputation.
We haven’t had anybody who can throw that fast around these parts in a while. Or maybe ever.
Walter Johnson’s name pops up whenever history’s heaviest hurlers are mentioned. In a May 1937 article about the dangers of the game, legendary Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich asserted that the Senators Hall of Famer had broken the century mark with a pitch: “At a test at the United States Bureau of Standards several years ago,” Povich wrote, “the speed of Walter Johnson’s fastball was gauged at more than 100 miles an hour.”
“And so it is that unthinking fans who yell, ‘You bum!’ as a hitter misses a swing, forget that tragedy rides with these pitches,” Povich went on, “that one errant pitch can rend body from soul.”
All these years later, however, there’s no record of the government test Povich referred to, or any other outing proving Johnson could break 100.
“Walter Johnson likely threw close to 100,” says Wood. “But there was no accurate way to measure that when he was in his prime.”
The most trusted speed reader of Johnson’s day, in fact, was a device used by Remington to measure the velocity of a bullet. In October 1912, Johnson traveled to the company’s Bridgeport, Conn., manufacturing plant and threw pitches into the firm’s ballistic tunnel. His throws tripped the wires at 122 feet per second—around 83 miles per hour. Of course, Johnson was dressed in street clothes and wasn’t pitching off a mound. “But 83, that’s a Livan Hernandez number,” says Wood.
In 1946, the Senators held a promotion at Griffith Stadium to find out just how fast the Cleveland Indians’ Bob Feller could throw. Nothing improves technology quite like a World War. Owner Clark Griffith had “Joe Chronograph,” a machine used by the Army’s Ordnance Department to measure the speed of shells, shipped down to his stadium for what was billed as the most accurate baseball velocity test ever conducted. Feller, who was both a returning World War II hero and the guy hailed as the fleetest thrower in prewar baseball, was paid a reported $700 to throw three balls through a lighted square. Yet, like Johnson had earlier in the century, Feller failed to break 100. Mr. Chronograph measured the fastest of Feller’s tosses at 98.6 miles an hour, according to a Washington Post account of the speed trial. To this day, Feller insists he threw 107 mph that night in D.C.
(Griffith might have been swayed to stage the velocity exhibition by the Indians’ president and baseball’s P.T. Barnum, Bill Veeck. Veeck traveled with his team to Washington for the series, and a night after Feller’s tosses, Griffith staged a 100-yard “match race” here between the Nats’ Gil Coan and George Case of the Indians. The racers split $1,000.)
By the 1960s, radar was being used to clock pitching speeds. The much traveled Nolan Ryan is usually credited with throwing the first 100 mph pitch in a game in the age of the JUGS gun, hitting 100.9 MPH in August 1974, when he was with the California Angels. Other pitchers of his generation had better won-lost records, but until he retired in 1993, nobody filled more seats than Ryan.
Yet pre-Strasburg, no local hurler with either the expansion Senators or the National League Nats, had recorded a pitch of 100 mph or more. In fact, the only other guy in the Nats organization with a claim at triple-digit status is Rob Dibble, the color commentator on the team’s TV broadcasts. Dibble, a former Reds closer, was clocked at 101.0 miles per hour at Candlestick Park on June 8, 1992. (Strasburg’s debut came on the 18th anniversary of Dibble’s offering.)
Dibble, like every other pitcher except Ryan to join the 100-mph club over the years, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s not a question of how hard you throw,” Wood says, “if you can’t throw strikes.”
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.