May 6, 2016

Need For Speed: Has Baseball Reached Peak Velocity?


Vice Sports

To read the entire story, written by Mike Vorkunov, click here.

There is no sight in baseball more awe inspiring right now than New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard on the mound, midway through his delivery, his right arm cocked back behind him, and ready to fire.

For the hitter at the plate, the possibilities that follow are multiple and unnerving. Will it be the fastball that hums by at nearly triple digits? Or the slider with the devastating break, thrown harder than that of any other starting pitcher on record? Or perhaps a changeup that's faster than the average fastball of his teammate, Bartolo Colon?

In the sport's golden age of velocity, Syndergaard is king.

What just a few relievers have been able to do each year, he is doing every fifth day. And at age 23, the Mets' pitcher is only in the second season of his career.

Yet, as startling as those numbers are, they also brings to mind a more intriguing question: What are the possibilities for velocity in baseball—in a year, in five years, or in 20? Is Syndergaard the end point—have we reached peak velocity?—or is he only the fastest to come along so far? Velocity has slowly been rising over the last decade. But before Syndergaard there was Roger Clemens, and before Clemens there was Nolan Ryan.

"It really comes down to what a guy's genetic potential is," Ryan told VICE Sports. "It's hard to make any kind of prediction, but we'll see how it works out."

In some ways, the repeated 100 mph fastball from the starting pitcher is baseball's version of the four-minute mile barrier. There was a time when breaking that threshold was considered by some to be impossible, until Roger Bannister did just that.

Are there physical limits to what the arm can do, or are they only perceived? The answer is unclear, but either possibility has its allure. It's possible that in Syndergaard, we are seeing the limits of the human arm. Or we could be seeing the beginning of the most dramatic spike yet, brought about by a wave of fearsome starters hitting the sport.

"If I'm not going out there and hitting 101," he said. "It's not acceptable for me."

Those high standards aren't even far-fetched for him. He has topped out at 101.3 mph, according to Pitchf/x data. His average fastball velocity, 97.9 mph, is the fastest on average for any starter in the Fangraphs era, which dates back to 2002. His slider is even more menacing. Before this year, only one pitcher, Boston's Clay Buchholz, had averaged 90 mph on sliders over a season. Syndergaard's sits at 92 and has hit 95.

Higher velocity is certainly coming, and not just where you're accustomed to seeing it. The attention focused on the unending stream of flamethrowing relievers into bullpens across baseball has taken the spotlight away from starting rotations. There, pitchers are in the midst of a power surge, too. The average fastball velocity for a starting pitcher in 2006 was 90 mph. Last year, it was 91.7. The Mets' rotation—with Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom all pitching in the mid-90's—epitomizes this evolution.

However, just as velocity is rising, so is the number of Tommy John surgeries being conducted around baseball. In 2006, there were 53 documented operations. In 2010, 77. Last year, there were 118.

"The correlation between velocity and injury risk is at least as strong as the correlation between velocity and performance," says Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute. ASMI, as it's more succinctly know, was started by Dr. James Andrews, the famed orthopedic surgeon.

Fleisig has become an expert on arms and elbows around baseball, with teams coming to him for advice with their own hurt or able-bodied pitchers. He believes there is a limit to how hard pitchers can throw, and that they have reached it. Velocity may increase, but not much more. Pitchers are restricted by their own physiology. While runners and swimmers can increase speeds by training and nutrition, making their muscles stronger and more capable, arms are different.

Velocity, Fleisig says, is dependent on the ligaments and tendons that bring and hold together the joints in an elbow. And unlike muscles, they cannot get stronger with exercise, supplements, or any regimen.

"We have a situation, in my opinion, the human body cannot pitch much beyond 100 mph, 102 mph—whatever the number happens to be," he said. "The limiting factor is that ligaments and tendons can't handle it beyond that."

These ligaments and tendons create that ceiling. This why, he says, there are so many pitchers who come in with torn or partially torn ulnar collateral ligaments—the injury that leads to Tommy John surgery. Runners, he points out, don't visit doctors at such a precipitous rate after their seasons are done.

Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is throwing 97 on his rehab assignment after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. Photo: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports.

"The body is being pushed to the limit right now," he said. "More pitchers are going to the limit and we're not seeing a higher limit. We're seeing more pitchers at the top and we're seeing more surgeries."

Instead of, say, a couple guys throwing 110 mph fastballs, Fleisig foresees a crowding effect. There will be more arms that can throw in the mid-to-high 90s. They will buzz around 100, maybe even break that threshold. The top of the velocity charts will be more competitive. But there will not be one arm that stands out above the rest, as Syndergaard has been able to do this year.

For now, Syndergaard is close to the apex. He is a physical marvel whose mechanics are so smooth and efficient, and whose talent is so luminous, that it barely has any match. But he is not quite unique. When Ryan was clocked at 100.9 mph with his fastball in 1974, notching a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, that pitch was thrown in the 9th inning.

"I can't tell you what the limit is for how fast humans will be able to run or how far they'll be able to jump because advances in their training and their mechanics keep continuing to push it," Fleisig said. "But I think we are at the limit for ball velocity because I don't see a way to train ligaments and tendons to handle more."

This is not, however, an universal belief.

"As soon as someone does something crazy, all of a sudden people see that it can be done," Kyle Boddy says. "All of a sudden it becomes real to them, it becomes tangible."

Boddy runs Driveline Baseball, a data-based pitching lab and training facility in Seattle. He is a college economics major and former data scientist who decided to focus on pitching for his career. He now coaches dozens of professional pitchers and consults for multiple major league teams. And he sees a friction in baseball's current approach to velocity. While the sport is trying to limit arm injuries, it's also encouraging the proliferation Syndergaard-like aces.

Teams reward pitchers who throw hard with high draft selections, lucrative signing bonuses, minor league promotions, big league dollars and megabuck contracts. Greg Maddux's pinpoint command may not have translated well to MLB's gif-heavy Twitter account. And even Maddux threw relatively hard as a youngster, reaching the mid-90s.

Boddy believes that young pitchers see the incentives from a young age: throw hard, get scholarships, get drafted, and eventually get paid. While Fleisig would prefer pitchers scale down and teams devalue velocity, and Major League Baseball runs programs like Pitch Smart aimed at teenagers to curtail youth workload, Boddy believes that the entire baseball ecosystem rewards throwing hard and throwing often.

"To me these guys are fighting a losing battle and they need to switch," he said. "They need to accept the fact that guys like Bannister are running fast, that the Fosbury flop exists. You can't go to coaches and kids and say 'You need to protect your arm, you need to not throw, weighted balls are bad, weight-lifting is bad, anything that makes you stronger is bad'. And then the kid turns on the Mets and watches Syndergaard sitting 100 and deGrom sitting 95 or whatever ... You see every young pitcher throws gas. So it makes no sense to them."

He prefers intricate training programs and an approach with pitchers that is based on science and data. Boddy believes that velocity will continue to rise, just as it has over the last decade. Average velocity could reach 95 mph.

While not making any grand predictions, Boddy did not put a cap on what could be possible.

At Driveline, he works with pitchers who are at their depths or coming off Tommy John surgery and helps build them back up. Casey Weathers, a former first round pick who flushed out of MLB because injuries and ineffectiveness, rejuvenated his career at Driveline. He returned to throwing in the mid-90s and made a splash by hitting 107.8 mph on a crow hop.

Boddy believes that it's also possible to kickstart velocity for healthy pitchers. That minor league systems are saturated with middling prospects and draft rejects who, with the proper instruction, could fit the archetype of the modern reliever. He believes that even Syndergaard could get a boost on the radar gun.

"It's a performance-based game," Boddy said. "I'm all for limiting injuries. I'm all for trying to figure out ways to try to save guys but it can't be at the expense of their future career."

Royals starter Yordano Ventura has yet to turn his powerful fastball into consistent results. Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports.

Faced with a choice between protecting pitchers from overuse, velocity-induced exertion, and the possible pains that can be associated with it, or letting them throw as hard as they can as long as they can and offering buffers when possible, Ryan chooses the second option too.

"If you're expectation for them is to throw more pitches and throw with velocity then you have to condition them," he said. "You can't just expect to run them out there and they haven't conditioned for that. But the game is so particular pitching now that it's going the other direction."

A former Rangers president and now a special assistant to Astros owner Jim Crane, Ryan points out that starting pitchers no longer have the workloads of the past. They throw fewer innings and can throw harder as a result of it.

But can they throw harder, and harder, and even harder still? That remains to be seen.

Syndergaard won't rule anything out. The arm could be capable of anything, he says. With some luck, the right work ethic, strides in technology and training, and the right pitcher, there should not be limits.

Just because he's the reigning velocity king of baseball doesn't mean he can't throw any faster, either. Last May, in his major league debut, Syndergaard hit 97 with his first fastball in the major leagues. This year he's averaging 98 mph with his two-seamer.

"I'm trying my absolute hardest to keep raising the bar," he says. "Until it's not physically possible to throw any harder."