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Walter Johnson, One of the Greatest Pitchers In Baseball History, Only Threw 88 MPH

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The Ace of Spaeder

Last month, one of the best relief hurlers in baseball, Adam Ottavino, was quoted saying “I would strike [Babe Ruth] out every time.” I do not think that Ottavino would necessarily strikeout Ruth every time, but I believe if we do “wake up the damn Bambino,” Ottavino would dominate one of the game’s all-time greats.

So how can I still refer to Babe Ruth as one of baseball’s greatest players? Simple — human evolution, modern technology, and advanced medicine and training give the argument necessary context, but we will come back to this…

Ruth first set the single-season home run record in 1919, blasting 29 home runs, besting Ned Williamson’s 1884 total of 27. The best pitcher in baseball at that time – and perhaps of all-time – was Walter Johnson, known for his powerful fastball – once called by Ty Cobb as “the most threatening sight [he] had ever seen on a ballfield” – did not allow a single big fly over the span of 290? innings pitched – though he did hit one!

Stats aside: Of Williamson’s 27 home runs in 1884, 25 came at Chicago’s Lakeshore Park, which was 186 feet to left field, 300 feet to center field, and 190 to right field. Prior to 1884, balls over the fence were ground rule doubles. After the 1884 season, Chicago left the friendly confines of Lakeshore for the more spacious West Side Park.

Only three pitchers ever have had more innings pitched in a single season without allowing a single home run, but hitting at least one of their own than Johnson did in 1919: Frank Smith in 1905 (291? innings with one home run), Babe Ruth in 1916 (323? innings with three home runs), and Johnson himself, 1916 (369? innings with one home run).

My contention is this: Johnson’s fastball, thrown by “the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark,” again, according to Cobb, was probably only about 88 mph – perhaps peaking at 91.36 mph or 134 feet-per-second, as it was measured by a Bridgeport, Connecticut munitions laboratory in 1917.

In 1919, the Doppler effect was known, but RADAR was in its infancy, and the RADAR gun would not be invented for over 30 more years, but even then, motorcycles were used to determine a pitcher’s arm strength, so with all due respect to the Bridgeport, Connecticut munitions laboratory, I decided to conduct my own experiment.

…stepping back to human evolution, modern technology, and advanced medicine and training.

Looking at leg speed rather than arm speed, in 1919, the world record in the mile was held by Norman Taber, who ran 4:12.6 on July 16, 1915. The modern high school mile record is 3:53.43, held by Alan Webb, completed on May 27, 2001; the current world record is 3:43.13, by Hicham El Guerrouj, ran on July 7, 1999.

[Now, before we continue, we must take a minor (major?) leap of faith, because, let’s face it, not all athletes improve – or evolve – the same throughout time, but what if they did?]

From 1917 to now, the world record in the mile has improved by 11.67 percent. Now, let’s assume the fastball has done the same.

The best hard throwers in baseball – your modern Walter Johnsons, if you will – are consistently throwing 100 mph. If pitchers improved at the same rate that mile runners did, that puts the velocity kings of 100 years ago at about 88.3 mph when compared to today’s finest. Even if we give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and say his fastball, 100 years ago, was the equivalent of a modern 103 mph fastball, in the vein of this experiment, that is a 91.0 mph fastball. And if we compare to Aroldis Chapman – who mind you, would not have been permitted to play among the likes of Johnson – and his modern record 105.1 mph pitch, that translates to just 92.8 mph – basically an average fastball in today’s game.

My best conclusion?

Walter Johnson, the hardest thrower the game had ever seen, probably averaged about 88 mph on his fastball and maybe topped out between 91 and 93 mph.

Having said all of this, I do not think we should discount the greatness of players throughout any period in baseball history. Instead, we should compare players in terms of on the field performance only to their contemporaries, using only adjusted stats to compare across generations, the same adjusted stats that tell us that Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth are two of the all-time greatest players in baseball history. If we do discount the past because of factors relating evolutionary or revolutionary inevitabilities, 100 years from now, when pitchers are throwing north of 110 mph, our great grandchildren will write-off the stellar careers of the greats of our time, like Max Scherzer, Mike Trout, and yes, even Adam Ottavino, who indeed, would have no problem sitting down Babe Ruth.

So my main takeaway from this article is that I, conservatively speaking, throw harder than one of the most statistically dominant pitchers in the history of baseball.

Sniffle sniffle.  Smell that?  That’s the smell of a load of shit in Jared Carrabis’ underoos.*

It also gots me thinking: what would it look like to hit a 105.1 MPH fastball?

And I say 105.1 because that’s the fastest recorded fastball ever, by none other than Aroldis Chapman:

I’ve always wanted to step in the box against a 10o MPH fastball just to see what it looks like.  That, and a Chris Sale slider, some 1920’s spit ball or Tim Wakefield knuckleball.  I don’t even really need a bat, just want to see what the most filthy pitches ever look like.

I saw 95 MPH or so a bunch of times and a few things would happen:

1. I’d be happy if I made contact, let alone get a hit
2. I’d swing when the ball was being released and guess fastball.  If it were a breaking pitch my mind was already made up to swing and I’d look like a complete and total dickhead

Timing a 105MPH fastball shouldn’t be physically possible.  But professional hitters are freaks of nature.  Their combo of quick twitch muscle action, muscle memory, hand/eye coordination and body control make teeing off on 100MPH fastballs doable.

And that’s what Luis Basabe did last summer in the Future’s Game:

Just turned and burned on a 102MPH Hunter Green 80 grade fastball.

Before we talk about Luis Basabe we’re gonna rewind to the Chris Sale trade.  Myself, Carrabis, and most level headed people agreed it was a great trade for both teams.  Chris Sale had 3 years of team control left on his deal and I was of the opinion that a ‘winner’ of the trade couldn’t be dubbed until A. The Red Sox won the trade or B. Sale got extended.

Well the Red Sox have accomplished exactly what they set out to do when gutting their farm for Sale.  World Series? Check. Extension? I’d be shocked if he isn’t extended/resigned next winter.  Good on ya, Dombrowski.  You win this round.

But everyone was talking about how it was just Moncada, Kopech and two no names for Sale.  That’s not the case.  Luis Basabe will be cracking top 100 lists himself this year, and he was the “3rd guy” in the deal.  He wasn’t just some throw in.

Basabe has legit 5 tool potential.  20+ home runs, 20 steals, 70 grade arm, can play any OF position, and as he matures as a hitter, hopefully someone that can pepper balls and limit his K’s to at most 22-24% while still walking at a 10% or better clip.  He’s my number 1 prospect to keep an eye on this summer.

Of all the players I watched last spring training, Basabe piqued my interest the most.  He’s a scout’s wet dream.  Raw as a hitter, but did I mention he’s a switch hitter?  Because he is.  Just another bonus tool.  But switch hitters take longer to develop for obvious reasons.  See, Yoan Moncada.

I’m guessing he’ll start back in AA Birmingham, which may curb his statistical output a bit as it’s a notoriously good pitcher’s park for MiLB.  But should his ‘hit tool’ advance to the point where he’s limiting K’s to a league average number, his raw talent will allow him to dominate AA hitting even in that park.  Then once he gets to Charlotte (great hitters park), it’ll be off to the races.

His ETA is 2020.  By then Kopech will be healthy and Moncada in year 3 as a full time player.  The Sale trade will *hopefully* be a win/win at that time.

* Carrabis and I are working out details on the pitching competition as we speak.  He will be training with Dallas Braden.  I’ll be working out in Arizona with either a pitcher on the A’s or White Sox and training with UIC’s baseball team until then.  Location/Date still TBD but it’s happening closer to the season for sure.


PPS – if you’re a baseball fan follow @theaceofspaeder on twitter and check out his website  Ryan Spaeder runs the show and he’s a great follow for all baseball fans.