Big league pitchers have heard the phrase “Throw him the heat!” perhaps more than any other phrase. Baseball fans have long had an infatuation with the game’s signature pitch, the fastball. There’s no doubt that for many who’ve played baseball, the pitchers that stand out the most are the ones who threw the hardest.
One of the burning questions at any one snapshot in baseball history is the question of who throws the hardest. At this snapshot in time, Aroldis Chapman is the game’s preeminent fireballer. When Chapman blistered the radar gun at 105 mph a few years back, many were calling him the fastest thrower of all time.
But this isn’t correct. Thanks to the scientific and mathematical analysis done in the documentary Fastball, we know it’s not correct. The distinction of fastest fastball belongs to Nolan Ryan’s record 108 mph fastball.
Why we love the fastball
Bob Feller showcasing his iconic high leg kick. (Photo from baseballheritagemuseum.org)
It’s the element of confrontation that the fastball brings to the game. The struggle between hitter and pitcher is one of the ultimate showdowns in sports, especially in those many instances where the hitters know what’s coming, and the pitcher knows exactly what he’s throwing. There’s nothing more primal in baseball than the predator-prey aspect of facing a hard fastball. It tests the very limits of what’s humanly possible.
The science of the fastball has been well studied, and Fastball does a wonderful job of putting it all together. One of the most striking comparisons made is the difference between a 92 mph fastball and 100 mph fastball. By the time a pitch thrown at 100 mph crosses home, a pitch thrown at 92 mph would still have 4.5 feet of travel left if thrown at the same time. At 100 mph, the batter has 0.396 seconds to process the pitch and make his decision to swing. Putting that in perspective, it takes a human being longer to blink.
This puts the hitter in a unique position that sets him in a situation where he must confront a cognitive dilemma of what’s humanly possible. For the pitcher, the dilemma is the same extreme, but it puts him in a unique position where it sets him at his limits of what is physically possible.
It’s even better when it’s late in the game and there are runners on the bases. Going beyond the science, there’s just something about watching a flame-throwing pitcher put the clamps down on the opposing lineup.
Debating the fastest
Discussing which pitcher is the hardest thrower in the modern game has long been settled by the radar gun. All MLB radar guns are set to record pitch speed at the 50-foot mark between the mound and the plate.
Until Nolan Ryan ushered in the “radar” age in 1974, there were only two other pitchers in history that were clocked using various devices. These pitchers are Walter “Big Train” Johnson, and Bob “The heater from Van Meter” Feller, or Rapid Robert for short. These are two of the best pitchers to ever take the mound, and arguably the best pitcher of their respective era. What’s unique about these three pitchers, however, is they were the first to have their pitches “clocked.”
Johnson’s pitch speed was calculated on a gun range, because where else would you test it? The Remington Arms Co. used a device that was normally used to measure the speed of a bullet. In summation, the calculation they arrived at, 83.2 mph, was flawed. Based on the design of the apparatus used, 83.2 mph is a calculation of how fast his pitch was travelling at 7.5 feet behind home plate. Adjusting pitch speed to meet modern standards, Johnson’s pitch was much closer to 93.8 mph.
Feller also threw a pitch through a device as did Johnson. However, this time the speed was measured right at home plate. Feller clocked in at an astonishing 98.6 mph on his fastest pitch of the test. Adjusting Feller’s pitch to align with today’s standard, he was closer to 107.6 mph. That’s 2.5 mph faster than Chapman’s officially recorded fastest pitch of 105.1 mph. Neither of these two pitchers have anything on Nolan Ryan though.
Nolan Ryan’s record 108 mph fastball
Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter. (Photo from star-telegram.com)
The year 1974 was a watershed year of sorts for how we have come to measure the speed of a pitch. This was the year that the concept of the radar gun was established. A bunch of smart people decided that if you use an infrared beam, you can quickly get an accurate reading of how fast a pitch is moving. It can also be set to read the same point of measurement repeatedly, giving a fair assessment of the speed. Nolan Ryan became baseball’s first pitcher to ‘light up” the radar at a major league park.
On Aug. 20, 1974, in a game against the Detroit Tigers, then Angels pitcher Nolan Ryan pitched an 11-inning complete game 1-0 loss. As a quick note, Nolan Ryan’s career is marked by playing on teams that weren’t all that good offensively. He truly is a case study in why wins aren’t the best judge of a pitcher’s worth in every instance. Not wanting to stray to far off topic though, in the game against Detroit, Ryan was clocked at 100.9 mph, in the ninth inning. That means that he was getting stronger as the game wore on!
But like Feller and Johnson before him, Ryan’s measurement needs to be adjusted too. Ryan’s pitch was measured at 10 feet in front of home plate. When the proper adjustments are made, his 100.9 mph fastball becomes closer to 108.5 mph. If you are keeping score, that is about 3.5 mph faster than Chapman’s fastest pitch on record. All hail the Ryan Express!
In Major League Baseball, players often breakout seemingly out of nowhere. The question then follows: Will their production continue, or will they simply fade away back to obscurity?
In music, the term “one-hit wonder” refers to an artist who creates a song that ranks on the Billboard’s national top 40 list, while failing to recreate another with the same level of success. In baseball, we can label a player as a “one-hit wonder” if they experience a breakout season and are unable to recreate anywhere near the same level of success. In this case, success can be measured in accolades and wins above replacement player, or WAR.
For hitters, we will look at statistics like offensive WAR and accolades like MVP candidacy, Silver Slugger awards and All-Star appearances. For pitchers, we will assess the same group of statistics and awards, while also looking at Cy Young candidacies.
The main criteria used to compile the following list includes a blatant discrepancy between a player’s total career WAR and their WAR over a specific breakout season. Yearly awards are also taken into consideration, as a player can be considered a one-hit wonder if they finish within the top-25 voting for most valuable player, or MVP, while failing to ever do so again.
The following players combined make up the all “one-hit wonder” MLB team of the 2000’s. Note that being on this list does not mean the player had a bad career, but means they had a season that was a blatant anomaly.
Honorable mentions include: Angel Berroa (2003), Morgan Ensberg (2005) and Dontrelle Willis (2005)
Paul Lo Duca, Catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2001
162 Game Avg.
Paul Lo Duca may be a three time All-Star from 2003-2006, but his most productive season came in 2001. (Photo by Getty Images)
Lo Duca was a 25th round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1993. He grinded through the minors, playing a total of 718 games at three different minor league levels.
He expected to get a shot at the everyday catcher’s job in 1998 after the Dodgers traded away arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all time, Mike Piazza, to the Florida Marlins.
Although this was not the case, as the Dodgers received catcher Charles Johnson in return. This delayed Lo Duca’s first full MLB season until 2001.
In 2001, Lo Duca showed out, batting .320 while hitting a career-high 25 home runs with 90 RBIs in only 125 games. His offensive WAR measured 4.2, which was considerably higher than any other season, as his second-highest offensive WAR came the following season at 2.9.
Although Lo Duca made four consecutive All-Star appearances from 2003-2006, 2001 was the only season where he ranked within the top-25 in National League MVP voting at 19.
Darin Erstad, First Baseman, Anaheim Angels, 2000
162 Game Avg.
Erstad may be one of the most obvious MLB players to have a one-hit wonder season. After being selected as the first overall pick in the 1995 draft by the California Angels, Erstad made a quick jump to the majors in 1996 after playing in only 143 games at four different minor league levels.
Erstad’s breakout came in 2000, as he managed to bat a miraculous .355 while hitting 25 home runs, scoring 121 runs and setting an MLB-record for most RBIs by a leadoff hitter with 100. It looks as if this record will be shattered by either the Houston Astros George Springer or the Colorado Rockies Charlie Blackmon this season, although it remains incredible feat either way.
In his 26-year-old season, Erstad ranked eighth in American League MVP voting while also being named an AL All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner. His offensive WAR during this season totaled 5.6, which accounted for over 30 percent of his total offensive WAR over his 14-year career.
Junior Spivey, Second Baseman, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2002
162 Game Avg.
Junior Spivey’s career was short but was in MVP conversation in 2002. (Photo by Getty Images)
Spivey’s 2002 season matches up fairly evenly with his 162-game average, although he only managed to play in over 100 games in a season twice, as he only tallied 457 career games played in the major leagues.
In 2002, Spivey set career-highs across the board in home runs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, stolen bases, walks and runs scored.
He managed to make his first and only All-Star team while also finishing the year 14th in National League MVP voting. His offensive WAR totaled 4.3, which is over 50 percent of his total career offensive WAR, which totals 7.3.
Chase Headley, Third Baseman, San Diego Padres, 2012
162 Game Avg.
The current New York Yankee has been an above-average player for his entire career, as in each of his ten seasons, he has tallied an offensive WAR above one. It was Headley’s 2012 season that makes him one of MLB’s one-hit wonders of the 2000’s.
In his fourth season as a full-time starter, the former second-round pick flourished, batting .286 with 31 home runs, 115 RBI, 95 runs and 17 stolen bases. Headley managed to win a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, while also finishing fifth in the National League MVP vote. His offensive WAR of 6.5 in 2012 makes up for over 25 percent of his total career offensive WAR of 24.2.
Rich Aurilia, Shortstop, San Francisco Giants, 2001
162 Game Avg.
Rich Aurilia’s 2001 season remains a massive anomaly compared to the rest of his career. (Photo by Getty Images)
Aurilia mustered up some productive years, but nothing like his 2001 campaign. In his lone All-Star season, Aurilia led the league in hits with 206, 37 of which went for home runs. In 2001, he batted .324 with 114 runs scores and 97 RBIs.
At 29 years old, Aurilia managed to earn a Silver Slugger while also being voted 12th in the National League MVP race. His offensive WAR in 2001 totaled 6.3, which is 33 percent of his 15-year career total offensive WAR of 18.9. His second most productive offensive season came the year before in 2000, where he totaled an offensive WAR of 2.2.
Lew Ford, Left Fielder, Minnesota Twins, 2004
162 Game Avg.
Former 12th round pick by the Boston Red Sox, Ford was traded to the Twins in 2000 for a veteran reliever. Ford played 230 games in the minors for Minnesota, batting .297 with 24 home runs and 124 RBI before being called up in 2003.
It was Ford’s 2004 campaign that puts him on the map of one-hit wonder seasons. Ford batted .299 with 15 home runs, 72 RBIs, 89 runs and 20 stolen bases in 154 games.
In his first full major league season, the 27-year-old finished 24th in the American League MVP vote. His offensive WAR in 2004 was 3.3, which is about 64 percent of his career offensive production, as his total career offensive WAR is 4.9.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Fielder, Boston Red Sox, 2011
162 Game Avg.
Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2011 campaign resulted in a second place finish in the AL MVP race. (Photo by Zimbio.com)
Before joining the “Evil Empire”, Ellsbury enjoyed plenty of success as a part of the Boston Red Sox, winning two championships in 2007 and 2013. However, many tend to forget how outlandish his lone All-Star season was in 2011.
At 27 years old, Ellsbury batted .321 with 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, 119 runs scored and 39 stolen bases. He won a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and finished second in the American League MVP vote behind the Detroit Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander.
There was one occasion in 2013 in which Ellsbury finished within the top-25 in MVP voting, although the numbers he was putting up were nowhere close to his 2011 campaign. His offensive WAR in 2011 registered at 7.4, which accounts for 28 percent of his total offensive production over his 11-year career, whereas his offensive WAR in 2013 measured in at only 4.1.
Carlos Quentin, Right Fielder, Chicago White Sox, 2008
162 Game Avg.
Quentin’s 162 game average is very respectable, although due to the fact that he only played in at least 130 games in a season twice, he finds himself as the starting right fielder of the one-hit wonder team of the 2000’s. The former first-round pick managed to hit 154 home runs and 491 RBIs over his nine-year career, although the majority of his offensive production came in 2008.
Quentin finished his 25-year-old season with a career-best .288 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 96 runs scored. His offensive WAR of 5.3 accounts for exactly one third of his total career offensive production. If Quentin could stay healthy, he doesn’t end up on this list.
Mark Prior, Starting Pitcher, Chicago Cubs, 2003
162 Game Avg.
Mark Prior’s career was cut tragically short due to a slew of injuries. (Photo by ESPN.com)
Prior was drafted 43rd overall by the Yankees in 1998, but decided to forgo and attend the University of Southern California instead. Three years later, he was selected second overall by the Cubs in the 2001 draft.
He made his major league debut in May of 2002, and finished the season with a 6-6 record, 3.32 ERA and 147 Ks in 116.2 innings pitched. In 2003, Prior officially broke out, recording an 18-6 record with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts.
He was voted an All-Star for the first and only time, while finishing third in the National League Cy Young and ninth in the NL MVP vote.
Prior’s career was derailed by multiple injuries including a broken ankle, broken elbow, torn labrum and torn rotator cuff, which caused him to retire at just 25 years of age in 2006.
His career WAR over five seasons is 15.7, although a good bit of his production occurred in 2003, where his WAR totaled 7.4.
John Axford, Closer, Milwaukee Brewers, 2011
162 Game Avg.
After being drafted in the seventh round in 2001, Axford decided to forgo the draft and attend the University of Notre Dame. He was then selected in the 42nd round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2005, although he did not sign. After spending a season with the Yankees, Axford made a move to Milwaukee where he would be until 2013.
Axford spent three full seasons as the Brewers’ primary closer, although his 2011 campaign was unparalleled to any other. He recorded 46 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched. His WAR in 2011 totaled 2.3, which accounts for over 50 percent of his nine-year career WAR of 4.2.
Featured image by Ed Betz of MLB.com
You can ‘Like’ The Game Haus on Facebook and ‘Follow’ us on Twitter for more sports and esports articles from other great TGH writers along with Avery!