Let's be honest: fastball velocity is sexy. Whether it's Aroldis Chapman touching 103 mph, Matt Harvey throwing 99 or Taijuan Walker throwing 97, it's hard not to get excited when the radar gun starts flashing numbers like that.
It's human nature for young pitchers to want to throw hard, especially in today's environment where there's so much recruiting and scouting emphasis on showcase events rather than meaningful games. Pitchers are on the mound for an inning or two, airing it all out, often with 30 or more radar guns pointed their way from behind the backstop. What message is that sending a 16- or 17-year-old?
Hey kid . . . throw hard!
"The old saying in baseball is that the radar gun gets you drafted, but you have to pitch to get to the big leagues," Nationals assistant general manager Roy Clark said. "And that's true in some cases, but everybody's not the same. Some guys need to have their foot to the metal each time—they need to put everything they've got in each pitch."
But when it comes to high school pitchers, is there such a thing as throwing too hard?
That thought crossed my mind a few weeks ago when the news came out about Tullahoma (Tenn.) High righthander Jordan Sheffield needing Tommy John surgery. Sheffield entered the year as the top high school righthander after he touched 97 mph in the fall at Perfect Game's World Wood Bat Championship in Jupiter, Fla. Before the news came out about Sheffield's surgery, his team was at USA Baseball's National High School Invitational, and Sheffield was scratched from a start after he experienced tightness in his forearm.
When that happened, one scout shook his head and said, "He was throwing too hard."
Too hard? The idea hadn't crossed my mind. If it is something to be concerned about, it's a problem unique to velocity. It's not like a high school player can have too much foot speed or too much power at the plate.
"I've heard some people say that before," Clark said. "But there's so many variables that go into predicting whether a guy is going to throw hard, or he's going to back off, or he's going to get hurt or whatever.
"I never would have imagined Adam Wainwright getting hurt with his delivery."
Clark is right about the variables. High school pitchers are the most volatile assets in the draft, and there are a number of factors to consider when trying to predict what they're going to be like five years down the road. Do they have room to fill out their frame? Have they been injured in the past? How athletic and agile are they? Do they have clean mechanics? What kind of workout routines, throwing programs and stretching exercises do they adhere to? What kind of work ethic and desire do they possess? And on and on.
There's no perfect way to study whether a young pitcher throwing "too hard" is something of concern, but after looking through some data, there’s some anecdotal evidence for the theory.
Many of the game's hardest throwers—guys like Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann, to name a few—weren't drafted out of high school. Others, who now have plus fastballs or better, were pitching with average fastballs in high school. Rays lefthanders David Price and Matt Moore pitched in the 89-91 mph range in high school. Josh Johnson was 88-92.
Projecting is what makes baseball scouting so difficult, as most of the time the players won't make it to the big leagues for several years. While it doesn't always hold true, Clark has a rule he likes to follow when it comes to projecting a pitcher’s fastball.
"As far as velocity, what I've always done for high school and college—because they're going once a week—when you start looking at what you're going to get when they're a pro, it's whatever they're averaging in the fifth inning," Clark said. "In other words, if a guy's touching 91 (mph) and you're projecting that he might be throwing in the fifth inning, five years from now, 92-93, that's over-projecting. You've got to see it.
“Most pitchers, especially at the college level, they're going to back off of their velocity (as pros) because of the workload. Instead of going once a week, it's every fifth day."
A look back at Baseball America's list of the high school pitchers regarded as having the best fastballs in their draft class from 1990-2009 reveals that the results are a mixed bag.
Of the 70 pitchers listed during that time frame, all but one were drafted out of high school as pitchers. Aaron Hicks—who was listed as having one of the three best fastballs in the 2008 high school draft class—was obviously drafted as an outfielder. Those 69 players were drafted and compensated well, with a median draft slot of 23rd overall. Of the 70 total players, 34 never made the big leagues (or haven't yet, in the case of guys like Gerrit Cole, Ethan Martin and Zack Wheeler).
Of the 35 pitchers who did make it to the big leagues, there are plenty of success stories and guys who spent significant parts of their careers as starters. But even among the guys who did make it, several have had arm problems, such as Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Scott Kazmir and Kerry Wood.
"I've never heard of that," a longtime American League area scout said about throwing too hard in high school. "If your elbow's going to go, it's going to go whether you're throwing 90 or 95, I think."
Here are all the players listed as having the best fastball among high school pitchers in the Baseball America Draft Preview issues from 1990-2009:
|BEST HS FASTBALL||YEAR||PICK NO.||MLB?||MLB STARTS|
|Todd Van Poppel||1990||14||Yes||98|