High School Velocity: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

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."

Jordan Sheffield

Jordan Sheffield (Photo by Danny Parker)

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:

Todd Van Poppel 1990 14 Yes 98
Robbie Beckett 1990 25 Yes 0
Ron Caridad 1990 58 No 0
Brien Taylor 1991 1 No 0
Kenny Henderson 1991 5 No 0
Tom McKinNon 1991 28 No 0
Jim Pittsley 1992 17 Yes 29
Jon Ward 1992 30 No 0
DeShawn Warren 1992 46 No 0
Chris Carpenter 1993 15 Yes 332
Jeff D’Amico 1993 23 Yes 131
Jamey Wright 1993 28 Yes 246
Jaret Wright 1994 10 Yes 171
Jayson Peterson 1994 15 No 0
Scott Elarton 1994 25 Yes 170
Kerry Wood 1995 4 Yes 178
Andy Yount 1995 15 No 0
Chad Hutchinson 1995 48 Yes 0
John Patterson 1996 5 Yes 78
Matt White 1996 7 No 0
Jake Westbrook 1996 21 Yes 256
Geoff Goetz 1997 6 No 0
Ryan Anderson 1997 19 No 0
Steve Colyer 1997 83 Yes 0
Scott Barrett 1997 100 No 0
Joe Casey 1997 239 No 0
J.M. Gold 1998 13 No 0
Nate Cornejo 1998 34 Yes 56
Michael Nannini 1998 37 No 0
Nick Neugebauer 1998 56 No 0
Pat Strange 1998 64 Yes 0
Josh Beckett 1999 2 Yes 308
Brett Myers 1999 12 Yes 252
Brian West 1999 35 No 0
Matt Harrington 2000 7 No 0
Mark Phillips 2000 9 No 0
Dustin McGowan 2000 33 Yes 60
Colt Griffin 2001 9 No 0
Mike Jones 2001 12 No 0
Alan Horne 2001 27 No 0
Scott Kazmir 2002 15 Yes 180
Jason Neighborgall 2002 208 No 0
Mark McCormick 2002 313 No 0
Jeff Allison 2003 16 No 0
Craig Whitaker 2003 34 No 0
Jay Sborz 2003 40 Yes 0
Andrew Miller 2003 68 Yes 66
Jared Hughes 2003 458 Yes 0
Mark Rogers 2004 5 Yes 9
Homer Bailey 2004 7 Yes 115
Phil Hughes 2004 23 Yes 107
Eric Hurley 2004 30 Yes 5
Jay Rainville 2004 39 No 0
Chris Volstad 2005 16 Yes 123
Mark Pawelek 2005 20 No 0
Ryan Tucker 2005 34 Yes 6
Trevor Bell 2005 37 Yes 11
Craig Italiano 2005 53 No 0
Clayton Kershaw 2006 7 Yes 154
Colten Willems 2006 22 No 0
Mat Latos 2006 333 Yes 109
Jarrod Parker 2007 9 Yes 34
Michael Main 2007 24 No 0
Rick Porcello 2007 27 Yes 123
Ethan Martin 2008 15 No 0
Gerrit Cole 2008 28 No 0
Aaron Hicks 2008 14* Yes* 0
Zack Wheeler 2009 6 No 0
Jacob Turner 2009 9 Yes 13
Shelby Miller 2009 19 Yes 5