Could Pitchers Throw Even Harder A Decade From Now? It Seems Unlikely.
In 2010, Aroldis Chapman showed everyone that it was possible to throw a baseball 105 mph.
In just his 10th game in the majors, Chapman threw the hardest recorded fastball in major league history.
Over the past decade, no one has thrown any harder. But with the continuing rise in overall fastball velocity, the reasonable question to ask is: What will the upper limits of velocity be in 2030?
Will we be discussing 108 mph fastballs a decade from now? Is 110 mph sitting over the horizon in the 2040s? And if so, what happens to hitters?
Calm your fears, hitters. According to experts, major league pitchers are already brushing against the velocity limits.
“It would totally shock me (if someone is throwing 107-108 mph in a decade),” said Dr. Glenn Fleisig, a biomechanist who is the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute. “It would surprise me if maximum velocity goes up at all when compared to today.
“Velocity is very sexy,” Fleisig said. “People are in love with the radar gun . . . The maximum velocity that baseball pitchers can pitch is essentially not going to go up. What’s going to change is the ceiling is not going to go up, but it’s getting more crowded at the ceiling.”
“I could be wrong on this. I’m thinking peak velocity won’t increase much, but a 100 mile per hour fastball will be commonplace,” Reds minor league pitching coordinator and Driveline Baseball president Kyle Boddy said.
Chapman has gotten company in the upper reaches of the velocity spectrum. Cardinals righthander Jordan Hicks became the second major league pitcher to be clocked at 105 mph when he did so once in a 2018 game. Both Chapman and Hicks are relievers.
The Royals’ Josh Staumont touched 104 mph this spring.
But the expectation is it will be hard to push far beyond that 105 mph barrier. Studies show that the human elbow is already pushing against its upper limits to generate the power needed to throw 100 mph or harder. Fleisig and other researchers’ studies have shown that, as a pitcher’s velocity increases, the stress placed on his elbow, and most specifically on his ulnar collateral ligament, increases.
This gets a little tricky, because it’s easy to over-generalize. Because of the differences in mechanics and many other factors, it is not accurate to say that a harder-throwing pitcher always stresses his elbow more than a pitcher who doesn’t throw as hard. Without further measurements, one cannot definitively say that a pitcher who is sitting at 100 mph is putting more stress on his elbow than another pitcher who sits at 90 mph. But it is accurate to say that when Hicks throws a 103 mph fastball, he’s putting more stress on his elbow than he does when he’s throwing a 98 mph fastball.
Another peer-reviewed study has shown that harder-throwing major league pitchers have a higher rate of Tommy John surgery, but the difference in rates (about 7%) is not large.
So the harder a pitcher throws, the more he is going to stress his elbow ligament. Unfortunately for pitchers, there’s not much that can be done in training to help improve the strength of ligaments, which receive modest blood flow.
“This is the most the body can take,” Fleisig said. “In your arm you have bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons. The ligaments and tendons are not what is making you throw a ball. The ligaments and tendons are keeping everything attached . . . The ligaments and tendons are the weak links.
“Your ligaments and tendons get a little stronger, while your muscles get much stronger. So unless we can figure out a way to make ligaments and tendons proportionally stronger, you can’t push the body forward.”
At the ASMI cadaver lab, Fleisig and other researchers have found that elbow ligaments tear at the valgus torque readings around the range that high-velocity pitchers currently generate.
Dodgers Fireballers' Velocity Puts Them In Rare Company
In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers sent four pitchers to the mound who touched 98 mph or harder.
There are qualifiers to those studies—the cadaver ligaments are not coming from elbows of elite athletes—but the information provides a solid baseline for understanding the limits of the human elbow.
“We can improve pitching mechanics, which we have done. We can improve nutrition and rest. We can improve available strength. What we can’t do is strengthen ligaments and tendons,” Fleisig said.
As much as his radar gun readings are remarkable, Chapman’s durability is just as notable. Chapman finally handed off the crown of being baseball’s hardest-throwing pitcher to Hicks in 2018. But in 2019, Hicks blew out his elbow.
Tigers righthander Joel Zumaya was the hardest thrower in the majors before Chapman arrived. Zumaya topped 50 innings once in his career and injuries pushed him out of the majors for good at age 25.
Giants prospect righthander Ray Black has gotten to 103 mph at points throughout his career, but durability issues have kept him from throwing more than 40 innings in a season.
The enviable durability of Chapman’s and Nolan Ryan’s elbow ligaments seem to be straight from a Marvel superhero movie.
If you consider that there is credible evidence that Nolan Ryan’s 100.8 mph in front of the plate as measured at a 1974 game would have measured at 106-108 mph at pitch release, one could argue that the maximum for peak velocity hasn’t increased in the past 45 years.
In 1974, Ryan told Sports Illustrated that he didn’t expect to have a long career, but he hoped he could be a fastball pitcher for another five years. Nineteen years later, as the hardest-throwing 46-year-old in baseball, Ryan’s elbow finally gave out.
Ryan’s elbow handled workloads and velocities that would make a mortal weep. Chapman has made 50-plus appearances in each of the past nine seasons. Since 2011, Chapman has thrown 2,896 pitches 100 mph or harder.
The rest of baseball as a whole has thrown 3,897.
Maybe one day there will be a pitcher who can throw even harder than Ryan and Chapman, but don’t count on it.