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The hardest-throwing starting pitcher ever stands 6-foot on a really tall day, weighs 180 pounds if he's got a Costanza wallet in his back pocket and remembers vividly the first time he threw a baseball 100 mph. It was only 1 mph more than the 99 mph his arm generated hundreds of times before, but in that 1 mph a pitcher crosses the baseball Rubicon. For those who reach triple digits never, ever want to come back.
"It was in Arizona, my first time throwing 100," Yordano Ventura said. He's working on his English these days, getting better and better, and talking about that magical binary number extracts the best in him. "No scoreboard. Radar gun only. One of my teammates hold it. He told me, 'Hey. You throw 100 today.' "
Ventura was 19. Two years earlier, Kansas City Royals scouts and executives looked past his slight frame and at his right arm, which birthed some of the smoothest, easiest fastballs any of them had seen. They offered him $28,000 to sign, a small bonus even by the deflated standards in the Dominican Republic. He accepted. They saw his potential. His fastball leaped from the mid-80s to mid-90s within months. They marveled. He crept up to 98, 99. They refined his mechanics. He hit 100. They pushed him. He went to 101, then 102. They gave him a rotation spot. And in his first start this season, Ventura threw the fastest fastball ever clocked from a starter, 102.9 mph, a number that boggles the mind because it's only April, and almost every pitcher throws harder as the season progresses.
With 14 fastballs at 100-plus mph already this season, Ventura owns the record for triple-digit heaters from a starter in April, according to calculations from the invaluable Dan Brooks, who uses PITCHf/x data to give the greatest insight yet into the fascinating speeds at which pitchers today throw. It's not just Ventura, now 22, either. Since 2008, when Brooks began running his website brooksbaseball.net, 77 pitchers have thrown 4,354 pitches at 100 mph or more.
The King of 100 is, not surprisingly, Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman, generally regarded as the hardest thrower in baseball history. He owns the two biggest 100-mph-pitch seasons with 356 last year and 332 the year before, and his 998 triple-digit pitches account for nearly 23 percent of the 100-plus pitches in the major leagues since 2008.
After a horrific line drive to the skull sidelined Chapman for the first month, Ventura ascended to the throne for the time being, accounting for nearly half of the 31 triple-digit pitches thrown by 11 pitchers this season. His average fastball sizzles at 97.8 mph. He's among the league leaders in swings and misses on fastballs. And as he makes his fourth start Friday night in Baltimore, the Camden Yards scoreboard will get to flex a muscle it rarely does. Even Tommy Hunter, the hard-throwing Orioles closer, has hit 100 just once this season.
Reaching 100 isn't the chore it used to be, not with the shoulder-strengthening exercises required of pitchers today helping generate excess velocity. Ryan Tucker, Tom Wilhelmsen, Al Alburquerque, Wily Peralta and Jake McGee all have touched 100 exactly once in their careers. Doing so consistently takes far more work. Just 31 players have hit 100 at least 10 times in one season. Just six have gotten to triple digits with triple digits. Ventura looks like a safe bet to beat the record for a starter: 61, by Justin Verlander in 2012.
The limited history of PITCHf/x does not allow the inclusion of Nolan Ryan, who hit 100-plus on radar guns, and Bob Feller, who used military equipment to register a fastball at 98.6 mph and swore he threw harder. It does ensure never again will we need to guess whether one pitcher threw harder than another. The cameras in the system will tell us, and scientists can do with the data what they please. Brooks, for example, sets his release point at 55 feet (more realistic than PITCHf/x's 50) and adjusts the numbers by park, because the system does have noticeable errors in certain stadiums.
Unquestionable is the power of the 100-mph fastball, the lore that comes with it and the number of pitchers who do everything they can in hopes some day they, too, can trigger the third digit to flicker.
"Mark McGwire used to always say, 'Anybody can throw double digits,' " Cardinals reliever Jason Motte said last spring, with 32 triple-digit notches on his belt. "What'd you hit? Ten? Ninety-nine? Still double digits. Only a few can throw three digits. So it's pretty cool if you can do that. Might as well try to do it every now and again."
Next to him sat Trevor Rosenthal, who took over as St. Louis closer after Motte blew out his right elbow. The previous fall, as the Cardinals romped to a World Series title, Rosenthal lit up radar guns, sitting in the high 90s and tickling 100 with scary regularity.
"I don't think God reached down and put a lightning bolt in my right arm … " Rosenthal said, trailing off, incapable of explaining why he can throw so much harder than most. Though he's onto something. It is a gift. Even as 90 mph is a necessity and 95 something of a requisite and 100 increasingly common, velocity remains romanticized by pitchers and executives alike.
Velocity with control, which Ventura flashed in his first two starts, is the sign of a star and the reason that after years of inapt comparisons to Pedro Martinez – Ramon Ortiz, Edinson Volquez, Jose Dominguez – Ventura might be the most reasonable facsimile yet. His changeup isn't Pedro quality yet, even though it decelerates through the strike zone at 90 mph. His breaking ball isn't as crisp, though it has better tilt than Pedro's hammer curveball.
While Ventura's secondary pitches will make him a star, his fastball is his meal ticket into the conversation, a legitimate game changer. The first time Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson saw it, during an instructional-league intrasquad game, he couldn't fathom how someone so slight propelled a projectile with such force.
"He was about my size," said the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Dyson. "I was not expecting 100. The first fastball kind of jumped at me, and I'm like, OK, we got a gunslinger in here."
Now comes the toughest part: steadying the gun. Ventura's biggest issue, catcher Salvador Perez said, is that "he gets too excited and tries to throw 200 miles an hour." Which, if it were anatomically possible, Ventura might do. Being that 106 mph or so is a generally accepted ceiling before an arm goes kablooey, he does have room left to add a couple miles and challenge Chapman's record 105.1-mph pitch.
"I'd rather throw strikes and keep the ball down than throw 100," Ventura said.
Which is only partially true. Throwing strikes is nice. It helps. He will win lots of games because of it. But come on. No pitcher wants to be Jonathan Papelbon, hitting 100 mph three times in 2009 and sometimes struggling to crack 90 this year. Shoving a baseball at 100 mph connotes strength and power and animalism, the sort of thing that defines a pitcher.
"Sometimes you throw easy and it's 100," Ventura said. "I'd rather throw easy."
That's more like it. That's a man embracing who he is: the hardest-throwing starting pitcher ever, the one who crossed the Rubicon three years ago, hasn't come back since and has no plans to do so anytime soon.