Let's start with the facts, sparse as they may be. Cincinnati Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman(notes), the man who many believe hurls a baseball faster than anyone ever has, threw a pitch Monday night. This pitch was a fastball. This fastball zoomed high and inside and could well have decapitated the batter, Andrew McCutchen(notes). The facts end there.
Immediately after this pitch, three nuggets of information started to parade themselves as facts. The scoreboard at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati flashed the pitch's speed at 106 mph. The box in the upper-right-hand corner of Fox Sports Ohio's broadcast pegged the fastball at 105 mph. The PITCHf/x system, a scientific marvel in every major league stadium that uses three cameras to pinpoint a pitch's velocity to the tenth of a mile per hour, said it left Chapman's hand at 102.4 mph. At most, one is correct. None may be.
The hardest-throwing era of Major League Baseball's existence is upon us, one in which teams have been caught jacking up their pitchers' velocities and minimizing opponents'. Whereas 100 mph was once the threshold of legend, PITCHf/x last September clocked a Chapman pitch at 105.1 mph, and he commemorated it in the offseason with a tattoo of those four digits on his wrist.
Chapman may need some new ink, depending on what he believes. Unless one of Chapman's fastballs voyaged through the Matrix, another in the Source Code and the third in reality, it leaves us with a question more appropriate for a philosophy class than a baseball discussion.
How can one pitch travel three different velocities?
Aroldis Chapman first unleashed his fastball for an American audience during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, when he pitched for Cuba. He hit 100 mph, a staggering figure for anyone and ungodly for a left-hander, triggering the salivary gland of every scout at the stadium.
When Chapman defected in the Netherlands and made his way to the United States, the bidding war began. Cincinnati signed Chapman to a $30.25 million deal, let him start 13 games at Double-A, moved him to relief and watched his velocity spike even higher. During his delivery, Chapman twists his 6-foot-4, 200-pound body like a contortionist and unleashes himself in a fury of long-and-loose limbs. Chapman turns the fastball into an event: the pop it makes when it strikes the mitt, the virtual vapor trail it leaves in its wake and the sound that emanates from the crowd when the bulbs light up next to the MPH sign.
Chapman received a standing ovation during a 9-3 loss Monday because of the 106 on the stadium gun. He sat around 100 with his other pitches, a promising sign after sitting out four days to rest his arm following an outing in which his velocity plummeted, and then out of nowhere popped the 106.
A Stalker brand radar gun, down in the scouts' section behind home plate, captured the reading and beamed it to the scoreboard. Among scouts, Stalker's reputation is impermeable. Along with Jugs, it is considered the best radar detector available. It can capture moving objects up to 800 mph.
"It is a scientific instrument," said Paul Hataway, Stalker's sports sales representative. "It's a Doppler radar. Our radars are accurate within a tenth of a mile per hour."
Three tracking cameras are set up in each major league ballpark using the PITCHf/x system. The cameras track the ball during its entire trajectory. Radar guns record the speed only once during the pitch.
Aroldis Chapman's pitch on Monday was recorded at three different speeds.
|Fox Sports Ohio||105.0|
The science of measuring speed is better than it's ever been. Hall of Famer Bob Feller used military equipment to gauge his fastball. Steve Dalkowski, the legendary left-hander who never made it to the major leagues but may have held the hardest-throwing title before Chapman, went to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to get his clocked. Today, all it takes is a grand to hold history in your hands.
"I would have to tend to believe if it's our gun it's correct," Hataway said. "They're very seldom incorrect."
Reds spokesman Rob Butcher said the team often uses the Stalker's verification tuning fork, which sends out a frequency tone to check if the gun is calibrated properly. How one device measured more than 3 mph faster than another, then, is the ultimate question.
Conspiracy theorists wouldn't necessarily be wrong to assume something nefarious. Every season, MLB sends a bulletin to teams regarding radar guns. Clubs are allowed to post the speeds of pitches, the memo says, but teams under no circumstances should manipulate the readings.
"It's been an issue before," MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said.
Television broadcasts are often the great unknown of radar readings. Some use their own guns. Others use the team's gun. A few use PITCHf/x.
"We utilize the ballpark's radar gun," said Kate Buddenhagen, the communications manager for Fox Sports Ohio. "The Reds own it, and that goes into their scoreboard room. We tie it in to our truck."
Why, then, did the scoreboard say 106 mph and the TV say 105 mph? Buddenhagen wasn't sure. She went and asked the broadcast's executive producer.
Turns out she had assumed wrong.
"It is our understanding that PITCHf/x feeds everything," Buddenhagen said.
OK. So if it's PITCHf/x after all, where did those extra 2.6 mph come from to take the reading from 102.4 to 105 mph?
"We utilize PITCHf/x to get the information, but we can’t explain how it works," Buddenhagen said. "It’s through the ballpark. So unfortunately, if the Reds aren’t saying much, I don’t think we can help any further."
There had to be a better explanation, from the person who sets up the Reds' Stalker, or the person in charge of Great American Ball Park's PITCHf/x system – someone, somewhere who understood how one pitch set off three divergent threads.
"Under the circumstances, our folks here aren’t talking about our radar guns," said Butcher, the Reds' spokesman. "Already too many conspiracy theories about the guns operated by each team."
Including one inside the Reds' brain trust. Chapman broke Joel Zumaya's(notes) record of 104.8 mph in San Diego on Sept. 24, 2010. Last Wednesday he again pitched at Petco Park, but the radar gun showed no readings above 93 mph, let alone triple digits.
"I've seen teams play with that radar gun," Reds manager Dusty Baker told reporters. "They pump up theirs and turn down ours. And guys don't like looking up there and seeing they are throwing under their norm. Then they try to do more and it ends up being less."
Apparently, Baker didn't bother checking PITCHf/x. Chapman faced two batters. He threw 10 pitches. None came in higher than 93.7 mph. The algorithm that calculates which pitch was thrown said Chapman had tossed 10 changeups. All were actually fastballs.
If there's a reason to not believe in the 105- and 106-mph readings, it's PITCHf/x. Unveiled in 2007, the system uses three cameras to follow the path of a ball to the plate and takes an extreme amount of measurements, everything from velocity at release to velocity immediately before it hits the catcher's mitt to the number of times the ball rotates. Ryan Zander, who runs the baseball products division for Sportvision, the company that developed PITCHf/x (and is perfecting HITf/x and FIELDf/x as well), said the system calculates each pitch's speed more than 50 times.
"What's more," Zander said, "the PITCHf/x system is calibrated the same way in every park, which provides consistent speed measurement from venue to venue, whereas radar-gun calibrations tend to vary, resulting in inconsistent calculations."
All of that is true. Courtney, the MLB spokesman, said of PITCHf/x: "We'd like clubs to utilize it (on their scoreboards). But it's not something we think is mandatory."
Also true is the fact that PITCHf/x isn't immune to calibration errors, either. One camera could be off a fraction of an inch because the noise of a stadium shakes it out of place. Surely the systems in San Diego and Cincinnati aren't exactly alike. Maybe it was 102.3. Or 102.5. Or 103.5 or 104.5 or 105.5. And if there's even a smidgen of doubt, maybe the Stalker is a better measure, or perhaps Fox Sports Ohio was right on with its compromise number, even if it's not sure, exactly, where it came from.
Whatever the reality, the public is sort of embracing the 106-mph number. Chapman was asked about it. Stories were written. Watercoolers chatter buzzed about it. Somebody changed Chapman's Wikipedia page to include it, end everybody knows if it's on Wikipedia it's true.
When Aroldis Chapman steps in and throws a fastball, we want to believe it's 106 mph because if there's one thing we love something as much as speed, it's bearing witness to the unbelievable. And it is inconceivable, after decades of worshipping 100, to think that a 23-year-old, unknown to everyone but baseball junkies a year ago, is outdoing Feller and Dalkowski and Nolan Ryan and every other hard thrower the game has seen.
A day spent trying to figure out whether Chapman did, in fact, outdo the legends revealed no new facts. Andrew McCutchen is still with head after seeing – or maybe not seeing – a fastball hurled by someone who may or may not be the fastest ever. The fastball might've gone 106 mph or 105 mph or 102.4 mph or none of the above.
More important is that Chapman gets baseball buzzing like nobody since Stephen Strasburg(notes), another 100-mph-chucking phenom. The monster home run is such a seldom treat and the grace of a triple such an underappreciated one and the athleticism of a stolen base so fleeting that the prospect of somebody entering a game and pushing his arm to the human limit provides baseball's ultimate fascination. We love fast cars and fast Internet and fast food and fast delivery and fast athletes.
And Lord do we love fastballs.
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