'Fastball' searches for the game's all-time top speed
Documentary uses physics to help calculate which heater stands alone as No. 1
NEW YORK -- It's a question every baseball fan has asked, an argument every baseball fan has had: Who threw the hardest ever?
Thomas Tull, head of Legendary Pictures and producer of "42," and Johnathan Hock, eight-time Emmy Award-winning producer, director, writer and editor, are no different than any other baseball fans.
Their new baseball documentary "Fastball," which premiered Monday night at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, made an attempt to answer that question.
"Thomas wanted to put a stake in the ground and say, 'This was the fastest pitcher ever,'" says Hock, the film's director. "We went through a lot of effort to try to figure it out."
"Fastball" walks the delicate line between the mythology and the science of the fastball, drawing on both anecdotal and empirical evidence.
Quite a few remarkable anecdotes come from the 20 Hall of Famers Hock interviewed for "Fastball." They include notable pitching masters Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and Goose Gossage, along with current flamethrowers Justin Verlander, Craig Kimbrel and David Price.
On the flip side, "Fastball" also includes Hall of Fame hitters Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Gwynn, George Brett and Mike Schmidt, along with current stars Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper and Brandon Phillips, who share their opinions on the hardest-throwing pitchers of all-time.
But Hock wanted more than just stories.
"We felt in this subject, the fastball, God was in the details, not just in the mythology," Hock says. "We felt we had to understand what was going on with the atom before we could understand the whole universe."
The record book is clear. Cincinnati pitcher Aroldis Chapman's fastball to Tony Gwynn, Jr. in the eighth inning of a Sept. 25th, 2010, game between the Reds and Padres registered 105.1 mph on the radar gun, the highest ever.
But radar guns are a relatively new invention, and most of the early entries into the who-was-the-fastest-ever argument never had the chance to be clocked using modern methods.
"Fastball" presents Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Ryan and Chapman as the four pitchers who have carried the banner of hardest thrower in their respective baseball eras. Fortunately, Johnson, Feller and Ryan were all timed in a very accurate way.
In 1917, Johnson's fastball was tested in a Bridgeport, Conn., munitions laboratory at 122 feet per second, which converts to 83.2 mph. Feller's fastball was measured on the field in the late 1940s using Army equipment designed to measure artillery shell velocity. He clocked in at 98.6. And Ryan was clocked at 100.9 mph on Aug. 20, 1974, against the Tigers, when ABC's Monday Night Baseball first used a radar gun in a game.
But the speed of Johnson's fastball was measured after it would have crossed home plate. Feller's was measured at home plate. And Ryan's was measured approximately 10 feet in front of home plate. Today's MLB standard, the one by which Chapman was judged, is to use pitch speed measured at 50 feet from home plate.
"Johnson, Feller and Ryan were all timed in a very accurate way by reliable means, but the tests were very different from one another, based on where the ball was clocked," Hock said. "We had the opportunity to take these apples-to-oranges comparisons and make them apples-to-apples with the help of some brilliant physicists from Carnegie Mellon University."
Gregg Franklin, head of the physics department at Carnegie Mellon, made calculations to adjust for the different locations of each pitch measurement, taking into account the fact that a baseball loses approximately one mph per five feet after it is pitched. The new numbers show Ryan in the lead at 108.5 mph, followed by Feller at 107.6 and Johnson at 93.8.
"Anecdotally, and based on his performance, you have to think Johnson was throwing harder than that," Franklin says. "So is this definitive? I don't know. I don't think we'll ever really know who threw the hardest, but it's a lot closer than the original numbers suggest."
"What's great about this is that we have this answer, and we can still have the argument 10 seconds later," he says. "And we will, because that's baseball. It's half what happens on the field and half what happens inside of us when we watch something beautiful, or when we just want to have a mallet-headed argument about who threw faster. And baseball is just really, really good for both of those things."
And so is "Fastball."