John McGrath

John McGrath: Velocity lights up radar guns, finesse extends pitchers’ careers

The premise that athletes are stronger than ever holds especially true for baseball pitchers.

During spring training in the late 1990s, when Lou Piniella was managing the Mariners, the subject in his office turned to the many power arms in the organization. On the wall adjacent to him were the names of the 20 or so pitchers in camp, which Piniella consulted while breaking the list into two groups: Those whose velocity reached 90 mph, and those whose velocity didn’t.

About 10 of the pitchers had achieved the benchmark speed of 90 mph, reinforcing Piniella’s sense the Mariners were stocked with premium gas.

How times have changed. Those prospects who aren’t capable of throwing at least 90 mph nowadays are described with such subtle pejoratives as “crafty” and “wily,” which translate into scout code for “next to no chance.”

In a mere generation, elite velocity has increased from 90 mph to 100 mph, which used to be a monumental achievement. (I can recall hearing the thrill in the voice of broadcaster Dave Niehaus on those special occasions when Randy Johnson’s fastball was clocked at 100 mph. It was as if Johnson had broken baseball’s version of the sound barrier.)

Last season, 31 pitchers reached 100 mph in a big league game, and 71 others did it in the minors. Two relievers — Aroldis Chapman and Mauricio Cabrera — averaged 100 mph.

An obvious explanation for the increase in speed is the fact that pitchers are bigger and taller than their predecessors. Walter Johnson, among the five players inducted in the Hall of Fame’s original class of 1936, was known as “The Big Train.” Johnson stood 6-feet-1.

Of the 22 pitchers on the 40-man roster the Mariners updated in late January, 17 were taller than “The Big Train.” Righty set-up man Dan Altavilla was the only pitcher on the roster whose height measured shorter than 6 feet.

As bodies have transformed, so have mind-sets. Radar-gun readings are as routine on stadium scoreboards as balls and strikes, and the number of pitchers wholly oblivious to gun readings can be counted on one hand.

Organizational philosophy contributes to the emphasis on power. It’s like football: The nuances of route-running and catching the ball in traffic can be developed, but sheer speed? There’s no coaching sheer speed.

Baseball clubs adhere to the same blueprint. Show them the potential to flirt with 100 mph on the radar gun, they’ll happily go to work on such ancillary details as, say, where the ball ends up, and expanding the repertoire with a secondary pitch.

The problem with power is that it corrupts. For those who throw a baseball, the corruption occurs in the elbow. One out of every four major league pitchers has undergone the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction procedure known as Tommy John surgery.

More pitchers underwent Tommy John surgery last season than during the entire decade of the 1990s. Elbow ligament reconstruction has served as a lifeline in preserving the careers of many veterans, but the scary trend is that pitching prospects — some just out of high school — now regard the surgery as commonplace.

Surgery on an otherwise healthy 21-year old should not be common, but it is. The faster the pitch, the more torque is put on an elbow.

Specialization has complicated the issue. When I was in high school, the best pitcher on the baseball team played quarterback for the football team and averaged 14 points per game for the basketball team.

In 2017, the best pitcher on a high school team is inclined to spend the rest of the year throwing a baseball harder and harder. Summer-league competition precedes indoor workouts during the fall and winter. The elbow never rests.

I don’t want to be a hypocrite about this. When Chapman delivered a pitch last season clocked at an insane 105.1 mph, it was a thrill to behold. It was a thrill, too, when Edwin Diaz took the mound for the Mariners and closed out games with his swing-and-miss fastball.

But as often as not, there’s a price to be paid for throwing pitches at a velocity that adds stress on an already stressed elbow.

Thinking here of Greg Maddux, who won 355 games during a career remarkable for its durability. Maddux’s determination to turn pitching into a mind game spared him from any elbow or shoulder issues.

“It seems like he’s inside your mind,” fellow Hall of Famer Wade Boggs once said. “When he knows you’re not going to swing, he throws one straight. He sees into the future. It’s like he’s got this crystal ball hidden inside his glove.”

Maddux won four consecutive Cy Young Awards with a fastball that topped out at 86 mph.

My kind of pitcher. More important, he should be Felix Hernandez’s kind of pitcher: Disregard declining velocity, pay no attention to the radar gun, and don’t give a flip about strikeouts.

Break down the batter’s weakness, Felix. See into the future, with the understanding the future relies less on power than finesse.

Be crafty, be wily, be all those things scouts dread about the many crafty, wily pitchers enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath