Sunday, January 14, 2007

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Who is the Fastest of Them All?

Right, now that we are all experts in radar gun technology, let’s turn our attention back to the question of whether Joel Zumaya really is the fastest pitcher in the game. First, take a look at 2006 data for the average speed of a fastball (data courtesy of John Dewan and BIS):

Player Avg Fastball
Joel Zumaya 98.56
Billy Wagner 96.47
Bobby Jenks 96.29
Kyle Farnsworth 96.2
Ambriorix Burgos 96.04
Brad Lidge 95.78
Francisco Cordero 95.75
Daniel Cabrera 95.74
Derrick Turnbow 95.68
Mark Lowe 95.61

Wow! Zumaya's gas is over 2 mph faster than Billy Wagner's.

But while this tells us that Zumaya consistently had the fastest arm in the game in 2006, it doesn’t tell us with how much regularity he broke the 100 mph barrier. Before tackling that, the first question is how easy is it for your Joe Average hurler to break the aforementioned 100 mph mark? The short answer is that it isn’t:

Season #of 100 mph pitches
2002 106
2003 204
2004 82
2005 134
2006 335

To give an idea of relative magnitude some 3.5 million pitches are tossed in the majors each year of which 75% or so have accurate speed measurements. Two things jump out. First, the very low number of 100+mph pitches (less than 0.01% of all balls pitched), and second, the spike in 100+mph pitches in 2006. Yup, you’ve guessed it; the 2006 spike was caused by the emergence of one man: Joel Zumaya.

If we look at pitch speed leaders each year we see that Zumaya was responsible for nearly 70% of the 100+mph fastballs in 2006, and, incredibly, his individual total exceeded the league total in each of the previous four years:

Season League Leader #of 100 mph pitches
2002 Billy Wagner 42
2003 Billy Wagner 159
2004 Kyle Farnsworth 30
2005 Daniel Cabrera 37
2006 Joel Zumaya 233

So where does the putative 103 or 104 mph rank on the all time list? Right at the very top, that’s where. Have a look at the following list of hurlers purported to have smashed the 100 mph barrier (courtesy of Baseball Almanac)—it only notes a pitcher’s quickest pitch.

Pitcher Radar Speed Date Location
Mark Wohlers 103.0 mph Mar-95 Spring Training
Joel Zumaya 103.0 mph Apr-06 McAfee Coliseum
Armando Benitez 102.0 mph May-02 Shea Stadium
Bobby Jenks 102.0 mph Aug-05 Safeco Field
Randy Johnson 102.0 mph Sep-04 Pacific Bell Park
Robb Nen 102.0 mph Oct-97 Jacobs Field
A.J. Burnett 101.0 mph May-05 PNC Park
Rob Dibble 101.0 mph Aug-92 Candlestick Park