How Fast Are Pitchers Throwing? A Look At Speed Measurement In Baseball! - Baseball History Comes Alive! (2023)

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Early speed test with baseball’s “electric eye.”
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We always welcome contributions from our readers. Today, Matt Brown sends us something a little bit different. Matt has written an interesting essay that briefly explores the evolution of “speed measurements.” I think you’ll enjoy it:

In modern baseball, it seems like everyone is obsessed with pitch velocity. Every pitcher is judged on how fast he’s throwing. College players are often drafted based on the speed of their fastballs. In the major leagues, the speed of every pitch is now shown to fans in real-time on the Jumbotron. It’s pretty clear that baseball has become obsessed with pitch velocity.

But where did it all begin? Let’s go back in time and take a look:

1912: The First-Ever Recorded Pitch Velocity

There has always been a desire to measure exactly how fast pitchers are throwing the baseball. The first speed determination was made in 1912 when Baseball Magazine set up a test at a United States military base using a primitive version of a device called a chronograph. The Army developed it to measure bullet speed. Applying the device to baseball, it essentially timed the ball as it flew from one end of a tunnel to another until it hit a steel plate.

Using the device, Walter Johnson and Nap Rucker recorded speeds of 84 and 77 miles per hour respectively. However, it’s unknown how accurate these readings actually were, since the speed was technically measured when the ball had already passed 15 feet from the pitcher’s hand rather than at the point of release. That could make quite a difference. Plus it was obvious to all that Johnson threw much faster than the method recorded.

1914: The Motorbike Speed Test

Hard-throwing Walter Johnson again helped out in 1914 when his pitch velocity was measured against a speeding motorcycle. This time his pitch came in at a more realistic 99.7 miles per hour. Here’s how it worked: The motorbike drove at a constant speed towards a target a fixed distance away. Johnson then threw his fastball at the same target. Based on the speed of the bike, the release of the pitch, and the time the ball reached its target, they were able to record a speed reading.

There were obviously still many variables associated with this test, so the method wasn’t considered especially accurate either. In 1940, Bob Feller tried the same test with his pitch coming in at a whopping 103 miles per hour. Amazingly, there’s video footage available of this event. The limitations of this test are quite obvious when you watch the video.

1946: Chronograph—Round Two

Unsatisfied with the accuracy of his 1940 reading, Bob Feller arranged to measure his speed again, this time with a more advanced army chronograph. On August 20 1946, the test occurred, using a special “Lumiline chronograph machine” which the Army was now using to measure the velocity of artillery shells. This time, Feller’s fastball came in at 98.6 mph. There’s also footage of this event.

1973: Former Ballplayer-Turned-Innovator Danny Litwhiler Develops the First Radar Gun

By the 1970s, baseball finally began using radar guns to measure pitch velocity. There’s an interesting story as to how this developed:

In 1973, Michigan State baseball coach Danny Litwhiler, who had a fine 11-year career in the major leagues, had the idea of using police radar technology as a coaching tool for his pitchers. He paid the local police department for one of their older devices and sent it to a company called JUGS for modifications and possible applications in measuring baseball pitch velocity.

The idea actually occurred to Danny during a visit to the Air Force Academy, where his son, Danny, Jr. was a faculty member in the math department. During the visit a “light bulb” went off in Danny Litwhiler’s head:

“We were driving around the base and I warned him about the Security Police having this new portable radar gun and they would hide behind trees to catch speeders. My father went back to Michigan State where he was coaching at the time and got the local police to bring their radar gun to the field. With a few modifications, it worked great.”

Using the device successfully with his Michigan State team, Litwhiler soon realized he was onto something. He wrote to the commissioner’s office about the concept, and also tried to inform other major league teams as to how the device might be used. At spring training Earl Weaver picked up on the idea and immediately used it to work with Jim Palmer.

A few teams saw its usefulness, but the guns were quite heavy, and very expensive. For the next 10 years, they were used mainly by some pitching coaches to compare different pitchers, or to see the difference between a player’s fastball and their changeup. From this point, the adoption of the radar gun was quite gradual, but eventually it caught on. Danny Litwhiler’s idea of using radar to measure pitch velocity effectively modernized the process of assessing pitchers. His original prototype is on display in the Hall of Fame.

1980s-Today: Radar Guns Go Mainstream

After Danny Litwhiler’s introduction of the primitive “radar gun” in the 1970s, the device as we know it today went through numerous stages of development and refinement. In the 1980s, major league baseball finally began using radar to officially measure pitch velocities; and soon, every team was using radar guns to track pitchers’ performances. Although JUGS was the first on the scene, other companies such as Stalker and Bushnell began to capture market share in the early ‘90s.

With the advances of modern technology, pitching coaches no longer needed to rely on handheld devices (although for many old-school scouts, handheld radar guns are still the most popular option due to their ease of use and relative accuracy). There are now radar guns that attach to the back of catcher’s mitts, handheld devices that send speed readings to a smartphone, and even baseballs with LCD screens that claim to track pitch speed automatically – no radar gun required!

But technology hasn’t stopped evolving. Teams now have even more sophisticated methods available. They can use special imaging technology set up inside a batting cage. These systems, which have only become feasible to use over the last decade, allow teams to track pitch velocity with extreme accuracy (along with many other metrics now commonly employed, e.g., exit velocity and launch angle). As might be expected, these systems are extremely expensive to set up and maintain.

What’s next? It seems that the concept of measuring pitch velocity, which started with the Army’s primitive chronograph back in the early 1900s, has evolved as far as it could possibly go. We can only speculate as to what might lie ahead!

Matt Brown

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How fast were pitchers throwing in 1930? ›

The best pitchers' velocity in Ruth's day topped out at about 90 miles per hour, while relievers you've never heard of now flirt with 100 mph fastballs. But some objective measures of athleticism are consistent.

How fast did pitchers throw in the 1900s? ›

Hard-throwing Walter Johnson again helped out in 1914 when his pitch velocity was measured against a speeding motorcycle. This time his pitch came in at a more realistic 99.7 miles per hour.

How fast did pitchers throw in the 1980s? ›

So when you read of 85-90 mph fastballs from the early 1980s, realize that they would be registering much faster with current measurement tech. An 85 mph fastball (if registered by a Speedgun at the plate) would be roughly 93 mph if measured by Statcast out of the pitcher's hand.

How fast was a fastball in 1940? ›

How Fast Did Pitchers Throw in 1940? The average fastball velocity for major league pitchers in 1940 was approximately 91 miles per hour, according to the research conducted by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

What is the fastest throw in history? ›

On Sept. 24, 2010, Chapman made MLB history. Then a rookie relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, the fireballer unleashed a fastball clocked at 105.1 mph by PITCH/fx. MLB later bumped that up to 105.8 mph.

How fast did the old time pitchers throw? ›

The average pitcher then threw about 65 mph. Walter Johnson, the fastest, could reach almost 74 mph, if the wind was with him..

Why it's almost impossible to throw a 110 mph fastball? ›

The number of pitchers who can break the 100 MPH has gone up dramatically in the last decade, with one who can throw 105. But breaking 110 MPH is nearly impossible, due to the physical limitations of human bones, muscles, and ligaments.

What is the fastest pitch Nolan Ryan ever threw? ›

Nolan Ryan: 108.1 MPH.

How fast did Nolan Ryan throw? ›

1. Nolan Ryan. There have been pitchers who can throw harder than Ryan's 100.9 mph fastball. But there will never be another strikeout pitcher who played as long as Ryan did (27 seasons) for as well as he did.

What was the pitching speed in Babe Ruth era? ›

They found a film where Johnson was demonstrating his fastball prowess and their calculations had him topping off at about 98 MPH. Bob Feller, who was a bit after the Babe Ruth era, was calculated to throw about 100 MPH.

Who threw a 108 mph fastball? ›

Big league pitchers have heard the phrase “Throw him the heat!” perhaps more than any other phrase. Baseball fans have long had an infatuation with the game's signature pitch, the fastball.

What was the average fastball speed in 2000? ›

Today, the average four-seam fastball velocity is 93.5 mph, according to Statcast, up from 93.4 mph in 2000, 92.9 mph in 2015 and 92.6 in 2014, as mentioned above.

Who was the fastest pitcher in the 1930s? ›


Bob Feller. “Rapid Robert” is said to have been clocked at 107 mph by a photo-cell device, and Satchel Paige, himself a renowned flame-thrower, once vouched for Feller as the fastest pitcher in the game. Other notables: Satchel Paige, Lefty Grove.

What pitches did pitchers throw in the 1920s? ›

Spitballs and Sliders: 1900s to 1920s

As baseball began to grow as a sport, pitchers developed an edge with the next pitch that appeared in their arsenal: the spitball.

How fast did Bob Gibson throw? ›

How fast was Bob Gibson's Fastball? Bob Gibson's 4-seam fastball “sat” between 92-95 mph in the sample I considered. It's likely he actively varied his grip or intended velocity, producing a high velocity range, measured at 87-95, with numerous indications that he regularly exceeded 95 mph.

How fast do you have to throw to throw 300 feet? ›

In the low-80s is a good estimate. Check out the velocity chart in this article that uses physics data from one of the world's baseball physics experts, Dr. Alan Nathan. His calculator of fly ball distance is a great estimator, and it shows that somewhere between 77-82 is needed to throw approximately 300 feet.


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