This article appeared in The Sportster on August 25, 2016.
Before there were sliders and curve balls, change-ups and splitters, knuckleballs and eephus pitches, there was the fastball. In a game composed of one-on-one confrontations, the fastball has always represented the sport’s most macho of weapons: Here it is, try to hit it. And though it is the most primitive pitch in baseball, it remains its most exciting, as well.
While the tape measure has transformed home run hitters into SportsCenter legends, the radar gun has done the same for pitchers. When a flamethrower is on the mound, fans and players alike will quickly turn to the stadium scoreboard to see if the previous pitch approached, or even reached, triple digits. Whether the umpire determined a ball or strike had been thrown in those situations has often become inconsequential to many of those in attendance.
A few notes about this list:
• To be considered, a pitcher must have a minimum of 10 starts this season and no more than one appearance out of the bullpen.
• Relief pitchers are excluded; it is much easier to throw as hard as you can for four batters than it is to pace yourself for 25.
• Players who are out for the remainder of 2016 are not included, as they may or may not ever regain their full velocity once (if?) they return to action. Rotation regulars, such as the Yankees’ Nathan Eovaldi (97 mph), the Angels’ Garrett Richards (95.6 mph) and the Mets’ Matt Harvey (94.5 mph) all light up the radar gun when healthy, but they are not expected to pitch again this season.
All stats below are from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs through games of Wednesday, August 24. Unless otherwise noted, any speeds mentioned represent a player’s average fastball velocity this year.
20. TAIJUAN WALKER – SEATTLE MARINERS
A two-time top-10 MLB prospect in Baseball Prospectus (pre-2013 and pre-2014), Walker has struggled to match expectations since being called up in 2014. When he arrived in Seattle, he was supposed to fall in behind ace, Felix Hernandez, to form one of the best one-two punches in the American League. Injuries and inconsistency, however, have made it difficult for Walker to fulfill that role. Yet, while his 18-19 career record and 92 ERA+ (a measure of a pitcher’s ERA relative to the rest of the league and adjusted for ballpark factors, where 100 is average and higher numbers are better) have been mediocre thus far, his fastball has been anything but. The former first round pick has averaged at least 94 mph in each of his three big league seasons and only recently turned 24 years of age. In order to progress as a starter, however, Walker will need to cut down on his home runs allowed; he yields 1.90 round trippers per nine innings this season, which is 85% higher than the collective rate of the other players on this list.
19. MICHAEL PINEDA – NEW YORK YANKEES
After a strong rookie campaign in which he posted a 3.42 FIP (fielding independent pitching; measures a pitcher’s effectiveness with things he can control), 1.099 walks and hits per nine innings (WHIP) and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9IP) with the Seattle Mariners, Pineda was traded to The Bronx in exchange for Jesus Montero. A subsequent shoulder injury forced him to miss his first two seasons with New York and his outings have been unpredictable since returning in 2014. This year, while Pineda has the highest rate of pitches that are swung on and missed in the A.L. (13.9%) and is second in the league with 10.2 K/9IP, he has, in fact, been quite hittable, yielding over a hit per inning for the second consecutive season. Though he throws a slider more frequently than any starter in baseball (40.3%), his fastball velocity is above 94 mph, up over a mile per hour from last year. Pineda has seen his numbers improve a bit recently; his ERA was 5.38 at the All-Star break, but is over a run lower in seven starts since then.
18. JEFF SAMARDZIJA – SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The Chicago White Sox acquired Samardzija from the Oakland A’s just prior to his walk year in 2015 and the former Notre Dame wide receiver subsequently had a season to forget. Though he won a career-high 11 games last season and led the league in shutouts, he also allowed the most hits (228), earned runs (118) and home runs (29) in the American League. His fastball velocity, however, has remained consistently in the 94 mph range ever since becoming a full time starter with the Chicago Cubs in 2012. Despite having such a strong arm, Samardzija has thrown a fastball on only 45.7% of his pitches this season, the lowest of any starter on this list (though that’s significantly higher than his 39.2% rate from a year ago). A move to the National League this year has helped a little, as his ERA+ has risen from 79 to 98. That said, most of his peripheral stats are nowhere near where they were when he was a quality starting pitcher for the Cubs and A’s several years ago.
17. CHRIS ARCHER – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Archer entered the season with lofty expectations. In 2015, at the age of 26, he made his first All-Star Game, had a FIP of 2.90 and struck out an impressive 10.7 men per nine innings. This year, Archer’s strikeout rate has not wavered at all, but his FIP is nearly a run higher. Furthermore, his current WHIP, hits allowed per nine innings (H/9IP) and home runs allowed per nine innings (HR/9IP) would all be career highs. And while wins and losses are not necessarily indicative of a starter’s performance, it is noteworthy to mention that Archer, at 7-17, is on pace to become the first pitcher since 2003 (Mike Maroth, Detroit Tigers) to lose at least 20 games in a season. On the surface, his numbers this season look a lot like Pineda’s, but while the Yankees’ 27-year old has gained over a mile per hour on his fastball this season, Archer’s velocity has dropped by a full mph.
16. JAMESON TAILLON – PITTSBURGH PIRATES
After missing the previous two years, mostly due to an ulnar collateral ligament injury that led to Tommy John surgery, Taillon, a highly-touted prospect, finally made his Major League debut this year. Through 12 games with the Pirates, he has 10 quality starts (defined as six or more innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed) already, including two in which he went eight shutout innings. This season, Taillon sports a 143 ERA+ to go along with a solid 1.041 WHIP. Though he throws his curveball on 26.3% of his pitches (the highest rate on this list), his fastball clocks in at a very healthy 94.2 mph. However, while Taillon’s miniscule 1.2 walks surrendered per nine innings is a testament to his impeccable control, he doesn’t miss many bats; his 83.6% contact rate is the second-highest (behind Milwaukee’s Wily Peralta) among starters equipped with a 94+ mph fastball. The future looks bright for Pittsburgh, though, with three talented starters aged 25 or under in Taillon, fellow rookie Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole.
15. MAX SCHERZER – WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Scherzer is one of only two starters (the other being Samardzija) on this list who is over the age of 30. But while that would seem to indicate hurlers who throw heat lose velocity over time, the 2013 A.L. Cy Young Award winner is throwing harder now than ever before. Scherzer is putting together a phenomenal season with a 137 ERA+, an MLB-leading 0.960 WHIP and a career-best 11.2 K/9IP. His 14.9% swing-and-miss rate is second (behind Miami’s Jose Fernandez) in baseball among qualifying pitchers (one inning pitched per team game played) and is nearly 25% higher than his career average. Scherzer leads all of baseball in strikeouts and if he can break last year’s total of 276 Ks (he’s on pace to narrowly eclipse that number), he will have set a personal best in that category for the fifth consecutive season. This isn’t exactly the first year he’s been tough to hit; in 2015, he became the first pitcher in over 40 years (Nolan Ryan) to throw two no-nos in the same season.
14. WILY PERALTA – MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Peralta seems to be out of place on this list. Though his fastball has averaged 95 mph over his five-year career, his peripheral stats are significantly worse than most hard-throwing starters. With a 5.31 FIP and 1.738 WHIP in 2016, Peralta struggles to get batters out. Perhaps the most frustrating stat associated with him is that in 54 plate appearances this season in which he has gotten ahead in the count, 0-2, opponents have a .953 on-base plus slugging (OPS)! Peralta has trouble early (batters who lead off a game are hitting .500 against him) and late (he allows a 1.425 OPS the third time through a lineup in a game). Despite possessing one of the quickest fastballs in baseball, Peralta only has 5.8 K/9IP – and that’s up from 5.0 a year ago; no qualifying National League starter has a lower rate in 2016. Dating back to last year, he has failed to pitch more than six innings in any of his last 20 starts.
13. AARON SANCHEZ – TORONTO BLUE JAYS
In 2014, the Blue Jays called up Sanchez to pitch out of their bullpen and he was fantastic. Just 21 years old at the time, he gave up only four earned runs over 33 IP (a 1.09 ERA), while allowing 14 hits, which translated into a .128 batting average against. During the following season, Toronto expanded his role, allowing him to start 11 games, in addition to his 30 relief appearances. Though his numbers fell of a bit last year, as he regressed toward more realistic stats, he became a full-time starter in 2016. This year, Sanchez is 12-2 with a 141 ERA+ in 24 starts. He relies heavily on his mid-90s fastball, which he throws on 74.2% of his pitches – by far, the highest rate of any pitcher on this list. As the Jays have made a push atop the American League East, Sanchez has been a huge part of the team’s success.
12. KEVIN GAUSMAN – BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The 25-year old Gausman has struggled to live up to expectations thus far during his career. Once rated by Baseball Prospectus as the 10th best prospect in all of baseball, he is 19-29 with a middling 102 ERA+ through his first 88 career games (65 starts). However, Gausman is averaging 94.7 mph on his fastball this season and just over 95 mph over his career. His K/9IP has steadily increased from 7.0 to 8.3 to 8.9 during the past three seasons. Since the beginning of 2015, Gausman has been outstanding at home, but horrific away from Camden Yards; over that time, he’s 8-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.053 WHIP in Baltimore, but 1-15 with a 5.68 ERA and 1.492 WHIP on the road. If he can curb his road woes and continue to improve his strikeout rate, Gausman may become the starter the O’s had envisioned when they drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2012.
11. DANNY SALAZAR – CLEVELAND INDIANS
The Indians have their best winning percentage since 2007, when they won 96 contests and fell a game short of reaching the World Series. A big reason for their success this year has been the strength of their pitching staff, as Cleveland’s ERA+ of 122 leads the entire American League by a substantial margin. Salazar, their hardest-throwing starter, made his first All-Star Game this year. Averaging nearly 95 mph on his fastball since joining the Tribe in 2013, Salazar has always been able to blow the ball by opposing batters. His 9.9 K/9IP over his four-year career would be the sixth-highest in MLB history – trailing only Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood, Chris Sale, Pedro Martinez and Max Scherzer – if he had enough innings (minimum 1000 IP) to qualify. One area in which Salazar needs to improve is his astronomical walk rate of 4.2 per nine innings pitched this year, which is up quite a bit from his career mark of 2.7 entering 2016.
10. MICHAEL FULMER – DETROIT TIGERS
Fulmer came over to Detroit when the team traded outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, to the New York Mets at last year’s trade deadline. Both teams seem to have profited from the transaction. In 57 games with the Mets in 2015, Cespedes posted a 156 OPS+, led the team to the World Series and then re-signed with New York in the off-season. Fulmer was promoted to the Tigers this year and his rookie season has surely exceeded anything the Tigers could have realistically hoped for. Through his first 20 MLB starts, Fulmer is 10-4 with a 161 ERA+ and 1.058 WHIP. His 4.7 WAR (a measure of the number of wins a player adds to his team above what a replacement player would contribute) places him among the top five pitchers in baseball this year. Aided by a fastball that averages nearly 95 mph, the 23-year old Fulmer has rapidly become one of the best pitchers in the league. The Tigers may have a difficult decision on their hands: Should they sneak into a wild card spot, would they start Fulmer or long-time ace, Justin Verlander?
09. STEPHEN STRASBURG – WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Strasburg was drafted with the first overall pick of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft and subsequently moved quickly through the Nationals’ system. He needed only 11 starts across AA and AAA (with a combined 1.30 ERA and 0.795 WHIP) before making his first appearance for Washington in 2010. Despite missing some time with injuries during his career, Strasburg has proven to be one of the best starters in baseball when healthy. Of all pitchers taken with the first pick of any draft, Strasburg has the lowest WHIP and second-lowest ERA. His K/9IP (10.5), WHIP (1.094) and FIP (2.86) rank 1st, 2nd and 3rd, respectively, among active pitchers with at least 900 career innings pitched. While the Nats are cruising toward a division title this year, Strasburg has faltered a bit of late. After beginning the season 15-1 with a 2.63 ERA, he’s gone 0-3 with a 14.66 ERA in his past three starts. Elbow soreness may be to blame for that drop in production, however, as Strasburg was recently placed on the disabled list.
08. JOSE FERNANDEZ – MIAMI MARLINS
Despite only having 437 big league innings under his belt in three-plus years, Fernandez has been consistently dominant when he is on the mound. In his first season with the Marlins, he went 12-6 for a team that won just 62 games all year. He also had an extraordinary 176 ERA+ and led all of baseball by yielding only 5.8 H/9IP. That year, Fernandez won the National League Rookie of the Year award and finished third in the N.L. Cy Young voting. Though he is just 24 years old, his fastball, which averages a shade over 95 mph, may still be improving. Fernandez has struck out a career-high 12.9 batters per nine innings pitched in 2016, which leads all starters in baseball. Opponents have made contact on just 67.5% of their swings against him this year, which is tied for the lowest rate in a dozen years among qualifying Major League starting pitchers.
07. MIKE FOLTYNEWICZ – ATLANTA BRAVES
Foltynewicz has had trouble with consistency during his brief MLB career. In 51 appearances (32 starts), he has an ERA+ of just 78 and a WHIP approaching 1.500. Foltynewicz has had two starts this season in which he’s thrown at least seven shutout innings, but has had three in which he’s yielded more runs than innings pitched. Fatigue has perhaps impacted his pitching, which wouldn’t be unheard of for a young starter. Opponents are hitting just .236 during his first two times through the lineup, but .358 after that. One thing has remained constant in each of his games, however: Foltynewicz throws very hard. Whether he starts a game or comes in from the bullpen, he has averaged over 95 mph on his fastballs since being called up as a reliever for the Houston Astros in 2014. Despite the mediocre numbers, Foltynewicz has made good strides in his second year as an MLB starter. His ERA is down over a run from a year ago and he’s been able to significantly reduce his hits, home runs and walks allowed per nine innings.
06. JON GRAY – COLORADO ROCKIES
Gray’s fastball velocity has increased by nearly a mile per hour this year and that has had a direct impact on his performance. He has seen his ERA shrink by almost a full run, his WHIP decrease by 23%, his H/9IP lowered by 30% and his K/9IP jump to 9.6. While most of Gray’s numbers aren’t overly impressive on the surface, it is important to keep in mind that he is still just 24 years old and makes half of his starts in Denver, a notoriously tough place for pitchers, due to the city’s high elevation. He has struggled a bit in August, but during the three months prior, he had a 3.30 ERA, while opponents combined for a .554 OPS over 16 starts. The Rockies will be pleased if they can get similar stats from Gray going forward, as he continues his development. He already may not be far off; removing his two worst outings this year would result in a full run decrease in his ERA, from 4.61 to 3.65.
05. GERRIT COLE – PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Through his first two seasons in Major League Baseball (2013-14), Cole put up solid numbers as a starter in Pittsburgh’s rotation. But everything really clicked for the former UCLA standout in 2015, when he went 19-8 with a 2.66 FIP and 1.091 WHIP. Cole also made his first All-Star Game and finished 4th in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting. This year, however, he missed about a month earlier in the summer and his numbers have subsequently regressed quite a bit. Though he still throws over 95 mph, Cole has a career-worst WHIP and K/9IP this season. A rough month of August (1.875 WHIP and .953 OPS allowed in five starts), though, may be to blame for his inflated stats. If the Pirates are to get into the postseason as a wild card, they will need for Cole to regain his form from last year as one of the game’s best young hurlers.
04. CARLOS MARTINEZ – ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Martinez was promoted to the Cardinals as a 21-year old in 2013. The team used him almost exclusively as a reliever and he didn’t fare very well. Though his numbers improved a bit in 2014, he still failed to match his minor league success (a 2.18 ERA in 15 AAA starts). Last year, St. Louis moved Martinez into their rotation and he hasn’t looked back. His ERA as a big league starter (3.26) is over half a run lower than it is when he has come out of the bullpen. Martinez is averaging 95.5 mph on his fastball this year, which is only down about a mile per hour from when he was used as a reliever. In just his second season as a full-time starting pitcher, he leads the Cardinals’ rotation in wins (12), ERA+ (132), WHIP (1.175) and HR/9IP (0.6). Martinez has given up one run or fewer in a remarkable 25 of his 53 starts over the past year and a half.
03. YORDANO VENTURA – KANSAS CITY ROYALS
In 2013 and 2014, Ventura had the highest average fastball velocity among all Major League starters. While he averaged over 97 mph during those years, he’s down over a full mile per hour since then. That’s likely had an effect on Ventura’s performance; his ERA+, WHIP and percentage of hard hit balls have all gotten worse each year over that time. And his devastating fastball has not translated into strikeouts, as it did in the minors. In over 170 innings spanning AA and AAA, Ventura struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings. With the Royals, however, his K/9IP has been just 7.8 over his career and has plummeted to just 7.1 (30th out of 42 qualifying American League pitchers) this year. After losing five straight decisions over parts of June and July, Ventura has turned things around a bit lately. In five August starts, he has posted a 3-0 record with a 2.03 ERA.
02. JAMES PAXTON – SEATTLE MARINERS
Though he has only started 43 games in three-plus seasons with Seattle, Paxton has quietly posted a solid 116 ERA+. This year, he is striking out batters at a career-high rate of 8.0K/9IP, while walking fewer opponents than ever, at just 2.0 per nine innings. Opposing hitters are whiffing on 11.5% of their swings against Paxton in 2016, a rate that is about 60% higher than last year’s 7.2% rate. The improvement in those numbers may be directly attributable to a sudden jump in velocity; his average fastball (97.2 mph) is up three miles per hour from a season ago. Paxton tends to run into trouble once a game reaches its midpoint. He has a 2.26 ERA during the first four innings of starts this year and a 5.70 ERA from the fifth through ninth frames. Between pitches 76-100 of Paxton’s starts in 2016, opponents have a .960 OPS against him.
01. NOAH SYNDERGAARD – NEW YORK METS
The Mets acquired Syndergaard (and catcher, Travis d’Arnaud, as well) in a deal with Toronto for reigning N.L. Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey. The 23-year old starter for New York leads the league this year in HR/9IP (0.5) and K/BB (5.53) and is second to Fernandez with a 2.24 FIP. With a fastball that averages 98 mph, Thor, as the 6’6” pitcher is known, has the highest velocity among starting pitchers since FanGraphs began charting such numbers in 2002. For good measure, Syndergaard throws the hardest slider and change-up in the game, as well. In his lone regular season relief appearance, an inning of work against the White Sox on May 31 of this year, his fastball averaged 100.4 mph. That figure is slightly higher than that of the consensus hardest-throwing MLB reliever, Cubs’ closer, Aroldis Chapman (100.3 mph), in 2016. Syndergaard, along with Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom, gave the Mets four starters in their 20s who each averaged at least 93.5 mph on the way to last year’s World Series.
(photo by Keith Allison)