The Radar Gun Revolution

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 10, 2014

David Goldman/AP Images

The veteran baseball man couldn't stop talking about what he had seen on his radar gun the night before. But then he couldn't stop complaining that radar gun readings are overrated.

We love the radar gun. We hate the radar gun.

First the rave: "You should have seen [him]. 101, 101, 100, 100, and then he threw a changeup at 91—a 91 mph changeup!"

Then the rant: "If you've been in baseball long enough, you know a good fastball. The radar gun never tells you movement. To this day, I can watch a pitch, and tell you within 1 mph what a guy is throwing. But we get too caught up in what the guy is throwing."

We admire a pitcher who can toy with a lineup without throwing hard. But we pick up the phone to call our friends when we see one who can hit triple-digits on the gun with ease.

The radar gun has changed how we watch baseball. But has the radar gun also changed how baseball is played?

One thing is certain: More pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and more of us are paying attention to how hard they throw.

Call it the radar gun revolution.

***

The Bob Feller statue at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
The Bob Feller statue at Progressive Field in Cleveland.Getty Images

For as long as baseball has been played, hard-throwing pitchers have been part of the lore and part of the lure. We cared about velocity even before we could measure it.

A pitcher named Leslie Ambrose Bush often walked more batters than he struck out, but he threw so hard he earned the name Bullet Joe. A Negro League pitcher named Joe Rogan became Bullet Rogan and went all the way to the Hall of Fame.

Walter Johnson's fastball "hissed with danger," Ty Cobb said. Bob Feller was Rapid Robert.

A hundred years ago, Johnson's fastball was timed against a speeding motorcycle and estimated at 97 mph. Thirty years later, Feller took the motorcycle test and his fastball (according to his memory) was estimated at 104 mph.

Photoelectric cells and something called a Lumiline Chronograph were also tried with Feller, but the estimates of his speed varied so wildly (98.6 to 107.9) that it's hard to draw any real conclusions or make any comparisons to pitchers today.

Even with more modern flamethrowers, guys like J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan, the numbers we have aren't all that useful.

The radar gun revolution didn't begin until about 40 years ago, and it didn't really get going until the last decade.

***

Danny Litwhiler on the 1943 St. Louis Cardinals.
Danny Litwhiler on the 1943 St. Louis Cardinals.Anonymous/Associated Press

Danny Litwhiler is generally credited with adapting the modern radar gun to baseball. Litwhiler was the coach at Michigan State in 1973, and when he saw campus police using radar to time speeding cars, he quickly understood that the devices might be applied to baseball. Litwhiler saw it mostly as a teaching tool, one that would allow his pitchers to measure the velocity difference between their fastballs and changeups.

He contacted John Paulson, whose JUGS company made pitching machines that were already in regular use. Litwhiler paid the MSU police for one of their early guns, which he sent to Paulson to be adapted for use in timing baseball pitches.

The original JUGS gun is now on display at the Hall of Fame.

Litwhiler understood almost immediately that the radar gun could be revolutionary. He wrote to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in hopes of alerting all major league teams, and he traveled to spring training in 1975 to show it off to big league managers, coaches and executives.

Orioles manager Earl Weaver was an early adopter, but like Litwhiler, he saw the gun as most valuable for making sure there was a big enough differential between a pitcher's fastball and his changeup. He also saw it as a useful tool to help determine whether a pitcher was tiring.

Radar guns were expensive then, as much as $1,500 each (while a professional model may still cost that much, cheaper versions are available online today for less than $100).

Earl Weaver
Earl WeaverAssociated Press

In his book Weaver on Strategy, the Orioles manager wrote that it took him six years to convince the front office to provide them to the clubs' minor league teams. And in the days before velocities were listed on every scoreboard, he couldn't convince the Orioles to send someone on the road with the big league team to operate a gun and signal its reading to the dugout.

The early versions of the gun would also offer wildly different readings. For many years, you had to specify whether a reading came from the "fast gun" made by JUGS or the "slow gun" made by Decatur. Some teams and scouts used one, some the other, with the difference in readings said to result from whether the pitch speed was measured right out of the pitcher's hand or when it crossed the plate.

Since the teams only cared about comparing one pitcher to another, the difference hardly mattered as long as each of their scouts used the same model.

But if you're trying to compare pitchers from different eras, those small differences can make all the difference in the world.

***

There's a general consensus that major league pitchers are throwing harder than ever and that the same holds true for amateur pitchers. Even over the last seven years, data compiled from MLB.com's very accurate PitchFX system tells a story of more pitchers throwing harder each year.

In 2007, only eight major league starters averaged 95 mph or better on their fastball, according to charts on Baseball Prospectus. The number jumped to 15 by 2012 and to 20 last year. 

The same goes for relievers, with 27 throwing 95 or better in 2007, and 54 at 95 or better last year.

There's no consensus on why pitchers are throwing harder, but there are plenty of theories. And one of them is that the radar gun itself has played a part.

Two major league pitching coaches mentioned it as a significant factor, saying that radar guns are more available to kids and their parents at younger ages, and radar gun readings are more available to pitchers at every level of baseball.

Pitchers are getting bigger and stronger, with better deliveries learned and perfected at younger ages, and they're also able to set velocity goals for themselves and work to meet them.

They also know that a few extra clicks on the gun can translate into thousands or even millions of dollars in draft bonuses or in college scholarships. Because whether we like it or not, the radar gun rules when it comes to evaluating pitchers.

***

Aug 29, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Mike Leake (44) delivers a pitch against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Every veteran scout moans about the tendency to classify pitchers simply by how hard they throw, but every team requires scouts to list velocity on every report. And velocity matters so much at the top of the draft that it stands out when a team like the Cincinnati Reds selects a pitcher like Mike Leake with one of the top-10 picks.

Leake is hardly a soft tosser. But in a world where even some high school pitchers are throwing 100 mph, Reds scouting director Chris Buckley gets praise from colleagues for looking past the gun and realizing that Leake could be a successful big league pitcher without being the hardest thrower in the game.

"I have a very experienced scouting staff," Buckley explained. "When our group says this guy's an extremely polished pitcher that has all the intangibles, it means something. The radar gun readings are just a statistic, and what we try to tell people is when you just look at statistics, you don't get the full story."

Of course, a few months after the Reds drafted Leake eighth overall, they spent $30.25 million to sign Aroldis Chapman as a free agent from Cuba.

Fastest four-seam fastballs, 2007-2014
Starters (200 pitch minimum)Average velocity
Yordano Ventura98.19
Carlos Martinez97.73
Gerrit Cole96.79
Matt Harvey96.59
Nathan Eovaldi96.36
Relievers (200 pitch minimum)Average velocity
Bruce Rondon100.34
Aroldis Chapman99.45
Joel Zumaya99.27
Kelvin Herrera99.18
Henry Rodriguez98.78
Baseball Prospectus

This season, Leake's average velocity for all pitches (88.66 mph) ranks him 105th among big league starters, according to Baseball Prospectus. Meanwhile, Chapman's 97.45 average ranks him first among big league relievers (and his fastball ranks first with a 101.21 mph average).

The Reds don't ignore velocity, either.

***

No one can ignore velocity now. It's on the scoreboard for every pitch in every big league ballpark. It's on the television screen for every pitch on every big league telecast.

It's available on MLB.com and other websites. And there's a site called BrooksBaseball.net that can give you game-by-game analysis of velocity and other key numbers for every pitcher in baseball for every game dating back to 2007.

BrooksBaseball.net was developed by a baseball fan named Dan Brooks, who holds a daytime job as an experimental psychologist at Tufts University. Besides compiling all the info from MLB.com's PitchFx system, Brooks' site uses a system developed by Harry Pavlidis to normalize differences caused by slight variations in velocity readings from ballpark to ballpark.

The publicly available readings are considered accurate enough that many major league scouts don't even carry radar guns to the ballpark. Gone are the days when a home team might manipulate a scoreboard reading simply to get in the head of a hard-throwing opposing pitcher (as one former general manager admits to doing with former Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya).

Then again, some scouts never trusted radar guns at all.

***

Mar 3, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; A scout uses a radar gun during spring training between the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs at Maryvale Baseball Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"The first year I had it, I never used it," said Tom Giordano, who has spent 66 years in baseball as a player, manager, club executive and scout and still works for the Texas Rangers at age 88. "I wanted to watch pitchability, not the numbers on a gun. I'll tell you, [former A's, Orioles and Indians general manager] Hank Peters never asked me how hard someone threw."

Kansas City Royals scout Art Stewart, who has spent seven decades in baseball, does carry a radar gun and said he finds it especially useful for judging amateur pitchers in night games in poorly lit ballparks. Stewart remembers that in the early years of the gun era, not all scouts had them, and those who didn't would try to hang around and poach readings off those who did.

"Nelson Burbrink used to scout for the Mets and Brewers," Stewart said. "At the fall league in 1982, he got so upset that he took a baseball, ripped the cover off it, and took one of the pieces and glued it to the top of the gun, with the flap down to hide the reading."

But even though Stewart trusts the gun, he trusts his own judgment more.

"To me, it's an added tool, but it's not everything," he said. "Look at the guys who just went in the Hall of Fame, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. There's no substitute for a trained eye, and a guy who knows how to pitch. You like to see an athletic guy on the mound. You look for pitchability and location.

"I think any old-time scout would tell you that we're caught in an age of just asking, 'How hard does the guy throw?'"

And a lot of old scouts hate that.

"The radar gun has got a lot of scouts fired who can't evaluate," one veteran scout said. "The industry has forgotten about command and deception. Those hitters are going to tell me how a guy throws. But you ask a young [scout] what kind of pitcher a guy is, and they'll tell you, 'He throws 95.'

"That's not what I asked."

But it's not just veteran scouts.

***

Ben Margo/Associated Press

The radar gun has been around long enough that most major league pitchers today never knew life without it. But even over the course of a career, the importance of velocity over everything else has grown.

"It's crazy how much emphasis is put on velocity today," said Giants pitcher Jake Peavy. "And I don't know how related it is to being good."

Peavy, for the record, is still averaging 91 mph on his fastball at 33 years old. That may be a tick below what he threw earlier in his career, but it's still at least average for a big league starter.

"There are so many guys who throw so stinking hard," he said. "Some are good, some aren't."

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Peavy pointed to Koji Uehara, his teammate last year with the Red Sox. Baseball Prospectus says that out of 142 relievers who have thrown at least 200 pitches this season, Uehara's average fastball velocity of 89.16 mph ranks him 141st, ahead of only Baltimore's Darren O'Day (88.69).

"If he went to a tryout camp, no one would even give him a second look," Peavy said. "But the hitters swing at his fastball like it's 99. They don't see it."

While Uehara hasn't been as unhittable as he was last year, he still has a 2.64 ERA. O'Day, the one reliever behind him on the velocity list, has been even better, with a 1.33 ERA.

For all our emphasis on velocity, it's obvious that throwing hard isn't everything.

"It's not close to everything," Peavy said. "Yet it's talked about like it's the most important thing."

***

It's talked about all the time, and not just by fans.

One executive said that it's become far easier to make a case for drafting a pitcher than a hitter, because with a pitcher, you can use the radar gun reading to boost your case.

As Reds scouting director Chris Buckley said, "There's no radar gun for bats."

Judging hitters is as difficult as ever.

"Ted Williams said hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports," another scout said. "Well, the second-hardest thing is figuring out who can hit a baseball."

And the easiest thing to do in scouting is to judge how hard someone is throwing. Point the gun, and read the result.

Or just look up at the scoreboard. It won't be hard to find the gun reading.

You won't be the only one looking.

Any pitching coach can tell you stories about pitchers who look up at the reading after every delivery (and many wish those readings weren't posted).

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

"So many young guys throw to a radar gun instead of learning how to pitch," said Washington Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty. "I've seen dads with radar guns. I tell them, 'Don't get caught up in that.' It's not the right way to teach."

Pitching coaches, doctors and athletic trainers who treat young pitchers worry that the emphasis on velocity has been a major factor in the increase in elbow injuries. They recommend that teenage pitchers stay away from pitching to radar guns, but there's no sign that recommendation is being followed.

Kids of any ageand their parentslove speed. And they love being able to put a number on it.

They also believe, with justification, that a few extra miles per hour will mean more dollars at draft time or a better chance at a valuable college scholarship.

***

McCatty was pitching in the major leagues when radar guns first came on the scene, early enough that his teammates could play a trick on him.

"They had me looking up at the board in Texas one day, and I said, 'I'm throwing 101,'" McCatty said. "Then it was 103. And then I realized it was the temperature."

It's different now. Every player can tell you where the gun readings can be found in any big league park. One major league manager said he now even notices hitters looking up after they take a pitch or swing and miss.

Managers and coaches look, too, and not just to "Wow!" when they see a really big number. They use the gun readings as an indication that their starting pitcher is tiring, or as a sign that a pitcher may be injured.

They can also use it to help them find favorable matchups. Managers now get readouts of how their hitters and opposing hitters do against pitchers throwing their fastball at various velocities. Why send a pinch hitter who never hits anything over 95 mph to face a pitcher throwing 98 or 99?

Managers have always made decisions like that, but the difference now is that they have numbers to back up what they see or what they suspect.

And more and more, every team has a pitcher in the bullpen who can light up the gun at 95 or above.

Aroldis Chapman.
Aroldis Chapman.Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Not everyone is impressed.

"Guys do throw a little harder, but the more hitters see it, the more they adjust," one scout said. "If [velocity] was the be-all, end-all, then all those guys would be throwing no-hittersand they don't. How the fastball plays is more important than the velocity.

"I can send my mother out to check a guy's velocity. To get a real good feel, you've got to watch a guy pitch."

My next question was whether he carries a radar gun with him.

"I always do," he admitted. "Because we have forms [for scouting reports], and we have boxes [for velocity]."

Of course they do.

No matter how much anyone complains, the radar gun is here to stay. No matter how much anyone thinks gun readings are overused, everyone still looks for them.

The gun has changed the game. And the game is never going back.

 

Danny Knobler has been covering baseball for more than 30 years, including 18 seasons on the Detroit Tigers beat for Booth Newspapers and six seasons as a senior MLB writer for CBSSports.com. He has also written for Baseball America, ESPNNewYork.com and MLB.com.