100-mph Fastballs: The Hardest Throwing Pitchers in Baseball History
The Rare Gift: The 100-mph Fastball
Ah baseball, I so love thee. The season starts in the spring and brings with it all the joy of the new year with new heroes, GOATs, and loads of terrific stories.
I fell in love with the sport at the age of 12. It takes immense athletic skill and determination to make it into the major leagues, but some people have skills that seem superhuman, and the ability to throw a ball at 100 mph is certainly an impressive one.
One might think that only a large man could toss a baseball over 60 feet at 100 miles per hour; however, this assumption is false. The pitcher's size is not significant.
It is the fascinating power that these rare and gifted men hold that is so intriguing. Not all these men are truly baseball greats.They are all, however, legends. They were capable of launching pitches that batters never saw and only heard after it was too late.
Walter Johnson: The Big Train
Walter Perry Johnson (November 6, 1887 – December 10, 1946), was never recorded throwing a baseball at 100 mph or more. He lived and played in a time when instruments for measuring a baseball's speed didn't exist. His statistics, however, indicate that his pitches very likely reached those speeds.
Johnson faced all the early legends of the sport. He was regarded as the fastest throwing pitcher ever seen by most of them. Ty Cobb had the following to say,
"...The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn't touch him... every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park."
Johnson ended his career as the all-time strikeout king, a record he'd hold until Nolan Ryan broke it more than 55 years later. Johnson's 417 career wins are second only to Cy Young, and he still owns an untouched record of 110 shutout games.
Bob Feller: "Rapid Robert" or "The Heater From Van Meter"
Robert William Andrew Feller (November 3, 1918 – December 15, 2010), was the first flame-throwing pitcher to have modern equipment measure his fastball's velocity. How good was Bob Feller? He debuted in the major leagues at age 17, and he dominated the competition. The man who'd been sent to scout Feller had the following to say,
"This was a kid pitcher I had to get. I knew he was something special. His fastball was fast and fuzzy; it didn't go in a straight line; it would wiggle and shoot around. I didn't know then that he was smart and had the heart of a lion, but I knew that I was looking at an arm the likes of which you see only once in a lifetime."
He'd face and often defeat the best hitters of his era. He even graced the cover of Time magazine. He set a new record for strikeouts in a game with 18. He would throw three no-hitters and created such a stir with his right arm that the league set up a commission to see if they could determine how fast his pitches really were. A Harley Davidson motorcycle was used as a speedometer; it was given a 10-foot head start and sped at 86 mph. It was determined Feller's pitch traveled 98.6 miles per hour. A later method determined Feller threw 104 miles per hour.
Feller was not just a baseball hero. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted for military service. He refused all non-combat roles that would have had him serve more as a cheerleader. Feller demanded to see the front line. He served as a gunner on the USS Alabama, participating in major military battles between the Allied forces and Imperial Japan. Feller was the first professional athlete in the USA to volunteer for service.
He returned from the Second World War and played many more seasons, finishing his career with 266 wins and 2,581 strikeouts. He would have easily won 100 more games and have 1000 more strikeouts had he not sacrificed years of his career for the war effort.
Bob Feller: Legendary Pitcher and Man
Steve Dalkowski: Man and Myth
“He was unbelievable. He threw a lot faster than Ryan. It’s hard to believe but he did,” asserted Earl Weaver, who watched Nolan Ryan pitch dozens of times, and managed Dalkowski.
Paul Blair, who batted against Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Sam McDowell, Vida Blue, Dick Radatz, and Goose Gossage, said of Dalkowski, “He threw the hardest I ever saw.”
A near-identical statement came from Cal Ripken Sr., who caught for Dalkowski and whose professional career as a player, manager, and coach spanned five decades. He observed Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson during his career. He asserted, “Steve Dalkowski was the hardest thrower I ever saw.”
With a terrifying arm and a terrible drinking problem, Dalkowski never even played in the major leagues. He did have a long minor league career—a career in which he terrified people with pitches rumored to average 104 miles per hour. An unlikely rumor is that he was able to throw at speeds of 125 miles per hour.
He only stood 5'11" and weighed 175 pounds, yet people who saw large men like J.R. Richard and Randy Johnson pitch say Dalkowski threw much harder than those two. Richard and Johnson have both officially clocked in at over 100 miles per hour on numerous occasions.
The anecdotes from other hall of fame players are maybe even more telling. Ted Williams, often considered the greatest hitter who ever played the game, once faced Dalkowski in a minor league warm up. Ted had retired fairly young and was still likely able to compete at the major league level. Out of curiosity, he stepped in (as a coach) into the batting box against Dalwkoski in a practice session. Williams skill as a hitter was not just in his swing and determination but in his legendary eyesight. Ted took one pitch and stepped away—he said he never saw the ball, he'd only heard it.
J.R. Richard: Greatness and Tragedy
The rise and fall of J.R. Richard is not a pretty tale. The man had as much skill and power as other greats such as Nolan Ryan. However, as a black man, he surely did suffer some discrimination down in Houston, Texas, a town where he ought to have been more loved and appreciated for what he brought there.
James Rodney Richard (born March 7, 1950) played his entire career with the Houston Astros. From 1976 to 1980, only two other pitchers in all of baseball could compare to him, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan. Standing at 6'8", J.R. Richard could regularly throw the ball at 100 miles per hour and above. He struck out more than 300 batters in a season on two occasions and in 1979 he led the National League with the lowest earned run average.
The 1980 season started well for Richard and he had Nolan Ryan on the team with him—providing the Houston Astros with the two most powerful right-handed flame throwers in all of baseball. However, it wasn't long before J.R. would report to his staff that he wasn't feeling quite right. He wasn't feeling as strong and powerful as he was used to and his complaints and requests for examination were either ignored entirely, brushed off with derision, or just given a perfunctory look. Despite being selected as starting pitcher for that year's All-star game, he'd soon complain of having a dead arm. The Houston media said J.R. was just moody, and they even went so far as to say he was jealous of Nolan Ryan, who'd become the first pro athlete to make $1,000,000 per year that season. Richard was seriously ill, but team trainers and physicians hadn't noticed the problem—a growing blood clot in his neck.
On July 14, 1980, he would pitch his final major league game. He started well and strong but left in the fourth inning due to complaints of blurry vision and numbness in his fingers. He was placed on the 21-day disabled list. On June 25, he was sent to Methodist Hospital in Houston, and despite obstructions in his arteries, it was determined that no surgery was needed. June 30 saw Richards having a practice throwing session at the Houston Astrodome—he tried to shake off the loud ringing in his ears but he soon collapsed on the AstroTurf, a victim of a stroke.
He would never recover from the stroke he had at the age of 30. The Houston television media apologized repeatedly for having questioned whether or not he was truly ill. He would win a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Houston Astros worth a huge sum of money, but he'd wind up homeless and living under a bridge just the same.
Nolan Ryan: "The Ryan Express"
Lynn Nolan Ryan, Jr. (born January 31, 1947), nicknamed "The Ryan Express," is without a doubt the single most successful and notable power pitcher in the history of major league baseball. As a 12-year-old boy, Nolan Ryan was someone I'd already heard of, and he was went on to become the biggest legend in all of baseball. He was my hero then and even more so now.
Ryan came into the major leagues as a kid with a phenomenal right arm—and he left after a record 27 major league seasons, still throwing nearly 100 miles per hour. I saw Ryan start many times and witnessed him pitching at age 46. In his second to last career game as a starter, he was throwing fastballs at 96 miles per hour past bewildered men more than 20 years his junior.
Out of all the men gifted with the talent of pitching at 100 miles per hour, Nolan Ryan was the man who kept it the longest, and used it the most. In his 27-year career, there is no doubt he threw more pitches over that speed than anyone else. Besides his legendary fastball, known as "The Ryan Express," he also had one of the best curve-balls in the history of the sport.
So how good was Nolan Ryan? Well, baseball is a game of statistics, and he has a huge number of dominating numbers—some of which will likely never be touched. First and foremost, Ryan struck out more batters than anyone with a record of 5,714. More impressive is his record of seven no-hitters. He allowed fewer hits per nine innings of pitching over his career than anyone, an average of 6.56. He held opposing batters to a lower batting average than anyone at .204 and he won 324 games despite pitching most of his career for losing ball teams. His season record of 383 strikeouts and his six seasons with more than 300 strikeouts are also very telling. There has never been a more intimidating pitcher than Nolan Ryan. Unless, of course, you face Randy Johnson.
Randy Johnson: The Big Unit
Randall David "Randy" Johnson (born September 10, 1963), nicknamed "The Big Unit," stood at 6'10". By the time he threw the ball, it seemed like his left arm was halfway to home plate. He also threw from a three-quarter position rather than straight over the top—if you were you a left-handed hitter, every pitch would seem aimed at your head.
When Johnson first made it to the big leagues, he had a wild and long mullet, a big burly mustache, and he stomped around on the mound in a very angry manner. He would then launch 100-mph pitches. This giant man had to have been the most frightening redneck to ever grace a pitcher's mound.
The Big Unit threw a no-hitter early in his career. A possibly even more impressive accolade was when he became the first left-handed pitcher to ever strike out Wade Boggs three times in one game. However, Johnson was still struggling quite a bit; he'd often walk so many batters that he'd lose the game. But Nolan Ryan had seen Johnson pitch and he knew the potential he had. Ryan scheduled a visit with Randy to show him some things that would change his career.
What Ryan suggested was that Randy focus where he'd land on his feet when throwing a ball, and soon Johnson would become a dominating pitcher. In a 1992 game, Johnson started against Ryan and the Texas Rangers and he got 18 strikeouts, winning the game.
Though Johnson did at times throw 100 miles per hour, he didn't do so as often as other pitching greats. His fastball wasn't even his best pitch. The Big Unit's devastating slider is what made him so lethal. He'd end his career second only to Nolan Ryan in strikeouts with 4,875, and he'd tie Nolan with six seasons in which he'd strike out 300 or more batters. He pitched two no-hit games, the second of which was the rare perfect game, a game where no batter reaches 1st base. Johnson's five Cy Young awards are second only to Roger Clemens in major league history.
Now if there is anyone remotely comparable in the big leagues today to the men discussed above, that man would be Justin Verlander. At just 30 years old, Verlander has already accomplished quite a bit and still has lot left to deliver—which is a scary thought for any competitor.
In 2007, Justin Verlander pitched a no-hitter and finished the season with 18 wins, winning the American League rookie of the year award. With great years between 2009 and 2012, Verlander appears to be a mainstay ace. He has a fastball that can go anywhere from 94 to 102 miles per hour, and a big nasty curve-ball to go along with it. While his skill and attributes remind most fans of Nolan Ryan, his pitching motion (along with the outstanding fastball and curve-ball) is more reminiscent of another right handed pitcher who once threw 100 miles per hour, Dwight Gooden.
How good is Verlander? He won a Cy Young award in 2011 as well as the triple crown of pitching in the American league; he led the league in strikeouts, in wins, and had the lowest earned run average. 2012 wasn't much of a drop off for Verlander and the coming years probably won't be either.
Closers: Wohlers, Feliz, Zumaya, and Chapman
If we're discussing who can throw the hardest, then why leave the relievers for last? Relief pitching is now a field all its own. In the days of Walter Johnson, all the way towards the end of Nolan Ryan's career, starting pitchers would start a game with the singular goal in finishing that game, and with a win.
Now of course it didn't always happen, that is why there has been relief pitching all along. Pitchers nowadays do not truly expect to finish a game they've started. Nobody in the major leagues has thrown more than 160 pitches in a game since the day Randy Johnson struck out 18 Texas Rangers in 1992.
When a closer is brought into a game, they are generally brought in during the 9th inning. They wait to air it out and they don't have to worry about their arms so much since they're not looking at nine innings, just one or two.
So how hard do these guys throw? At the top is Aroldis Chapman, the tall, thin, left handed Cuban defector, who threw a pitch recorded at 105.1 miles per hour as a reliever for the Cincinnati Reds.
Just behind Chapman would be the very large Detroit right handed closer, Joel Zumaya, who once threw a ball 104.8 miles per hour. This beat a speed recorded by Mark Wohlers, who tossed one at 103 miles per hour. Last but certainly not least, there is Neftali Feliz, who was clocked more recently in 2010 at 103.4, at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Conclusion: Throwing Heat
Now it is pretty obvious, with all the years and thousands of players to have played major league baseball, that I've left out some very relevant names, faces, and statistics. There is just too much to say and mention, so please accept my apologies for players you feel were unfairly omitted.
Thanks for reading.
Questions & Answers
Who threw the fastest pitch?
You need to be more specific. Over the years various ways of measuring velocity have been used. What they use today is not what they used years ago.
Nolan Ryan has the record, all in all, and this was from Doppler Radar. His pitch was measured at 108.1 miles per hour.
With the equipment used today, the record is held by Aroldis Chapman, at 105.1 mph.
Is there a list of the 100 MOH pitchers?
There probably is one, but you would likely need to dig through at least the first 3 pages of Google's search results to find the most comprehensive one. Such a list would be growing in length constantly, as these days MLB scouts are specifically looking to draft the largest men possible, and expectations of high velocity are increasingly thought to be important.
Could Babe Ruth hit 100 mph pitches?
I'm sure he could. The competition in Major League Baseball is much tougher today because we've included not just African Americans, but virtually anyone in the world who can make it. But The Babe's stats show he could certainly compete well were he playing in today's era.