pitchers and steroids: why I believed in Sidd Finch

I am embarrased to tell you that I am one of those people who believed in Sidd Finch, the engimatic mythical figure created by George Plimpton for a 1985 April Fool’s article in Sport’s Illustrated. I was so excited to read about Sidd because I am the kind of person who is always looking for faster, easier ways to get by in life. If there was magic to be found, I was going to find it. I read books like Autobiography of a Yogi and thought it was wonderful that his guru helped him pass his exams. I wanted a guru too.

I haven’t found one. Turns out that magic usually involves hard work.

I’m also embarrassed to say that it means I believed that a pitcher could throw a 168 mph fastball. Why not, I thought? It seems that pitchers limit themselves to 100 mph for some reason.

Well, there is a reason. A recent Slate article, Pitcher Perfect, Why can’t anyone throw a baseball faster than 100 mph, explains the limitation. To send a fastball screaming towards the plate, you need to generate as much force as possible to get your arm moving as fast as you can. It turns out that you can build up your muscles all you like but beyond a certain point, the ligaments and tendons will snap from the force applied to the shoulder.

The official record for the speediest fastball is a shade over 100 mph. It’s no surprise that Nolan Ryan holds that record.

Increasing muscle strength, of course, can increase pitch speed. In the Slate article, a biomechanical engineer says that he has seen increases in pitch speed of 84-88 and 88-91 but not 98-100. A 4 or 5 mph increase in pitch speed. That’s a good enough reason to take steroids.

Steroids help in two ways: they increase strength and they decrease recovery time. Are pitchers taking steroids? Almost fifty percent of the players who tested positive for steroids in Major League Baseball’s new testing policy were pitchers. That answers that question.

We know that sluggers have been taking steroids by looking at the court records and the home run records. Between 1920 and 2004, 61 players hit 45 home runs or better. Twenty seven of those players played from 1990 to 2004. In case that wasn’t clear enough, that means 44% of the top single season home run hitters played in the last 14 years.

How could we measure the impact of steroids on pitching records? The JUGS radar gun has been around long enough for us to chart the average speed of a major league fastball over the last decade and see if it has increased. The problem is that there is no way to accurately know pitch speeds for eras before the JUGS gun was invented.

Though it is unlikely that Jason Giambi could have become his formerly bulky self without steroids, pitch speed is harder to pin on steroids. Tommy John surgery and sophisticated biomechanical exercises have helped pitchers recover from injuries better, increase their speed and pitch longer.

I no longer look for magical solutions to life’s problems. I’m happy enough if I can do something today that I couldn’t do yesterday. Although… This past week 11-year-old Katie Brownell threw a perfect game and struck out all 18 batters she faced in a Little League game. That’s pretty magical.