Past TimesJune 11, 2007
What Good is an 83-MPH Fastball?
By Al Doyle

The middle-aged man stated the obvious.

"An 83 MPH fastball won't even get you a Division I college scholarship today," he declared.

That remark was made on the nationally syndicated Sports Spectrum radio program May 5. The source of the quote knows a thing or two about junkballing. Despite a heater on the lowest depths of the scale, 36-year old Indians starter Paul Byrd is now in his 13th major league season and has an 88-75 career record to go with his 83 MPH (sort of) hard stuff.

Byrd also admitted to another alleged shortcoming when he mentioned being 5'11" instead of the 6'1" height that is usually listed on his stat line. With the obsessive quest for big, hard-throwing young pitchers, right-handers who fail to hit the 6'0" mark seldom get a professional contract out of high school or college. That's why "official" heights are often stretched a bit for short hurlers and position players alike when prospects are signed.

The few soft-tossing righties with average-sized bodies who manage to get a shot in the minors often have no margin for error. A poor appearance or two frequently leads to getting released, which makes the cliche of "don't sign short right-handed pitchers" something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how do Byrd and his fellow finesse types survive in a time when radar guns and numbers like 98 have a slavish, cult-like following? The desperate need for even semi-competent pitching and depth in the rotation means teams have to tame their one-track quest for power arms and settle for other options.

With change-ups and breaking stuff that sometimes drops as low as 68 MPH, how does Byrd survive as the number 4 starter for one of the best teams in the majors? If you can't blow it by 'em, then fool the opposition.

Byrd recently changed to a more elaborate 1950s-style windup in an effort to hide the ball longer. His ability to seamlessly change speeds and hit just about any part of the strike zone from different arm angles gives big league hitters something they seldom see.

The maestro of slow was on the mound during the May 25 Indians-Tigers game at Comerica Park in Detroit. With the exception of patient Gary Sheffield, the Tigers are a free-swinging bunch. Byrd's ability to throw strikes meant the Tigers took even fewer pitches than normal.

Since it was a sellout, I had to settle for a seat high in the right field mezzanine section. That didn't give me the best view of Byrd's work, but I still saw a clinic on smart pitching.

It was much more than moving the ball inside and outside. Byrd also went up and down in the strike zone with ease, and 30 of his first 35 pitches were strikes. Contact hitter supreme Placido Polanco and Sheffield struck out swinging in the first inning, with Sheffield whiffing on an 83 MPH "heater" that was up and in. Considering Sheffield's tremendous bat speed, it shows how Byrd can play with the minds of hitters when he is on top of his game.

The Tigers were fooled by numerous sub-80 MPH strikes that drifted and darted across the plate. The slop and breaking stuff made Byrd's 82 to 86 MPH fastballs look pretty quick by comparison. On the negative side, control types like Byrd work with a thin margin for error, and pitches that catch too much of the plate or lack movement often go for hits.

A second inning leadoff double by Magglio Ordonez followed by a Carlos Guillen triple led to a Tigers run, but Byrd settled down and (with help from a leaping catch at the fence by Jason Michaels) held Detroit scoreless until a two-run sixth. After surrendering a solo homer to Craig Monroe in the seventh, Byrd gave way to the bullpen. Rafael Betancourt and closer Joe Borowski held the lead for a 7-4 Indians victory.

Byrd threw 73 pitches - 60 strikes and just 13 balls - in 6.1 innings. His nine hits were high, but he struck out four without a walk. Byrd's pounding the strike zone may have set the pace for Betancourt, who threw just one ball in 16 pitches. Borowski efficiently took care of the Tigers in the ninth for his 15th save.

If control pitchers get little respect and fewer opportunities than they deserve, what about hard throwers who can barely hit the broad side of a barn? In many cases, lightning-armed types are pampered and given endless second chances despite a complete lack of results. The story of Jason Neighborgall is a prime example.

Scouts drooled over Neighborgall's blazing fastball, sharp-breaking curve and 6'5" frame when he was in high school. The right-hander chose to attend Georgia Tech, where his total lack of control relegated him to mop-up duty.

Neighborgall appeared in nine games for the Yellow Jackets in 2004. While 11 strikeouts in just 6.2 IP looks quite impressive, it doesn't come close to making up for 24 walks, 13 wild pitches and a 27.00 ERA.

Things improved in 2005, but the stat line was still scary. A 5-3 record isn't bad, but the 7.13 ERA is a big blemish. The radar gun geeks were ecstatic with Neighborgall's 72 Ks in 53 IP, but 53 walks and 16 wild pitches were huge negatives. Now draft eligible, even Neighborgall's strong suit - velocity - looked like it couldn't make up for his off the charts wildness.

Perhaps a team would take a flyer on this exceptionally raw talent later in the draft, and who could blame them for doing so? It would be a gamble, but a lower-round pick and a modest bonus was a worthwhile risk. Take some quality minor league coaching combined with a late-blooming hurler, and Neighborgall could turn out to be a steal at the proper price. Such common sense and calculated risk is unacceptable in the modern cult of the radar gun.

The Diamondbacks raved about Neighborgall's ability to bring heat. Control and poise? Why pay attention to that? As Alfred E. Neumann might say "What, me worry?".

"Look at that arm! He can throw 99, 100!", D-backs scouts babbled as the sacred digits from the electronic god flashed their hypnotic message. The decisionmakers were swooning in Phoenix as they invested the first pick in the third round of the 2005 draft and a $500,000 bonus on Neighborgall.

Admittedly, Neighborgall has incredible heat, but pitching is much more than a Jugs reading. In 15 games (seven starts) and just 22.2 IP at Missoula of the Pioneer League, 45 walks and 23 wild pitches far outweighed the 29 Ks of hitters who were obviously uneasy about digging in. Neighborgall finished with a 1-2 record and an 11.12 ERA.

It was back to Montana in 2006, and the results were even more dreadful. Neighborgall got through just 13 IP in 20 games, finishing 0-2 with a 20.77 ERA. It's hard to imagine how someone can give up 46 walks and 22 wild pitches in a handful of innings. This is Steve Blass disease times 50.

Still raving about his heat, the D-Backs promoted (!) Neighborgall to South Bend of the Midwest League this year. The stat line looks like a hallucination. In five games and one inning, Neighborgall gave up a dozen walks and tossed nine wild pitches for a dozen earned runs and a 108.00 ERA. Even playing a simple game of catch required more control that Neighborgall could muster before he was dispatched to extended spring training.

Be entranced by radar guns all you want, but 103 walks, 54 wild pitches and a 17.18 ERA in 36.2 low minor league innings renders the word "potential" meaningless. Maybe it's time for pitching-poor teams to give the Paul Byrds of baseball a chance to prove themselves and not be totally enthralled with MPH readings alone.


That's scary fast. In today's world of plunking batters just to send a message, that's gonna hurt, or kill.

And that brings up my main issue with baseball. The fact that we allow these meat heads to throw at batters. And then we get upset if a batter throws his bat back at the pitcher? Hypocrites!

Aren't pitchers supposed to be 'professionals'? If so, then I say that any pitcher that hits a batter is auto-ejected. That nonsense was never supposed to be part of the game. Either let the batter retaliate by throwing the bat (equal fines of course), or eject the pitcher and suspend him for a few starts without pay.

Otherwise baseball is condoning assault, plain and simple.

I find it odd that you base an entire argument on two pitchers. Paul Byrd has a career ERA+ of 106, meaning that a he has ascended to the realm of mediocrity, but no more. To his credit, he has limited his walk totals (1.3,1.8,1.6 last 3 years) and that makes up for his microscopic k/9 ratio (4.6, 4.2, 4.9 last 3 years).

However, a pitcher like Byrd has very little margin of error with his control or else his walk/strikeout ratio will be too small for success. A quick look, for example, at the top 10 AL ERA's for 2006 (qualified) show only 2 pitchers with a k/9 ratio below 6.2, and the bottom 10 include only 3 pitchers with k/9 above 6.2. Thus, don't come to too many generalizations just because one over-hyped kid can't hit the catcher's mitt. As a Pirates fan I have seen the pitfalls on relying on high-contact, soft-throwing starters Duke and Maholm: lots of runs.

Aaron, the point I was making is that a lot of potential Paul Byrds (useful major league pitchers, not big stars) never even get a chance.

Randy Johnson-type arms are very rare, and every two-bit wannabe scout knows what the breed looks like. Are there some ways to add depth and fill in a rotation that are ignored today? I think right-handed control artists deserve more attention and (in many cases) at least a shot to sink or swim in the minors.

While I agree with your point that there is no particular look or shape that a pitcher must have to be successful, I also agree with Aaron here. You cannot just point to one hard thrower with zero control and say, "See, velocity is overrated." Fastball velocity remains one of the better indicators of future success, especially when you're scouting the amateur levels and the high school ranks in particular because those pitchers essentialy have no track record. You can of course point to Neighborall as a hard thrower who never made it, and you can also find many other hard throwers who never made it. At the same time, I could just as easily find a plethora of pitchers who couldn't touch 90 MPH who either never made it to AA or even put up fine numbers in the minor leagues and never succeeded in the big leagues. Ultimately a pitcher must have a balanced repetoire of pitches and the command to be able to harness them.

Al has been around the block. He's not suggesting that a soft-tossing RHP is superior to a hard thrower. All else being equal, the latter would be the preferred choice. Al's point is that many short righthanders with (using Badler's words) "a balanced repetoire of pitches and the command to be able to harness them" are often overlooked in favor of taller, harder-throwing types who ooze potential but lack command and secondary pitches.

The problem is the comparison of a guy who has been pitching in the major leagues for a decade to a kid out of college. Byrd did not come out of college with an 83 mph fastball and pinpoint control. He is getting away with that now because he has a decade of experience.

I can see the point of this, and even agree with it. But in all honesty, I'd argue that Jamie Moyer is a better example. While he is left-handed, he still has gotten away with have slow pitches for years. As a matter of fact, he's had times when he was simply amazing. More so than Byrd, I would argue.

Sorry to point this out, Tyler, but Moyer's career ERA+, in an incredible coincidence, is 106- identical to Byrd's.

Now, Moyer has put up these numbers over a longer period of time (21 yrs. to 12 yrs.) but we are dealing with nearly identical pitchers and, as you point out, that includes their styles.

I see your point, Rich, and I don't think that anyone would take a pitcher with an 83-MPH fastball over one with a 95-MPH fastball, all else being exactly equal. The problem is that if you have an 83-MPH fastball, the rest of your stuff better be REALLY good, and you better have excellent control, mechanics and an understanding of how to pitch. Those guys are rare, and tabbing a soft-tosser as the next Jamie Moyer or Paul Byrd is usually a label that won't pan out. Looking at projecting pitchers from a macro prospective and in terms of managing risk, putting too much faith in pitchers with mid-80s velocity isn't a worthwhile strategy to me.

Badler, I don't think you and I disagree here. First of all, I'd like to see such pitchers work in the upper 80s (rather than low 80s). Secondly, I would require smarts and plus command. I'm not as sanguine about those who work in the lower 80s except for the rare veteran who has learned the art of deception via secondary pitches and, in some cases, unique deliveries. The bottom line is that I want to find pitchers who can throw strikes, miss bats, and induce groundballs.

Unfortunately, a lot of RHP who work in the 86-89 range don't even get much of a look. I'm rooting for Kevin Slowey and Andy Sonnanstine and believe Adam Mills is a great pick in the 8th round of the most recent draft.

I agree that the main point of this article is being missed: that there are pitchers out there who never get a chance because of velocity-blinders. Kind of like how there are probably still pitchers around who can throw more than 200 IP regularly, but if they are pitch counted, they can't do it. Pitchers versus throwers.

I've noticed that the Giants seem to specialize in these "odd" pitchers during Sabean's reign, like Rueter, Ortiz, Livan, now Lowry, plus signing them, like Zito and Morris. They have this pitcher in the minors, Adam Cowart, his command is great 6.9 K/BB, but only 6.0 K/9 in rookie A-ball last year and lower of both ratios in A-ball this season. His fast ball is in the low 80's.

Perhaps extreme examples, but unless you want an exhaustative study, this suffices to make his point. Neighborgall is just the latest and thus easiest name to pop out. Every decade always has some wild throwing high velocity bust as that's decades poster child for this.

Byrd might be mediocre, but he's getting $7M per year, if you can find a young player who can do that you can save $6.4M per year, right?

I would also add as a counterpoint that sometimes the wild throwers get tamed: if I recall my history right, Sandy Koufax was a bonus baby who couldn't hit the side of the barn for years until it finally clicked for him in his late 20's.

About comparing Moyer to Byrd, you need to account for his age as well, as an advanced age pitcher, you would expect his career ERA+ to be reduced by poorer performances in the latter stages of his career. It would have been better to either compare ERA+ at similar ages or career years. Or to compare peak ERA+ or top 5 ERA+.

I stand corrected; Moyer is much better. Thanks obsessive...

Moyer Top 5 ERA+ : 136, 132, 130, 129, 127 (Twice)

Byrd Top 5 (with enough innings to matter): 132, 112, 110, 109, 100.

Interestingly, Moyer was quite a late bloomer and actually fits with Al's theory. From age 23-31 he had ERA+ of 80, 84, 104, 82, 84, 65, 129, 105, 94. However, he posted the three 100+ numbers in three of the only four seasons in which he was given a substantial chunk of innings (at least 149).

Thus, I would imagine Moyer, as a soft tossing guy, probably was an afterthought in many of those seasons during what should have been his prime years. As such, from age 33-40 Moyer never pitched fewer than 154 innings (topping 200 five times) and only once had an ERA+ below 117. It follows that once baseball people got over the fact that he threw softly and gave him consistent opportunities, Moyer was rock solid and well above-average. Rich and Badler are right, though, that such results without velocity is rare.

Short Righthanders? Tim Hudson comes to mind.

What's interesting about Moyer from those numbers is that he appears to be of relatively little value for his first six seasons, when the team that drafted him would have retained his rights (I know Moyer bounced around teams, but that's besides the point). When you're scouting amateur and minor league players, the point is to get value for them in their first six seasons, basically until they are around 28 years old. After that it's essentially a bidding war for their services, so what's the point? In the case of Moyer, it appears that he only became a valuable commodity after he gained more major league experience. Obviously I cannot turn around now and just point to Moyer and say, "see, soft tossers are bad," but it's certainly an interesting anecdote of information.

As for Tim Hudson, he's a short right-hander who could also crank it up to 94 MPH. Much different case there.