What Good is an 83-MPH Fastball?
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.