NEW YORK — Human beings are stubborn. There is a strong belief that throwing a baseball repeatedly at high rates of speed can help lead to arm injuries, yet the average velocity of pitches in baseball keeps rising every year.
In 2008, the average four-seam fastball in Major League Baseball was 90.9 mph, according to data on Fangraphs.com. How quaint that sounds now. That number jumped to 92.6 mph last season.
Which leads us to Noah Syndergaard, the New York Mets’ fire-throwing ace and opening day starter, who seems to be testing the limits of human velocity. Over nearly 184 innings in his All-Star 2016 season, Syndergaard’s four-seam fastball sizzled at a major-league best for starting pitchers. His average was 97.9 mph — nearly a mile and a half better than the next best starter.
Some relievers, like New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, have reached higher maximum velocities, but Syndergaard, as a starter, not a ninth-inning closer, did it over a much larger body of work last season. It helped that Syndergaard is young (now 24) and massive (6 feet 6 inches and 242 pounds).
“I like to say it’s controlled violence,” Syndergaard said of the delivery that produces his high velocity.
Although data is not available from earlier eras in baseball, when the mound height and distance were different at times, Syndergaard’s average fastball velocity as a starter in 2016 might have been the fastest to date. It was at least the fastest since 2007, when advanced technology began reliably tracking the speed of pitches.
“The pitchers of old who were renowned for speed could not match up against their counterparts today, because of advances in physiology, training and philosophy,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, who also noted how those pitchers of old made more starts and threw more innings than pitchers now.
That presumably would have slowed them down — at least a little bit.
Syndergaard seems intent on setting the bar even higher, having shown up for spring training in February with more muscle on his frame and with the stated intent of pushing himself harder this season and throwing even faster.
Last week, he took on a bit of a different tone in an interview outside the Mets’ clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Florida. “I want to set goals,” he said. “Not necessarily throw harder, but just make the game easier.”
“Just never become complacent and try to maintain anything,” he added, “because once you start maintaining, you ultimately lose.”
Let’s assume for a moment that Syndergaard does throw his four-seam fastball a little harder this season. Maybe it jumps to an average 98.5 mph. If it does, people will inevitably begin to wonder if a starter can average 100 mph on his fastball.
“That’s feasible,” said Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. “But I don’t think you’ll ever see a pitcher averaging 10 to 20 mph more than that, even with all the science, technology and medicine.”
“We are, I believe, at the limit of maximum velocity,” Fleisig added. “And a decade from now it won’t be any different than it is now, but it’ll continue to get more crowded at the top. Why is that? In the biomechanics of pitching, this is all the ligaments and tendons can take.”
Ligaments and tendons can be trained and strengthened only so much, Fleisig said. And many of the increasing pitching injuries are because of damaged ligaments or tendons, particularly the torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow that requires Tommy John surgery.
Every time a pitcher throws a baseball, the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow endures enough stress to tear. But it does not — at least, most of the time. If the body is well rested, Fleisig said, those microscopic ligament tears heal and the surrounding muscles help carry the load of pitching.
So although high velocity has been found to be a factor in arm injuries, that does not mean that slower throwers will not also get hurt. The efficiency of a pitcher’s mechanics are also a factor.
“If there are two guys throwing 95 mph for an average fastball, one of them could have better mechanics than the other and the stress on his elbow could be vastly different,” Fleisig said.
In Syndergaard’s case, the Mets believe that he makes throwing hard a little bit easier because of his quick arm and fluid delivery, even when he is throwing at 100 mph, as he often did last season.
“He doesn’t jump off the mound,” Dan Warthen, the Mets’ pitching coach, said. “He doesn’t force the baseball to come out of his hand. It’s a one-piece delivery, and the thing comes out of his hand the way it’s supposed to.”
Warthen said Syndergaard did not have a maximum-effort delivery, the kind that he sees in other pitchers and that is more risky.
“Some people have great DNA,” Warthen said. “He has great DNA. His work ethic is above and beyond. He does yoga and Pilates. He does everything that you can do to make yourself stronger and more limber.”
In his delivery, Syndergaard said, he focuses on the lower half of his body and tries to relax everything above his waist. He compared it to elite golfers who use a controlled and compact backswing to load the energy they will put into a shot.
“I keep that energy stored until the last possible second,” Syndergaard said, “until my foot is about to hit the ground, and then I explode toward home plate.”
What about easing up at times? “Some people are able to do it,” he said, “but if you take 10 percent off of what you’re throwing, I just lose command.”
Warthen said that to keep an eye on checkpoints in Syndergaard’s mechanics, including his release point, he used TrackMan technology, a radar system that measures everything on the mound.
“However the ball comes out, as long as we stay within our framework, then whatever velocity it is, it is,” Warthen said.
While most of the Mets’ rotation has suffered major arm ailments at one point or another, Syndergaard, who dealt with a small bone spur in his elbow last season, said he did not worry about how velocity had been linked to injuries.
“I feel like I do a good enough job of taking care of my body and putting the right things in my body, eating right and making sure I’m doing the little things,” he said.
Some pitching experts, like Tom House, say Syndergaard may be one of the exceptions, someone whose body is unusually well proportioned from his legs to his arms to his torso, thus making throwing really hard not so hard.
House is a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who helped guide Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer who threw hard forever. House, too, has wondered how fast a pitcher might someday throw.
Under his tutelage, House said, healthy minor league pitchers have thrown a 2-ounce ball between 116 and 118 mph.
“I know the arm can go that fast,” House said. “But can it go that fast with a 5-ounce baseball, be healthy doing it, and is it sustainable? I don’t know.”
If more hard throwers do permeate the major leagues in the future, House said, he is pretty sure of one thing: Pitchers will take the mound more often but for shorter bursts, perhaps three innings.
And if that does happen, it will continue a trend. Complete games and 300-inning seasons were once expected of elite starters, but that concept is an ancient artifact. Now, starters yearn for 200 innings a season. If House is right in his hunch, 200 will become an artifact, too.
Consider that in 1988, teams used an average 2.75 pitchers per game, according to Baseball-Reference.com. By 2015, the number was 4.1.
When Syndergaard takes the mound on Monday at Citi Field against the Atlanta Braves, his general manager, Sandy Alderson, will be watching closely. Syndergaard has become the Mets’ premier starter and, with his long hair and comic book nickname (Thor), is a marquee draw for the club.
Still, Alderson, as a longtime baseball executive, sounds a cautionary note on speed for speed’s sake when it comes to pitching.
“What concerns me is when I only see a reliance on velocity or only a focus on velocity, and not all the other things,” Alderson said, citing command of pitches and their movement and variety.
He maintained that Syndergaard did not need to throw 100 mph on each pitch. A few mph slower would be just fine, he said, and might allow the emphasis to shift from Syndergaard the flamethrower to Syndergaard the complete pitcher.
That may be easier to say than to always carry out. A home crowd urging Syndergaard on, the adrenaline of a big moment in a game — they are all unpredictable factors. As is Syndergaard’s own sense of competitiveness.
“I just continue to push myself every day because, if not, I get bored,” he said.
The season awaits.