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July 15, 2007 Kansas City Star 2

The Kansas City Star
July 15, 2007
By Joe Posnanski

HEADLINE:  You can't always judge a pitcher by his fastball

"Sometimes, it seems like we forget what the point of all this is.  The radar gun never got anybody out."  Royals GM Dayton Moore

Today's question is this:  Have radar guns made baseball better or worse?  Along the way, we will also try to answer another question:  Is Rowdy Hardy a real prospect?

As you will see, the two questions are, more or less, the same.

A little radar history:  Earl Weaver was the first to use the radar gun to judge the speed of major-league pitches.  That was 1972.  Weaver, as you probably know, craved information, any kind of information, any edge he could muster.

Well, the radar gun gave him information.  Weaver was not so concerned about top speed - that is, he wasn't necessarily looking for pitchers who could throw 95 mph.  The Orioles, generally speaking, did not have hard throwers.  What Weaver wanted to know was how much of a gap there was between a guy's fastball and his off-speed stuff.

"If a guy has an 82-mph fastball, a 78-mph change-up won't do him any good," he wrote in Weaver on Strategy.  "That becomes nothing more than a fat fastball.  But if a guy has a 90-mph fastball and a 78-mph change, that will work because there's a big enough difference."

It took time (radar guns were - and are - expensive) but soon other clubs started using radar guns, too.  Here was hard information, something that is notoriously difficult to come by in baseball.  After a while, every baseball scout carried around his radar gun - some scouts even named theirs.  Now, pitching prospects have radar guns pointed at them even when they eat lunch.

Has it changed the game?  You bet.  Lots of ways.  Here's a scenario:  A scout calls the general manager and says, "I just saw this amazing pitching prospect here in Shasta, Calif.  The kid just gets people out."  Well, before radar guns, the general manager (assuming he trusted the scout) might say, "Sounds good, sign that kid."

Now?  The general manager will say:  "How hard does he throw?"

Speed limits:  There's a disagreement among baseball people when it comes to the speed of an "average" fastball in the major leagues.  Some say it is 88-90 mph.  Others say it is 89-91 mph.

You might be surprised how much of a difference that can make - the question of whether a 91-mph fastball is average or above average (and, for that matter, whether an 88-mph fastball is average or below).  It can affect how a team scouts and develops pitchers.  It can affect when (or whether) they will draft a pitcher.  One mph.

That's how important radar-gun readings have become.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore (who, incidentally, takes the middle road and believes that an average fastball is 89-90 mph) says the average speed of other major-league pitches is as follows:  Curveball:  "76 mph," Slider:  "79-82 mph," Change-up:  "Should be 12 to 15 mph slower than the fastball."

When asked how important it is for a scout or executive to know the radar-gun readings of every pitch a pitcher throws, Moore sighs.  "Important," he says.  "Real important."

A Rowdy introduction:  Rowdy Hardy is 6 feet 4, and he pitches left-handed.  He won 32 games in his career at Austin Peay - that was an Ohio Valley Conference record.  He signed with the Kansas City Royals for $1,000 last year.  He has never been drafted.

Hardy went to Idaho Falls, and he was selected the pitcher of the year.  He went 5-3 with a 2.80 ERA.  He walked just five people in more than 80 innings.

The Royals moved him up to Wilmington, their high Class-A team this season, and Hardy has been about as good as any pitcher in minor-league baseball.  He is 11-2 and has a 1.98 ERA - he leads the league in both stats.  He has given up 86 hits in 109 innings.  He has allowed one homer all year.  He has walked just 10 batters.  These are eye-popping numbers, the kind that tend to thrill general managers and make scouts buzz.

Only nobody's really buzzing about Rowdy Hardy.  Why not?  He mostly throws his fastball 82 mph.

A look back at slow-pitching Royals:  If you ask Royals all-time wins leader Paul Splittorff how hard he threw, he will tell you, point blank:  "I have absolutely no idea."  He only knows it wasn't all that hard.  It's astounding, looking back, how few of the best Royals pitchers in the team's heyday threw hard.

Larry Gura won 111 games for the Royals with a below-average fastball.  Al Fitzmorris is the Royals' all-time leader in winning percentage, and his self-scouting report is, "I couldn't break glass with my fastball."  Later, Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black won a lot of games without imposing fastballs.

Dan Quisenberry is one of the great closers in baseball history, and he threw so slow that the first time some of his teammates saw him throwing in the bullpen, they said:  "There's no way he can get people out throwing that."  "Our fielders have to catch a lot of balls," Quiz told reporters, "or at least deflect them to someone who can."

How much different would Royals history have been had the radar gun been in vogue in the 1970s? It's an interesting question.  Larry Gura had no fear throwing his fastball, because he could throw it precisely where he wanted, and he knew he could get hitters out with it.  But his fastball was probably not even 85 mph.  In today's environment, would the Royals trade for a pitcher like Gura?

And if not, what does that say? Larry Gura is in the Royals Hall of Fame.

"We're evolving very rapidly in the major leagues," author and Boston Red Sox adviser Bill James says.  "But we're not evolving toward something better.  We're evolving toward something different.  Radar guns have caused teams to focus more attention on how hard a pitcher is throwing.  And there's no question that has worked to the detriment of finesse pitchers."

The Royals, like every other team, have spent a lot of energy and time since the 1994 strike trying to find hard throwers.  There's a long list of guys who have come and gone with their 92-plus-mph fastballs (Denny Bautista, Jay Witasick, Blake Stein, Mac Suzuki, Dan Reichert, Jeremy Affeldt, Jerry Spradlin, Jeff Austin, Ambiorix Burgos, et al).  Meanwhile, the only Royals pitcher to win more than 15 games in a season in that time frame is Paul Byrd.

Paul Byrd, like Al Fitzmorris before him, couldn't break glass.

Looking for life:  When Buck O'Neil was scouting, he used to watch as young scouts drew their radar guns like Wild West cowboys.  Buck used to shake his head.  It wasn't that he was opposed to the radar guns themselves.  He just thought too many people were watching the LED numbers when they should have been watching the game.

Buck said:  Young scouts point their guns, write down the numbers.  Are they watching, really watching?  I wonder if they're looking for life.  Because that's the secret, man.  Miles per hour, that don't mean nothing.  Does the fastball have life?  Does it move?  Does it dive?  Does it rise?  Bothers me.  Too many scouts nt watching for life.  Life passing them by. A hardy pitcher:  Rowdy Hardy doesn't pitch like the soft-tossing pitcher that he is.  That is:  He doesn't try to trick people.  He may not have an intimidating fastball, but he will throw it inside.  He challenges hitters.  He pitches with fearlessness, that bravado you see in the hardest throwers.

"He pitches exactly like a power pitcher," Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo says.  "He doesn't pitch soft and away, soft and away.  No.  He comes after guys.  He says, 'Here's my pitch, go ahead and try to hit it.'  He's not afraid of contact."

The Royals readily admit they are not sure what they have with Hardy.  Everyone conceded that if Hardy had even an average major-league fastball (whatever you want that number to be), he would be viewed as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.  After all, he's thoroughly dominating High Class-A hitters.

But he does not have anything close to an average fastball, and so he was not even listed among the Royals top 30 prospects.  Nobody seems quite sure what the Royals have here.

"You're trained as a scout to look for guys who throw hard," Piccolo says.  "I mean, that's just bred in you.  You see a guy throw 95, and you think, 'This guy can help us.'  Then you see a guy who goes eight innings, gives up four hits, doesn't walk anybody, strikes out four, but he does it all without even an average fastball.  And you ask yourself, 'What did I just see here?'  Those are the toughest guys to evaluate."

So what do you do?  The Royals say the answer is simple:  Wait and see.  They plan to move Hardy up, level by level, until batters start hitting him.

"(Pitching coach) Bill Fischer told me something a long time ago," Moore says.  "He said, 'Believe what you see.'  I don't know what will happen with Rowdy.  But as long as he's getting people out, he will move up."

A novel idea:  Most people will concede that baseball's got a little thing called radar love.  The Royals are no exception.  Colt Griffin threw 100 mph.  The Royals gave him more than a million bucks.  But he couldn't pitch.  And he never learned.

"Sometimes, it seems like we forget what the point of all this is," Moore says.  "The radar gun never got anybody out."

This was in Piccolo's mind when he approached Moore with an idea - what if the Royals, in the lowest rungs of the minor leagues, did away with radar guns?  He suggested the Royals not clock their pitchers during the rookie league seasons.  Piccolo explained that this way those young pitchers would not even think about how hard they were throwing and might, instead, think about more important things like commanding their fastball and developing good change-ups.

Another advantage:  coaches and scouts might judge their pitchers on effectiveness rather than looking to see whether their fastball was up or down 1 or 2 mph.

Moore loved the idea.  The Royals are trying it.  There are no Royals radar guns now in Burlington, Iowa, or Idaho Falls, Idaho.  This is not to say the Royals are going away from radar readings - they still plan to clock their rookie league pitchers at the end of the season to see where they stand.  But it's at least one step away from radar-gun dependence.

"Look, in the end, pitchers with stuff will be more successful than pitchers without," Moore says.  "It's very useful to know how hard a pitcher throws, how long he can maintain his stuff through a game, how fast his change-up is compared to his fastball and all that. But the radar gun is just a tool."

He then said that baseball teams are supposed to use their tools.  The tools are not supposed to use baseball teams.

So what's the answer?:  Have radar guns made baseball better or worse?  The answer is a rather disappointing, "Both."  The game evolves.  The gun is a part of the game now - they will show mph readings on the scoreboard at just about every major-league park.  And it undoubtedly has helped teams find strong-armed pitchers who might have been overlooked or ignored.

Also, the gun has also prompted pitchers to overthrow - to light up the gun, as scouts say - which has probably caused injuries.  The gun has made teams leery and dismissive of soft-throwing pitchers who get people out.
Think of another Kansas City guy:  Mike Boddicker.  He threw so slow that Rod Carew once said, "My wife has me take out better garbage than Boddicker throws."  Boddicker won 134 games in the big leagues.
Where did the Mike Boddickers go?  Doesn't baseball want them back?

It will be fun to chart the progress of Rowdy Hardy.  One of the great things about Hardy is that he is, by all evidence, immune to the radar-gun allure.  He came to grips with his dawdling fastball a long time ago.  He believes in his heart that he can get people out.  Now all he needs is to get everybody to point their radar guns somewhere else - speeding cars, maybe - and notice that he is getting people out.

To reach Joe Posnanski, call 816-234-4361 or send e-mail to jposnanski@kcstar.com For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

Happy Pitching Everybody
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