Last night while hosting radio I had a chance to talk with Todd Claus, a current scout and former minor-league manager for the 2005 Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. The Sea Dogs had a roster that featured some incredible soon-to-be big-league talent that year. David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and Anibal Sanchez all played for the Sea Dogs that year.
In total, 18 players on that team saw time in the major leagues. When I asked Todd about Papelbon, who was a starter then, he told me something pretty interesting.
In the spring training prior, Papelbon was a relative unknown amongst the big-league players. Baseball America had him as the 91st prospect in baseball, but established big leaguers don’t read or care about prospect lists.
During live batting practice some Red Sox hitters were coming out of the cage asking Claus how hard Papelbon — a fastball only pitcher at the time — was throwing.
"94," Claus told them.
"(Expletive)," one hitter said, "that looks 105."
Live batting practice is not a fair place for hitters early in spring training, especially when facing hungry rookies, but the point is still valid. Jonathan Papelbon has averaged 94.1 mph with his four-seam fastball throughout his career according to Pitch/FX. He eventually learned the split, which has made him the effective closer he still is today.
94 mph is very average for a right-handed relief pitcher in MLB. What the radar gun says and what it actually looks like to a hitter can be two very different things. In today’s baseball we measure everything: release point, vertical movement, horizontal movement, etc.
Despite being attempted, the "look" can’t be measured. It could be that a pitcher hides the ball well. It could be his arm path that makes the ball hard to pick up. It could be the jump or giddy-up on the fastball that makes it look faster than the actual velocity. There are a variety of things that go into a fastball beyond miles per hour.
Radar gun readings are fun, and in this era, we are seeing a plethora of hard throwers. But if you want to know how good a fastball really is, just ask hitters or watch them try to hit one. They’ll tell you how good, or how bad, it really is.