Major league baseball is testing the limits of how fast a human can throw a small, round object

If you knew nothing about baseball and happened to wander into Citi Field in Flushing, New York, during wild card game tonight (Oct. 5) between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, and were asked to point out the best player on either of the two teams, you would almost certainly point to Noah Syndergaard. At 6’6”, 240 lbs, with flowing blond locks and shoulders as wide as a semi, and with the easy but sneaky-quick movements of a predator, Syndergaard looks like he was made in a lab to play baseball.

In some ways he literally is: For the last decade and a half, baseball, from little league to the pros, has become a laboratory of sorts for growing power arms. Having a staff of pitchers that can top 90 mph isn’t a luxury for major league teams in the 2010s. It’s a necessity—and so if you want to succeed as a pitcher today, you need to come with fire.

As Jonathan Hock, director of the documentary film Fastball, put it, “There are a lot of guys throwing 98, 100 now, and that used to be blinding speed, and now it’s kind of typical.”

The chart below shows the average MLB fastball speed in the past 15 seasons. I included data from any pitcher who threw 90 innings or more in a given season, which essentially cuts out relievers who can air it out on every pitch because they only have to throw a few times a game.

Though a 4 mph change over 15 years might not seem like a lot, consider that these are people already throwing at the very edge of human physical capacity. And the difference between an 88 mph and 92 mph pitch is the difference between a hitter having 0.2230 seconds to react and 0.2133 seconds.

Syndergaard, who will start for the Mets in their do-or-die wild card game in the 2016 playoffs, is the culmination of this 15-year trend. Here are the 10 highest average fastball speeds recorded in the past 15 seasons:

Year Pitcher Team Fastball Speed (MPH)
2016 Noah Syndergaard Mets 98.0
2015 Noah Syndergaard Mets 97.1
2016 Nathan Eovaldi Yankees 97.1
2014 Yordano Ventura Royals 97.0
2016 James Paxton Mariners 96.8
2015 Nathan Eovaldi Yankees 96.7
2015 Yordano Ventura Royals 96.4
2014 Garrett Richards Angels 96.3
2005 Daniel Cabrera Orioles 96.2

Of course, pitch speed isn’t everything. Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ ace, averaged a relatively paltry 90.9 mph on his fastball in 2016—and yet is just a shade behind Syndergaard in almost every other key pitching metric. Bad news for the Mets: Bumgarner is also the most dominant postseason pitcher in recent history.

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