Is a 110 mile-per-hour fastball possible?

How fast can you throw it?     Photo: Sean Winters via Flickr

Last September, Cincinnati Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman hurled a 105.1-mile-per-hour pill past Tony Gwynn Jr., of the San Diego Padres, whipping the sports world into a frenzy. Was this the fastest pitch ever? And could the mark keep going up?

The first question is hard to answer because it comes down to trusting measurement technologies from the past. Before Chapman came along, the previous, unofficial record belonged to Joel Zumaya (104.8 in 2006), but there are old and unlikely claims that Nolan Ryan threw 108.1 in 1974 (as measured by Doppler laser radar) and that Bob Feller fired a 107.6 in 1946 (as measured by antiquated military equipment).

As for the second question, experts doubt we'll see any Usain Bolt–like quantum leaps. "Chapman is at the upper limits of what's possible," says Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, which studies the biomechanics of pitching. Why? Hurling a ball that fast strains the body's connective tissue to the breaking point. When a 200-pound pitcher throwing 100 mph releases the ball, the force on his shoulder is equivalent to a 200-plus-pound man trying to yank his arm out of its socket. Fastball throwing can injure the shoulder joint and the elbow's ulnar collateral (or Tommy John) ligament. While pitchers can strengthen their muscles and improve their mechanics, there isn't much that can be done to improve ligaments and tendons—barring, of course, a sudden miracle of evolution or (more likely) cyborg surgical techniques that haven't been invented yet.

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