When Bruce Rondon’s name was announced to the crowd, only 10 to 15 people clapped—a less-than-warm reception compared to the one that greeted his better-known teammates. But this was the largest stage on which he’d played—the 2012 All-Star Futures Game, an annual Minor League Baseball showcase that features the most promising players who have yet to make the majors—and he intended to stand out. When I go out to pitch, he thought, I know they will applaud for me.
The game was a blowout by the time Rondon entered, in the bottom of the 8th. Then the 6'3", 275-pound Venezuelan right-hander did his thing. His first pitch raced past the batter at a speed clocked at 102 mph. Fans perked up. He fired off three more that reached 101 mph, striking out two batters. As he swaggered off the field, the crowd rose for a standing ovation. Rondon’s takeaway: “When I don’t throw 100, the people are normal,” he says, speaking Spanish through a translator. “That gives me a little more motivation to throw harder.” A year later, he debuted with the Detroit Tigers, and a major league–leading 25.57 percent of his pitches were at triple-digit velocity. He topped out at 102.8 mph.
The speed made Rondon a star, because baseball lusts for the 100-mph arm. It is seductive. All pitchers want it. Scouts flock by the hundreds to small towns based on rumors of it. Coaches are willing to work with even the most undisciplined players who have it. Executives dream about developing it. And spectators and players alike lose their minds whenever they see it.
“A pitcher, you throw 100 miles per hour, you are the shit,” says Omar Vizquel, who played 24 years and now coaches with Detroit.
“It’s sexual!” affirms Joba Chamberlain, who briefly possessed that rarefied power as a youngster with the Yankees. “Two numbers compared to three—there’s something sexy about it.”
The 100-mph fastball is practically a mythic power, and like all uncanny capabilities, it carries with it an ominous foreshadowing. It is an Icarus-like limit: Almost every pitcher who reaches it will—before long—shred his elbow, or become incapable of aiming the ball, or let the power go to his head. When coaches, executives, and fans see a 100-mph thrower, they are not just admiring the feat; they are watching a human drama unfold, man versus velocity. They want to see if this one, somehow, will survive.
During the 2014 season’s spring training, then Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski (now Red Sox president of operations) acknowledged the research: Pitchers who throw 100 mph have what seems like a 100 percent chance of injury. And yet, he said, “there are also a lot of exceptions in our game.” He expected Rondon to be an exception. “He has the overall package to be a dominant big-league closer.”
Exactly one month to the day later, on March 17, 2014, Rondon walked into the trainer’s office and complained about his arm. Two days later, Rondon met with Dr. James Andrews, an orthopedic sports surgeon who operates on the best pitchers in baseball. Two days after that, Dombrowski announced that Rondon would need Tommy John surgery to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. The injury would cost him the entire 2014 season and jeopardize his chances of ever throwing 100 mph again.
Tommy John surgery in action, as a doctor repairs an athlete's elbow.
It is still rare to see a pitcher reach 100 mph, but more than ever before are closing in on it. In 2004, 86 pitchers threw at least a quarter of their fastballs at 95 mph or faster, according to Baseball Info Solutions. In 2014, 151 accomplished the feat. Former starter Al Leiter says that when he was in the game almost 30 years ago, “if you threw a ball consistently in the low 90s, that was a special arm.” And now? “I don’t know where the hell all these arms are coming from.”
It is likely a confluence of factors. Better training has made players fitter and more athletic. The sophistication of throwing programs has made arms stronger. Continued advancements in Tommy John surgery are turning once-career-ending elbow injuries into speed bumps. And it’s cultural: The ubiquity of radar guns, starting all the way down in Little League, is reinforcing the curbside appeal of hyperspeed.
But so far, nothing has altered a biological inconvenience: The amount of torque needed to throw at triple-digit speed is almost always greater than the amount of force the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament can repeatedly withstand. That is the conclusion of Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama, who in 1995 precisely identified the limitations of pitchers’ elbows. When a pitcher cocks back his arm, with his palm facing toward the sky, on a pitch that’s around 100 mph, he subjects the elbow to 100 newton-meters of torque—or the equivalent of holding five 12-pound bowling balls in the palm of your hand in that position.
A world-class pitcher may have more muscle mass, flexibility, and athleticism than the average guy in the stands, but they both have the same elbow ligaments. The tissue simply does not get enough blood flow to strengthen from exercise. There is no magic number at which a pitch is safe—that depends on the player’s body—but this is scientific fact: “Changing up your pitches so that you’re throwing at submaximal velocity increases your longevity,” Fleisig says.
Fleisig makes this sound like a choice, as if pitchers can just dial it back. But to the 100-mph men, throwing their hardest is the only way to live.
The magic, confirmed.
There are the outliers who launched fireballs through full careers: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, and Billy Wagner. But today, only one player in MLB—Aroldis Chapman, of the Cincinnati Reds—routinely cruises above 100 mph. Typically, pitchers in the neighborhood of triple digits are unable to sustain that velocity for more than two or three seasons—like Joba Chamberlain, Francisco Cordero, Brian Wilson, Matt Lindstrom, Kyle Farnsworth, and Fernando Rodney. But ask baseball players and coaches about the hardest thrower they’ve ever seen, and the men named are obscure; they’re almost always pitchers whose inspiring fastball blazed briefly and then burned out, smoldering in the sport’s mythology.
Injury did not fell them all. Rather, the explosive pitch was like an uncontainable power. Matt Anderson built his entire persona around cracking 100. He stormed out of the bullpen to the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” He openly dismissed scouting reports, figuring he could blow a ball past anyone. “It really is like a superpower, dude,” he says now, “because, like, you’re out there on the mound, and you’re getting ready to throw the pitch, and then you throw it, and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, that was awesome!’ And you’re like, ‘I just did that, but I don’t feel anything!’ ”
He and his heater were drafted first overall by the Tigers in 1997, zipped through the minors in about two months, and took over the closer’s job in Detroit in 2001. He amassed 22 consecutive saves. Then he hurt himself doing too many lat pull-downs on the weight machine. Earlier that day, though, he threw some baby octopuses underhand at a fan event (this being Detroit, after all), and a local fable was born—the hotshot was ruined in the dumbest way. People still believe it. The injury slowed down his arm, and Anderson, who had barely developed other pitches, struggled to reinvent himself. He felt “emptier” without the 100-mph ball, he says. He was done.
When Jason Neighborgall first took the mound in 2003 as a Georgia Tech freshman, he started off with a 98-mph fastball on the outside corner. “The next pitch, it went up and in, and it ripped the emblem off my batting glove,” recalls that day’s catcher, Mike Nickeas, who played with the Mets and Blue Jays from 2010 to 2013. “To this day, of all the Cy Young guys I’ve caught”—and that includes Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, R. A. Dickey, and Johan Santana—“he had the best stuff I’ve ever seen.”
But Neighborgall could not aim. He topped out at 102 mph and became known for walking the bases loaded and then striking out the side, sending catchers to the showers covered in bruises. Bobby Moranda, his pitching coach, made desperate attempts to refine him; he even forced him to practice with eyes closed, hoping to foster a strike-zone intuition. The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Neighborgall in the third round in 2005 and gave him $500,000, but also failed to hone his pitch. In 42 and one-third innings over his three minor league seasons, he struck out 48 batters, walked 128, and posted a 17.22 ERA. Fans were at least entertained. “Even on the wild pitches, you would still see everybody in the stadium, their necks slapping back to the scoreboard,” his rookie ball teammate Peter Duda remembers.
'I tried forgetting about 100 mph totally,' Rondon says, 'and I felt like I was pitching without love.'
And then there was Jonathan “Colt” Griffin, perhaps the most hyped of them all. He was a wiry 6'4" high school first baseman from Longview, Texas, and threw in the mid-90 mphs on a fateful 42-degree night. His coach, Jackie Lloyd, arrived home to about 50 missed calls, including one from a stockbroker in Chicago who wanted to represent Griffin. The broker kept calling past midnight.
A few starts later, Griffin touched 100 mph—practically unheard of for a high school player. When a cop pulled over a driver for speeding, as local lore goes, the guy explained that he was rushing to see Griffin play. The cop let the guy go. But like Neighborgall, Griffin struggled with aim. In a tournament game, Griffin fired a ball that nicked the bill of a batter’s helmet. Shoot, he’s killed somebody! Lloyd thought at first. The batter was just lying on the ground in shock; his mother got the ball and had Griffin autograph it.
Major league scouts were all over this. The Royals drafted Griffin ninth overall, and coaches tweaked his mechanics every year. Instead of helping him throw strikes, though, it seemed only to weaken his fastball, and eventually he suffered a torn shoulder labrum. At 22, he signed his retirement papers. “I just knew how to throw 100,” Griffin says now, meaning that’s all he knew. He might as well be summarizing the problem of all the epic hard throwers. Now an engineer for an oil company in San Antonio, he is not regretful. What if he’d thrown only 99 mph, and saved his arm? The thought never crossed his mind. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he says, and chuckles. “That one mile an hour, it made everything.”
Bruce Rondon, firing the cannon.
“I don’t know how I do it,” Rondon admits. Technically, it is athleticism and the flow of energy through the kinetic chain of a proper pitching delivery. But nobody really understands why certain pitchers breach 100 mph. They come in all sizes, like 6'10" Randy Johnson and 5'10" Billy Wagner. They hail from everywhere—Cuba, Venezuela, America. They have a range of personalities: Bobby Parnell is quiet, Fernando Rodney is flashy, and Brian Wilson is nuts. But they have this in common: They are people with a dangerous, unexpected, and yet highly desired skill. And they never really know what to do with it.
As an eight-year-old Little Leaguer, Rondon nailed a batter in the thigh, and the poor kid fell to the dirt, cried, and left the game. Parents feared Rondon would kill their sons if they let him pitch, and had him banned from the mound for two years. Nolan Ryan’s development was similar: He once sailed a ball into the stands and broke a woman’s forearm. He concussed a catcher a year later and seriously considered quitting. “It’s a gift that you did nothing to earn,” Ryan says in Tim Wendel’s book High Heat. “What you do with it is up to you.”
Rondon grew into an average catcher and an unimpressive hitter, just another boy who hoped baseball would lift him out of the barrios in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But when he was 15, the Tigers’ Latin America scout, Miguel Garcia, approached him at a showcase for local players and told him to throw a pitch. Rondon did, at 88 mph. The Tigers enrolled him in the team’s Venezuelan academy.
When the pitch betrays them, they can at least say they went out doing what they loved.
By 20, he was reaching 100 mph consistently for the Tigers’ Single-A affiliate. As he climbed toward the majors, veterans tried to shake him of his narrow-minded pursuit. “Bruce, don’t be so eager to pitch harder—be eager to throw strikes,” they told him. Many pitchers before Rondon received similar advice, and many, like Rondon, ignored it. Why did they put a lucrative baseball career at risk? Perhaps because the men feel that without that 100-mph pitch, they have nothing else. The pitch was everything.
On Labor Day of 2013, the Tigers were up 3–0 against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Rondon was on the mound. Dustin Pedroia stole third, and David Ortiz was at bat. “I need to take this guy out, cost me what it costs me,” Rondon told himself. “These balls that I am going to throw will be the hardest in all of my career.” He unfurled one at 102.4 mph. Another at 101.4 mph. Ortiz struck out. And that was the beginning of Rondon’s troubles. His elbow inflamed that night; he pitched once more, three weeks later, and then the Tigers shut him down for the rest of the season. He attempted a return five months later, during spring training of 2014, but ended up getting Tommy John surgery instead.
Rondon would not pitch in the regular season again until this past June. He remained one of the hardest throwers on Earth, but he reached 100 mph less often—around 6 percent of the time, down from that impressive 25.57 percent during his rookie year. Rondon’s almighty fastball became pedestrian: By September, batters hit over .370 off it.
This world is tough on the men who live for the chance to thunder in from bullpens, unleash lightning, and electrify crowds. There is no way to know if they are the exception, the ones who can make it to retirement age throwing their absolute hardest. Fans certainly won’t tell them to stop. Nor will the coaches, from youth leagues to the pros. At the very least—cold comfort that this is—when the pitch betrays them, they can say they went out doing what they loved.
“Look,” Rondon says, “I’ve always said these words: I can’t stop doing what I’m doing. At times, I tried. I tried forgetting about 100 mph totally, so that I could throw another strike. And I felt like I was pitching without love. I didn’t have the heart in my hand like I feel when I’m doing it with all my strength. When I try to pitch less, it’s not the same feeling. I feel that everything is going wrong, because I’m doing it without desire. However, when I’m 100 percent doing it how I want to do it, I am the happiest man.”