It's one of those brilliant Florida mornings that baseball fans jones for during the last days of February's brutal slog. And what better fix for seasonal affective disorder than a dose of pure heat being doled out daily at the New York Yankees training complex in Tampa? Three of the game's most electric throwers — Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller — are lined up on bullpen mounds, delivering fastballs that you hear rather than see.
Boom . . . boom . . . boom comes the report from catchers' gloves; it's the only way to tell that the pitches have reached the target. At 100 miles per hour, the untrained eye can't track a fastball from the pitcher's hand to the plate. You pick it up halfway there, and in the last five feet it vanishes into a vapor trail.
Ten years ago, the only metric people cared about was how far a home run traveled. Now the baseball world is tuned expectantly to the exploits of the otherworldly arms in the Yankees back-end bullpen. All in this unholy trinity can throw 100 miles per hour or better. For the first time, a team has a trio of relievers that could blow away the side at will, and when the Yankees carry a lead into the seventh inning, something that's almost unheard of in the history of the game threatens to happen on any given day: A team's seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning specialists will strike out all nine batters they face to close out a Yankee win.
But it's not just the Yankees who are relying on heat to blaze them into the postseason. Across town, the New York Mets have a starting rotation with the potential to be one of the best ever. Their most potent flamethrower, Noah Syndergaard, who looks like a Norse god and is nicknamed "Thor," can throw in the triple digits — and he's the team's number three starter. Clubs all over baseball now have an arsenal of arms that's shifting the balance of power in the sport. Just a decade removed from baseball's nuclear age, when anabolic hitters terrorized pitchers with bombs to the seats in dead center, the pendulum of fear has swung emphatically in favor of the behemoths on the mound. Everyone's throwing harder now, and there's more of that to come. This is the Age of Gas.
Preston Jamison is on a mound in Southern California, pitching to save his life, or at least his career. The 6-6 lefty, who threw in the low 90s in 10th grade and was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers, was sabotaged first by two blown discs and then by bacterial meningitis that came a few hours from paralyzing him. "I woke up and felt like I'd been hit by a truck. I couldn't pick my head up off the pillow," he says. "I had the shakes. I was freezing cold even though it was 110 degrees outside." Now, at 22, he's come to the one man who can not only rebuild his rocket arm but also make it a lethal weapon, a launcher of baseball's unhittable pitch: the 100-plus-mile-per-hour fastball. He's come to Tom House.
The stands at USC's Dedeaux Field are empty, and there's no game in progress, just that distinctive pop of electric fastballs pounding catchers' gloves. This is House's laboratory — five pitching mounds — in which young hurlers like Jamison are being taught to channel legends like Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. House is their conduit to the pre-steroids past, when pitchers ruled the game through fear and force. His company, the National Pitching Association, is also the footbridge to a near future when every team will be in possession of massive firepower. House takes his eyes off Jamison to tell me that D-Day is coming, when the average Major League fastball zooms into triple digits. "If a kid isn't sitting at 100 and showing 105," House says, "he's not going to be in the big leagues."
That statement would be preposterous if it came from anyone other than House. He's quietly become the go-to guru for dozens of frontline stars, household names he can't divulge, because some of them don't want their teams to know. (Working with outside coaches is strongly discouraged and, short of actually violating contracts, could create problems with the front offices.) But you can't scare Major League pitchers away from a teacher who can add five miles to their fastball. And so they come, in the midwinter weeks, paying him tens of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to hone their deliveries before training camp begins.
Not that House minds the clandestine arrangements. At 69, soft-spoken and with slightly oversize glasses, he looks and talks more like a physics professor than a former big-league starter. At the moment, he's sitting behind his row of catchers, reading off a radar gun that tells him how close his pupils are to the magic number. There are a dozen of them today, ranging from a high school kid who flew in from New Jersey to men in their mid-twenties. Some will head back to college after a few days; others will report to their minor league camps or baseball's independent leagues. They're all well over 6 feet and long-limbed, with the yogic flexibility to generate torque and arm speed. House calls them "unwanted toys," young men on the outskirts of the game desperately seeking the extra velocity to make it in the bigs. He loves them all, but has special affection for Jamison, who "has the best chance" of the group to get signed this spring.
Jamison is half-man, half–rocket launcher — and the ratio is debatable. His delivery is a combustible mix of power and fury. Because of his height, the ball travels on a downward trajectory — living hell for any hitter trying to track it. "You don't release a body like that," House says, jabbing the Detroit Tigers for letting the kid go two years ago. Jamison is throwing in the mid-90s today, but he knows he needs something extra. The sandlots are full of flameouts who, despite their talent, were never able to restart their careers. House believes he has the final piece of the puzzle to bump Jamison's velocity from 95 to 99 and beyond — to restore him to a legitimate prospect. That he's rebounded from the hardship proves he has the fortitude to win, House believes. Consequently, he's cut him a huge break in his day rate and makes calls on his behalf to major league teams.
Jamison is dripping with sweat after his session. "I'm all in," he says, nodding in House's direction. The kid is close enough that he can practically hear the crowd roar. Another tweak or two, and he's touching 100, the holy grail for pitchers and scouts alike.
The golden age of pitching was from the mid- to late 1960s, when Koufax and Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, and Tom Seaver, among others, practically owned the sport. They threw relatively hard for their time. (There were no radar guns yet, but scouts estimated the best of the best were throwing in the mid-90s.) What really made the difference was a competitive advantage: The height of the mound was 15 inches, which gave even middling pitchers that downward trajectory every time they released the ball. In 1968, baseball's collective ERA was 2.98, the lowest it had been since 1918. The Red Sox' Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with a paltry .301 average, the worst mark for a batting champion in the game's history.
The sport had become lopsided and less watchable, so baseball's owners decided it was time for a reset. They lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches, anticipating modest improvements in run production. Empowering the hitters, however, was like setting an ocean liner off course by a single degree. Twenty years later the sport was in a different hemisphere. Hitters now had the arms advantage, sporting 20-inch biceps and fireplug quads after discovering what football players had known for a decade: Anabolic steroids make you bigger and faster and amp your reflexes. Even Punch-and-Judy hitters were creating new bat speed and lift. One such steroidal hitter told me: "Once I started using, I couldn't stop, because the shit was like magic. Even my eyesight improved. The spin out of the pitcher's hand was so clear that I knew right away whether I was looking at a fastball or breaking pitch. It was so easy, I almost felt guilty about it."
If your teammates looked like Superman and started posting spikes in power stats, how could you say no to drugs, particularly when the sport didn't police them? From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, steroids were baseball's perfect crime. Run production rose by a ridiculous 25 percent during the go-go '90s alone, improving from 8.23 combined runs per game to 10.28. Gate attendance spiked accordingly and revenue went through the roof. In 1982, the average salary was $242,000; by 2000, it was $2.5 million.
Home runs had become baseball's sexiest currency. In 1987, a record 4,458 home runs were hit in both leagues. By 2000, the number rose to 5,693. Six players went deep 55 or more times between 1997 and 2002, a milestone previously reached only six times in the game's history.
"[Pitchers] would look at guys at the plate and think, 'Are you kidding me?' " says former Met ace Al Leiter, now a color commentator on the Yankees' YES Network. "They were like action figures — they were so much stronger and so much quicker than what you see today. They were able to use heavier bats and stay on the ball a little longer and obviously hit the ball farther. One-bouncers over the wall became home runs. Ground balls that get caught today would get through because they were hit harder. It trickled down to every part of the game. People say, 'Steroids don't make you a better hitter.' Of course they do."
But around that time, ballparks began to display radar-gun readings on scoreboards. Fans were suddenly tipped to a power stat previously known only to advance scouts. Miles per hour became a stat lover's latest obsession, the new he-man metric. The next steps, depriving hitters of the juice and improving pitchers' fastballs, would save baseball from its death march to beer-league softball. When mandatory drug testing was enacted in 2005 and penalties finally became a deterrent, velocity was tipped to come back in style.
Last year 24 pitchers topped 100 miles per hour, none more often than Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban is the physical archetype of the modern pitcher, with shoulders as wide as an NFL linebacker's and an explosive delivery. Chapman holds the record for fastball velocity, hitting 105.1 six years ago. He pitched for the Reds not long after coming to the U.S., then obliterated the Padres' Tony Gwynn Jr. with the fiercest heater ever recorded. Gwynn struck out looking; he flat-out froze. Afterward, he confessed how helpless he was. "You're not even going to put the bat on the ball" at that speed, Gwynn told reporters.
Chapman hasn't let any hitters up for air since. Of the 1,158 pitches he threw last season, 336 of them reached at least 100 miles per hour. Opponents batted .121 against Chapman in at-bats that ended with a fastball reaching 100 miles per hour. "It's hard to see the baseball," says his Yankees battery mate Brian McCann. I asked if that meant seeing the spin of the seams, and McCann shook his head. He was talking about the way Chapman's ball literally disappears. "You just don't pick it up," he says. "You almost have to start your swing before he releases [the ball]. You anticipate where he's going to put it and hope you meet it."
Scientists back up the phenomenon, saying the human eye loses track of a ball once it reaches a certain velocity, forcing opponents to guess its trajectory after that. Ken Fuld, a visual psychophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, told the website livescience.com, "The best hitters can track the ball [only] to within five or six feet of the plate."
Pitching was once performance art. Starters would save their best, hardest pitches for key situations, maybe the five or six moments in a game when they absolutely needed a swing and a miss. "These days, everyone maxes out on every pitch," says former Met Ron Darling, currently with the MLB Network and SNY. "A baseball game used to be a marathon of sorts. Now it's two hours of fury."
A former big-league left-hander, Tom House is remembered more for catching Hank Aaron's record-setting 715th home run in the Atlanta Braves bullpen than for his modest success over eight seasons in the majors. Not that it matters to the kids who flock to him. He gathers a group of them each morning for a half-hour seminar before the workouts begin. On this day House counsels the players about the true value of weightlifting. "Use weights to get stronger, not bigger," he says. "Let size happen on its own."
In his weight room, free weights and barbells get pushed aside for dumbbells, none heavier than five pounds. The pitchers work on flexibility and core exercises; the resistance work targets the scapula and muscles around the rotator cuff. Pumped-up pectorals and useless, oversize biceps are out . The idea is to be as loose and long as a swimmer from the waist up. Turning the arm into a whip is the first building block for real heat.
House's pitchers toss footballs to warm up, and he's convinced that throwing a downward progression of weighted balls — from two pounds to one pound, from six ounces to five to four and then to two — will quicken the arm, as well. The formula is currently shared by most teams, but it was House who first put it to use. And now he's added two more components that separate him from the late adopters: torque and ground-force production, or more plainly, generating power with the back leg.
Considering the importance House places on harnessing the power of the lower body, it's not surprising to see a life-size poster of Randy Johnson on the wall in the NPA office. The 6-foot-10 Big Unit was all legs, and his mastery of the 100-mile-per-hour fastball is proof that the secret to velocity starts at the bottom, not the top. Therein lies the other major factor contributing to the fastball's rapid gain: The athletes are far more powerful, especially in the quads and glutes, than their predecessors. In 1960, the average major league pitcher stood 6 feet, 186 pounds. A half-century later, the mean is up to 6-2 and 209. More beef generally signals more velocity, but House emphasizes the synchronicity of the entire body mass, including proper torque (shoulder rotation) and ground force to produce the magic. "People who throw hard are mechanically efficient and can transfer energy efficiently," he says. The thing that has shaken baseball to its core is the notion that these things can be measured and taught. "Everyone used to think that throwing hard was genetic," he adds. "But we're discovering that it's not. You can affect your gene pool."
House has a few more tricks up his sleeve. A big one involves the pitcher's stride as he delivers the ball. The average stride-length for a pitcher is 77 to 87 percent of his height. He calculates that for every extra foot he can squeeze out of a pitcher's stride, the hitter sees a virtual three-mile-per-hour gain in fastball speed. Put it this way, a 95-mile-per-hour fastball from 50 feet looks faster than from 53 feet. Same velocity on the radar gun, but because a hitter has less time to react, it just seems faster.
One of the most extreme examples of a pitcher's bending visual reality is 170-pound Tim Lincecum, who won back-to-back Cy Young Awards, in 2008 and 2009, with the San Francisco Giants — not because he threw 100 miles per hour but partly because his stride reached seven-and-a-half feet, or roughly 129 percent of his 5-foot-11 height.
To gain a similar advantage, the Marlins' Carter Capps has honed his delivery into a thinly disguised one-legged broad jump that brings him at least two feet closer than the average pitcher to the batter. Umpires have scrutinized Capps' delivery and decided he's not cheating. Until that changes, Capps is racking up nearly two strikeouts per inning.
House avoids taking credit for teaching Capps that deadly trick — he won't even say whether Capps attended the NPA — but it's a technique House has passed on to Jamison and others. Unless baseball outlaws the "leap," scores of hurlers could eventually make it to the show by cloning Capps. It'll be game over, even for the sport's best sluggers.
By all accounts House should be revered for his innovative mind. Hollywood gets him: He was portrayed by Bill Paxton in the film Million Dollar Arm. Even the NFL has fallen under the spell of House, whose other company, 3DQB, specializes in motion analysis and works with quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and dozen of others.
But even with the parade of multimillion-dollar athletes coming and going, any respect for House is tempered by the criticism that he's simply too out-there in his methods. No one denies that he's smart, but in a sport still ruled by traditionalist thinking, House might be — how would you say it? — too Eastern (he coached in Japan for a time) for baseball's corn-fed tastes. He has a Ph.D. in performance psychology, which separates him from the old-boy network and its ideas. And even if he wanted to, it's too late to remake his image, even as the game adopts his teaching.
I asked Nolan Ryan how a mind so full of effective ideas could still be so marginalized. House was the Rangers pitching coach when Ryan arrived in 1989, and the two men clicked immediately. Ryan had heard whispers that House was too unconventional to be trusted, but the Hall of Famer decided to be open-minded. "Tom taught me things I hadn't heard about in my 22 years in the game," Ryan says. "A lot of people are intimidated by Tom and his knowledge. It's a shame baseball has turned its back on him."
House shakes his head: No, he doesn't mind being outside the sport's mainstream. "Baseball is a game of failure, coached by negative people in a misinformation environment," he says. House's consolation is knowing everyone is striving to clone his business plan. The game validates him every time another fastball hits the century mark.
Not everyone is convinced that hitters are finished. The Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, one of baseball's most ferocious power hitters, dismisses the idea that triple-digit fastballs are here to stay. "Anyone can be taught to throw hard, but throwing hard isn't what made Mariano Rivera a [future] Hall of Fame pitcher," says Bautista. "Most of these guys who throw 100, especially the relievers, lose out on location. You can dissect them pretty well. They're usually limited to two pitches, and you can eliminate the second pitch because it's not that good." Bautista has a second, salient thought about the viability of full-throttle pitching: The human arm can't tolerate it. "As a business plan, teams want young, controllable pitchers who throw hard because they can be replaced," he said. "I don't know if it's sustainable."
Bautista's point isn't lost on the teams' orthopedists. More than 50 percent of pitchers end up on the disabled list, and a quarter have undergone reconstructive surgery on their elbows. But that barely dents the growing confidence of pitchers who have velocity, technology, and good genes on their side. Soon enough, hitters will be forced into a 1960s-era approach to handle the heat they face: emphasizing contact with shorter swings and hitting the ball the opposite way.
The small-ball approach doesn't intimidate flamethrowers like Chapman. Brooding and withdrawn, the controversial closer was suspended for 30 games by Major League Baseball for a domestic-violence incident at his home in Davie, Florida, in October 2015. (The cops never arrested him, and state prosecutors declined to press charges.) Even in an otherwise peaceful clubhouse, Chapman seems angry. He talks to almost no one, burying his face in his cellphone. Pity anyone standing 60 feet, six inches away in the ninth inning; it feels like picking a fight with the wrong guy in a bar at 2 am. "The most important thing about throwing hard is that it gives me control of the game through fear," says Chapman, adding, "I can see the batters are scared." It's not an uncommon attitude. The Mets' young stud Syndergaard says, "It's a great feeling to be able to strike someone out, blow him away, look back at the radar gun, and see pretty digits."
Those digits will continue to flash, the quest for ever-harder fastballs will march on, and teams will remain on an inexhaustible search for the young guys who can deliver the heat. Case in point: Halfway through spring training, the Yankees got wind of the 6-foot-6 kid tickling 100 and sent two scouts to House's facility at USC to watch Jamison pitch. They immediately signed him to a minor league contract and sent him to train with Chapman and Co. in Tampa.
Turns out Tom House wasn't the only one who believed. "I don't think we've reached the maximum yet," House says of the revolution he had a hand in starting. Somewhere, Babe Ruth is relaxing with a beer and a cigar, glad he's nowhere near a batter's box.
They hit the most triple-digits in 2015. Here’s how many times — and their fastest.
Aroldis Chapman: 336 (top speed: 103.4)
Kelvin Hererra: 64 (top speed: 101.3)
Arquimedes Caminero: 52 (top speed: 101.1)
Bruce Rondon: 28 (top speed: 101.4)
Nathan Eovaldi: 28 (top speed: 101.6)
Trevor Rosenthal: 13 (top speed: 100.8)
Carter Capps: 10 (top speed: 101.2)
Jeurys Familia: 7 (top speed: 100.4)
Bob Klapisch is the baseball columnist for The Bergen Record. Paul Solotaroff is a Men's Journal contributing editor.