How hard did Cy Young throw?

The Helmar Polar Night card featuring Cy Young.

Scientists believe there’s a limit to how hard a baseball can be thrown. The arm and shoulder can only withstand so much torque.

That limit, the “gas ceiling” if you will, is somewhere around 105 miles per hour. Give or take a mile. We’re at that limit now, and we’ve been near the limit for more than 45 years, since Nolan Ryan was reliably measured at 101.9 miles per hour in the early 1970s.

Testing the Fastest Throwers in Baseball

Many of the fastest throwers in baseball were speed-tested, including Walter “Big Train” Johnson, Smoky Joe Wood, Dazzy Vance, Lefty Grove, Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, and others.

Feller was clocked at 101 miles per hour, but the methodology used to test his fastball was probably overstating it by about 2-3 miles per hour. If we assume Feller topped out at about 98-100 MPH, we can speculate that Grove probably threw close to that. This was the 1930s and baseball had seen a line of fast pitchers throughout the years. Who’s to say that Grove and Feller weren’t already about 95 percent of the way to the gas ceiling? Professional baseball was 70 years old or so. Countless thousands of games and tens of thousands of pitches had been tossed. The most extreme physical specimens, the lucky ones with golden arms, could marshal the muscles, tendons, and tissue of their shoulders to fire a baseball pretty damn hard.

But to our knowledge, no one ever tried to measure how fast Cy Young threw a baseball. Not in his prime, anyway.

The man they called “Cyclone”

Denton “Cy” Young shows off his pitching form in 1908.

Cy Young was a thick man blessed with a barrel chest, broad shoulders, and long arms. No motion pictures were ever taken to show his pitching form, but we have photographs. In the photos taken when Young was actually pitching, his weight is shifted back on his rear right foot, his powerful chest is prominent, and his arm is away from his body, in a three-quarter sidearm motion. That motion would have placed less stress on Young’s shoulder than throwing overhand. It would have allowed him to hide the baseball behind his large frame.

I’m comfortable assuming that Young and the other hardest throwers of the early years of the twentieth century could throw a baseball as fast as 95 miles per hour. It was only about 15-20 years before Grove would appear on the scene. Johnson and Wood probably threw harder than Young, Lefty threw harder than them, Feller was at least as fast, and Koufax was faster, and so on. 

But in Young’s prime, it was unusual to throw hard often. A pitcher would choose his spots to bear down. Christy Mathewson called it “pitching in a pinch.” A pitcher like Young might only throw 94-95 miles per hour two or three times per game. That’s why Walter Johnson was so transcendent: he threw 95+ far more often than others. Grove took a step further, and Feller built on that.

The list below shows the greatest fastball pitcher in the game at that time, not the pitcher who threw the fastest for one pitch. It’s sort of like a heavyweight champion list. 

The Hardest-Throwing Pitchers in Baseball

1895-1904: Cy Young
1905-1907: Rube Waddell
1908-1922: Walter Johnson
1923-1925: Dazzy Vance
1926-1933: Lefty Grove
1934-1936: Satchel Paige
1937-1941: Bob Feller
1942-1945: Hal Newhouser
1946-1951: Ewell Blackwell*
1952-1956: Don Newcombe
1957-1966: Sandy Koufax
1967-1970: Sam McDowell
1971-1983: Nolan Ryan
1984-1985: Dwight Gooden
1986-1990: Roger Clemens
1991-2006: Randy Johnson 
2007-2011: Justin Verlander
2012-2015: Aroldis Chapman 
2016-2019: Noah Syndergaard
2020-2021: Jacob deGrom

*Just after World War II, a few enterprising engineers tested Ewell Blackwell and found that his best fastball traveled 101 miles per hour. It’s possible, based on the early technology used then, that Blackwell threw harder than that, because the “radar gun” measured pitches closer to home plate where the ball would have slowed. Blackwell used a sidearm delivery and earned the nickname “The Whip” for the unusual way his arm slung toward the plate. He threw a no-hitter in 1947 and took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in his next start. The Whip threw very hard, but in 1949 after he had his kidney removed, he was never quite as fast.

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