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Radar Love

Baseball has long been enamored of the velocity of pitches, but not every 100-mph reading translates the same

June 19, 2007|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

Who needs magnetic imaging when the unrelenting and omnipresent speed guns have served to track the health of Jason Schmidt's shoulder?

Now back on the 15-day disabled list, the $47-million Dodgers right-hander has been under the gun so often in the first year of his three-year contract, so frequently asked about the correlation between speed and sound (as in the stability of his shoulder), that he now politely refuses to discuss it.

If only he could escape it.

From Walter "Big Train" Johnson to "Rapid" Robert Feller to Nolan Ryan and his Express to Joel Zumaya and the spiraling flames tattooed on each arm, baseball's fascination with pitching velocity has led to a universal signpost: Speed Checked by Radar.

"It's simply part of the industry culture now," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said of the technical evolution to hand-held and stationary radar guns that have become far more than a scouting tool or even a vehicle by which baseball caters to the interest of fans and media.

With the speed of pitches illuminated on almost all scoreboards, with Fox and ESPN trying to out-gun each other, with seam-head Internet sites offering esoteric statistics and speed readings, with even overzealous Little League parents timing pitches as orthopedists wait in anticipation, the culture is rampant to a fault, perhaps.

After all, speed can still kill ("Major league hitters can turn around a bullet," veteran scout Dean Jongewaard said), and pitching is still pitching, as exemplified by the ongoing success of control and off-speed specialists Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer, all in their 40s.

In addition, seeing is not always believing.

"I don't know this as a fact," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said, "but I think in some cases the board has been doctored. I mean, the gun may be right, but the board isn't."

In other words, Colletti said, a team may inflate the velocity of its pitchers to get opposing hitters over-swinging or deflate the velocity of opposing pitcher to get them over-throwing.

There is widespread belief among scouts, for instance, that the San Diego Padres have been adding two to three mph to the posted listing of Trevor Hoffman's fastball at Petco Park to plant a seed with hitters that their 39-year-old closer retains a significant differential between his fastball and famed changeup.

Gamesmanship?

Schmidt suspected his readings were tampered with when he visited Chavez Ravine as a member of the San Francisco Giants, saying earlier this season: "We always thought they were messing with it right here at Dodger Stadium. I'd look up and say to myself, 'Not 83.' "

Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper laughed. He recalled a 1977 game in which he played second base for Cleveland at Texas, with hard-throwing Dennis Eckersley starting for the Indians against the much softer-throwing Doyle Alexander.

Gun readings were only starting to be posted on scoreboards, and as the Indians took a 3-0 lead into the middle innings, the numbers for Alexander on the board were suddenly faster than those of Eckersley, who was slowly getting agitated.

"He was so full of himself in those years," Kuiper said. "I went to the mound and he said, 'Can you believe this? That [guy] is throwing harder than I am?'

"We all knew what was going on, but he couldn't help himself, the perfect guy to get under his skin. He was young and all about blowing people away. He started to try and throw every pitch 100 miles per hour and ... got shelled."

Baseball has long been a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and the newer wiring has merely led to new speculations.

The guns

The radar guns used by major league teams today are the same as those used by law enforcement. Two guns dominate both markets: the Jugs, made by Jugs in Tualatin, Ore., and the Stalker, made by Applied Concepts Inc. in Plano, Texas. Both are based on Doppler shifts and electromagnetic waves. They are calibrated by tuning fork and almost impossible, according to executives of both companies, to recalibrate after leaving the factory.

If one gun is faster than the other at times, if readings differ from stadium to stadium, it may have more to do with the angle and location at which the guns are used than any real conspiracy, the executives said.

As an example, longtime Boston scout Jerry Stephenson doesn't carry his personal gun to Anaheim because "the Angels generally give scouts such lousy seats the gun would be useless." He does use his gun at Dodger Stadium, where scouts still sit behind the plate and the speed numbers on the board "are so small you need Ted Williams' eyes to see them."

The wry Stephenson is about as skeptical as it gets when it comes to the sweep of radar technology.

"All I know is that I watched a Red Sox-Yankee game on TV the other day and they had guys throwing five miles an hour faster than they've ever thrown in their life," Stephenson said.

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