Sports Science: How Much Energy is in a Record-Breaking Fastball?

A recent article on rookie Jordan Hicks claims he is the new hardest thrower in Major League Baseball (MLB). This piqued my interest for several reasons. The admittedly out-of-touch baseball fan in me immediately wanted to know who he is playing for (St. Louis Cardinals). The physicist in me started asking questions like what exactly does it mean that he’s the “hardest thrower?” How much energy does a ball thrown by Jordan Hicks have? How does this compare to other sports?

Kinetic energy is calculated by the familiar equation:

A standard MLB baseball ranges in mass from 5.00 to 5.25 ounces (141.75 to 148.38 g). Let’s assume the median for all our calculations to simplify matters. In kilograms the median baseball mass is 0.1453 kg.

For the current season, Jordan Hicks holds a few of the top spots on the fastest pitches Statcast Leaderboard. His fastest pitch thus far was 102.0 mph. It occurred on May 1, 2018 against Tim Anderson. We can set v equal to this velocity. Changing units from mph to m/s, we have a velocity of 45.60 m/s.

From these numbers we can calculate the kinetic energy of the fastest pitch this season.

A pitch by Jordan Hicks is similar to the energy of a bullet fired from a .22LR rifle. It’s no wonder NY Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki was branded by his necklace when hit by a pitch from Noah Syndergaard.

Compare this to the fastest hits in other sports. Conveniently, Guinness World Records has a beautiful graphic showing the fastest hits in a variety of sports. These range from the moderately clunky speed of a rugby throw at 48 mph to the rather zippy badminton hit at 261.6 mph. More familiar perhaps are the fastest hockey shot at 110.3 mph up to the blazing golf drive at 217.1 mph.

Now, a hockey puck and a golf ball have significantly different masses hit on markedly different surfaces.  To put this into context, the energies of this and a couple other hits are compiled on the table below.

*c is the speed of light

One unique number is the energy in a proton running around the LHC. It is far dwarfed by the energy of the various sports hits. Then again it’s flabbergasting that softball star Eddie Feigner’s reported fastest throw carries more energy than the average baseball pitch.

All that aside, let’s talk for a moment about my mother’s least favorite pitcher: Randy Johnson. Why least favorite?  I’m not sure if it’s because they shared a birthday or because he threw a perfect game against her favorite team, the Braves, on March 18, 2004. I’ll let you decide.

Patrick Corbin pitches for the Diamondbacks in the bottom of the sixth.
Photo taken by the author while conducting “research” at Nationals Park on April 28, 2018.

I could list Johnson’s accolades here, which include five Cy Young awards and second most strikeouts of all time. I could also talk about the time he killed a bird in a spring training game. I could even talk about that game back in March 2004 when he got his second career no-hitter, a whopping 14 years after his first. But I’m not going to talk about any of that.

My favorite thing about Randy Johnson is his fastest pitch ever. On July 9th, 2004 the Diamondbacks faced the Giants in San Francisco. The game itself would not go well for Arizona; the Diamondbacks would lose to the Giants 8-3. However, Randy Johnson would throw his fastest pitch this game. The pitch was clocked at 102.0 mph (45.60 m/s), same has Jordan Hicks’s pitch.

This happened when Randy Johnson was 40. Jordan Hicks is 21.

So what about the fastest pitch in MLB history? Aroldis Chapman’s 105.1 mph (46.98 m/s) four-seam fastball is almost unbeatable. A batter has a fraction of a second to decide whether or not to take a swing. The energy of that pitch is equally unbelievable.

So the fastest pitch in MLB history comes in at 160.34 Joules. Jordan Hicks hasn’t quite gotten to Aroldis Chapman levels yet. He is giving Randy Johnson a run for his money.

Let’s not forget that people are trying to hit these pitches. Randy Johnson’s pitch took about 0.35 seconds to get to the catcher’s glove. Sometimes, maybe not on March 18th, 2004, but sometimes batters would get a hit while facing Randy Johnson. As Jon Bois would say, that’s pretty good.

—Amanda Babcock

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