Brian Vikander on Steve Dalkowski and the 110-MPH Fastball

The legend of Steve Dalkowski is well known. Arguably the most famous player to never reach the big leagues, the Connecticut-born left-hander is said to have thrown harder than anyone alive… and he had little idea where the ball was going. Pitching primarily in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Dalkowski walked 1,236 batters — and fanned 1,324 — in 956 minor-league innings. His star-crossed career, which spanned the 1957-1965 seasons, inspired the “Bull Durham” character Nuke LaLoosh.

Dalkowski died this past April, and a handful of months later a biography of his roller-coaster baseball life was published: Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher, by Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas, and Brian Vikander. In late October, Vikander — a longtime pitching coach with expertise in both biomechanics and mental skills — was a guest on Justin McGuire’s always-insightful Baseball by the Book podcast. What I heard prompted this interview, which was conducted over the phone last week.


David Laurila: How hard did Steve Dalkowski throw?

Brian Vikander: “In my opinion, he threw over 110 mph. I base that on a couple of things. The first is that there’s not one individual — not one — who has ever come forward and said that he was not the hardest thrower, the biggest arm, in the history of baseball. You’ve got guys who saw ‘Rapid Robert’ Feller, Ryne Duren, Rex Barney, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax…and everybody says it was Dalko. You can debate 2-10 in any fashion that you want, but he’s No. 1. Hall of Famers said it. Earl Weaver said it. Pat Gillick said it.”

Laurila: A lot of people reading this are going to think, “That’s anecdotal; where is the proof?” They’re going to doubt that Dalkowski ever threw that hard.

Vikander: “Well, right now we’ve got 108.1 on Nolan Ryan’s release point on a fastball, so we’re asking people, credibly, to give us two miles an hour. That’s not that big a stretch. I went down to ASMI, in Birmingham, Alabama — they are the consultants for Major League Baseball on all things kinematic in the sequencing and energy production for arms — and spent a few days. I was with seven PhDs from MIT, and they were all telling me that I don’t know what I’m talking about. But then on the third day, everybody came around. They said, ‘That theory that you have proposed, Brian, doesn’t guarantee anything, but it does put forward the possibility that this guy could have been in that rare air and actually done it.’

“It’s a shame that we don’t have any video of Dalkowski to see what he was doing. I can guess what he was doing with his mechanics, but we don’t have anything to look at, and we’ll probably never find it. But there’s no question in my mind that if everybody is saying ‘hardest thrower of all time,’ that does give you a leg to stand on. Maybe it’s Long John Silver’s leg, but there was clearly something different going on with this guy. One other caveat: I believe that he was throwing this kind of gas pre-1960, not post-1960. After a time, [his velocity] began to taper off, but in that 1958-1960 period, he was really launching it.”

Laurila: As a matter of clarification, say a pitch is clocked at 100 mph. Where is the ball when that specific reading registers on the gun?

Dalkowski: “It’s very shortly after you’ve released the baseball; it would be in the first five feet of the distance out of your hand. So if you’re releasing the ball at 54 feet, it would be between 49 and 54 feet from when it gets to home plate. When they measured Nolan Ryan at 108.1 mph, in 1974, that pitch lost 7.3 mph by the time it reached home plate.”

Laurila: What role do mechanics play in velocity? I assume Dalkowski wasn’t doing anything markedly different than countless other pitchers have over the years.

Vikander: “First of all we should clarify what mechanics are. When most people think about mechanics, they start from the point of your throwing motion: ‘Where is your glove? Let me change your arm slot.’ That’s why they foul-up pitchers. That’s why they ruin arms. Mechanics are based on the timing, from first forward movement to foot-strike to ball-release — how you’re going with that timing, that quickness, to generate energy going up the food chain. What results is your mechanics.

“Here’s an example that I often give pitchers I’m working with: Say you stumble when walking along the sidewalk — you catch your right toe on a piece of concrete that’s a few inches high — and you’re going toward a wall. You’ve got timing, you’ve got energy production, and you know what? Your hands shoot up automatically. You don’t go through a thought process to say, ‘Hey hands, save my face before I plant it.’ Same thing when you go to jump over a tennis net and catch your toe. It’s a different set of timing and energy production, but your hands still make every effort to get there as quickly as they can.”

Laurila: Dalkowski was apparently able to throw strikes fairly consistently during side work; it was during games when he couldn’t command his fastball.

Vikander: “I believe that when he was throwing on the sidelines — when he was loose, when he was in a flow, when he was in that rare air — his mechanics were perfect. Just as Sam McDonald said in the foreword of the book, they were perfect. They were flawless on the sidelines, because he didn’t carry around all the psychological baggage that ultimately weighed him down. Every once in a while he would lose the fear of failure that he hauled out to the mound, and he simply threw. Then everything came together.

“When we look at mechanics… we know for example that if you go back in time to his era, if you went to 80% of your body length, that’s as far as you needed to go. But where did that number come from? It’s one of these mystery numbers that some baseball mind made up. Why 80%? Say I pull a rubber band back and aim it at your face. I pull it back one inch, I pull it back two inches, I pull it back six inches. Don’t tell me you’re worried about the one inch or the two inch; you’re worried about the six-inch ball and how that’s going to come forward and drill you. The same thing is going on with mechanics.”

Laurila: How might that apply to Dalkowski?

Vikander: “I believe that Steve was getting out to over his body height. That would have been probably seven shoe lengths, maybe seven and a quarter shoe lengths. That means he had a longer period of time to hold on to his throwing shoulder. We know that the disassociation of front hip, the angle when your foot hits down going to home plate… your front hip has to open up or you can’t throw. But your back shoulder, your throwing shoulder, shouldn’t be coming around. So the front-hip angle, your throwing-shoulder angle, should be between 40 and 60 degrees.That’s what good pitchers are doing most of the time. However, we don’t have enough information out on the edge of the bell curve. If you could get to 80 degrees, you would have more torque. Now, you would have to get your arm through to the release point on time. That’s timing.

“If all of these things were amped up to max, I think that’s where you would find these little bits. It’s like driving a Ferrari. You get a Testarossa and put in parts for [another model], the car may run, but it’s not going to sound like the London Symphony. But then you get the right parts in this thing, and all of a sudden you get not just the individual pieces being better, you get the cumulative effect of what’s going on. I’m confident that’s where Dalko was, especially in that three-to-four-year period at the start of his pro career.”

Laurila: What is the likelihood that Dalkowski possessed physical qualities other people simply don’t have? For instance, was his arm structured in a unique way?

Vikander: “It’s a possibility. It’s something I proposed to ASMI when I was down there with Glenn Fleisig. [Dalkowski] may have had… you can build up the arm for muscles, and you might have denser bones, but there’s absolutely nothing we can do about soft tissue. Realistically, we shouldn’t be able to throw a baseball at all — your arm should fall apart — but we do, and it hangs together at least for some period of time. So he may well have had stronger, thicker, more-pliable soft tissue than is normal, particularly in the elbow. We’ll never know.”

Laurila: I’ve often heard it said that pitchers in earlier eras had far less top-end velocity than they do today. Dalkowski aside, how hard did pitchers throw 50-60 years ago?

Vikander: “I’ll respond to that in two ways. I think we have more big-throwers today than we’ve ever had. But while there’s truth to that, the guys who could really bring it, the legendary guys… I put Feller up there with anybody in that group. Everybody who saw Rex Barney said he was in that group. Duren was in that group. Herb Score was in that group. Bullet Bob Turley, for a couple of years, was in that group. So there were certainly guys who were throwing significantly harder, but the game has changed. Just like nobody wants to see ‘little ball’ on the offensive side — they want to see home runs — nobody wants to see a pitcher like Greg Maddux pitch anymore. They want to see guys striking everybody out. That’s the mentality of where people are today.

“I think there is truth in that the hardest throwers of any era would probably fit in with the hardest throwers today. If we could have accurately measured Feller in his prime, I’m confident that he would be throwing 100 mph. This would have been in the 1940s. That said, we now have more hard throwers than at any point in baseball. We’ve got more guys throwing over 100 mph today, and certainly more guys throwing in the upper reaches of the 90s, than at any point in time.”

Laurila: Going back even farther, how hard do you think Walter Johnson threw?

Vikander: “That’s a really tough one. Ty Cobb said his fastball came in making an ugly noise. I’ve caught thousands of pitchers, and I can tell you there are different noises between 91-94, 95-98, and 99-101. Anything over 101 is making a sound that is threatening. So if I could talk to Ty Cobb and ask him, ‘Where was the pitch, and what was the sound?,’ I might have some idea. But I certainly don’t know about Walter Johnson. The 1940s is one thing, but that’s going back into yet another era. That said, everybody said the guy threw BBs. He was tossing aspirins out there, and he’s always talked about as one of the hardest throwers of all time. The Hall of Famers from that era talked about him that way. I think this goes back to how many guys throw really hard. Walter Johnson probably stood on top of Mount Olympus in his era, whereas in the 1940s there were more guys threw really hard, and today we’ve got a lot more.”

Laurila: And in the late 1950s there was Steve Dalkowski..

Vikander: “I think Dalko stood alone. He was alone on Olympus. Zeus gave out one Thunderbolt, and he got it. So he may have had some anatomical advantages. That’s one thing that Glenn Fleisig and I talked about at ASMI. He may have had something that we’ve never even thought of.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Cave Dameron
3 years ago

The Dalkowski mythology has always been one of my favorite baseball lores. He became a legend in an era where you had to be a major leaguer in order to be captured on video, it’s a shame that we just missed seeing him. I always wondered what his pitching motion would look like and if it would have mechanical characteristics of every other flame thrower in history. But hearing players and coaches talk about him like he was the GOAT hard thrower despite being around the same time Nolan Ryan was playing is fascinating.

Thank you David, very cool!