A baseball documentary for old-timers and young analytics acolytes alike, “Fastball” sets out, as its nominal goal, to deduce who threw history’s all-time fastest pitch. That intention, however, is merely the pretext for an alternately mythologizing and scientific inquiry into the art of pitching — a seemingly simple act that, over the course of baseball’s century-plus lifespan, has taken on legendary status. That’s especially true of those blessed with velocity at which to marvel — not always easy an easy task, at least for those ensconced in the batter’s box. With an all-star lineup of hall-of-famers waxing nostalgic and poetic about their time on the diamond, writer-director Jonathan Hock’s documentary has a thrilling pop that should help it strike a competitive chord with anyone even remotely enchanted by our national pastime.
Narrated by Kevin Costner in a reverent “Field of Dreams”-style tone, Hock’s film divides itself into chapters, each of them focused on a famed fastballer, beginning with Rich “Goose” Gossage, the handlebar-mustached flamethrower whose enormous size and nasty attitude enhanced his ability to intimidate batters. Throughout “Fastball,” a pitcher’s physicality and demeanor are presented as equally key components of his fearsomeness, as was also true of St. Louis Cardinals great Bob Gibson. A towering African-American, Gibson derived his power from anger born from a lifetime of enduring racism, and scared opponents silly simply by squinting intensely at his catcher — a move that, he admits, was actually necessitated by his poor eyesight.
Hock’s quest to locate the game’s mightiest throw begins with Walter Johnson, the early-20th-century Washington Senators pitcher who, during his heyday, was widely considered to have the fastest pitch in the world. His unofficial crown would be reconfirmed by a speed test executed via military equipment, and would last until the 1936 arrival in the big leagues of Bob Feller. With the Cleveland Indians, Feller (aka “the Heater From Van Meter”) not only became the gold standard for blazing four-seamers, but actively sought to evaluate his arm’s absolute athletic limits — culminating with another rudimentary speed-monitoring assessment that placed his pitch at a then-record 98.6 mph.
Amid these history lessons, “Fastball” also profiles some of today’s most formidable starters and closers, including the Atlanta Braves’ Craig Kimbrel — the first man to ever lead the league in saves in each of his first four seasons — and the Cincinnati Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, who in 2010 notched the fastest verified MLB pitch, at a whopping 105.1 mph. Chapman’s achievement is, in and of itself, eye-opening. However, just as fascinating is the film’s suggestion (via a historian’s comments) that humanity has nearly reached its evolutionary ceiling with regards to throwing fast — how else to explain that, while Jesse Owens’ once-unbreakable track-and-field benchmarks are now routinely bested by high schoolers, MLBers are only, at their peak, equaling their famed predecessors?
In a roundtable chat between Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Al Kaline and the late Tony Gwynn, as well as in interviews with Hank Aaron, Derek Jeter, Wade Boggs, Bryce Harper and others, illustrious hitters make their picks for the fastest-throwing pitcher they ever encountered (no surprise that Sandy Koufax figures prominently in those discussions), and their anecdotes help steep the film in a lived-in sense of tradition. At the same time, however, Hock bolsters those legends’ accounts through scientific scrutiny, with physicists explaining the neuromechanical process required to hit a ball travelling at literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speeds, dispelling players’ commonly held belief that the greatest fastballs “rise” as they approach the plate — an effect born from the way batters visually perceive the ball — and synchronizing speed tests from different eras in order to identify the sport’s greatest flamethrower.
That investigation inevitably leads to Nolan Ryan, whose 27-year career with the New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros and Texas Rangers was marked by an astonishing seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. Ryan’s hard-throwing style is rightfully celebrated as being all the more remarkable because of his durability, with the pitcher only finally calling it quits when his elbow gave out, mid-game, at the age of 46. His amazing longevity stands in stark contrast to that of Steve Dalkowski, a ‘50s-‘60s minor leaguer (reportedly the inspiration for Tim Robbins’ “Bull Durham” character) whose fastball’s fabled speed was only matched by its wildness. A lack of control, along with an injury suffered just as he was gaining mastery over his gift, would halt Dalkowski’s career before it really began, and his story provides the film with a melancholy note about the terrible fragility of athletic skill.
“Fastball” conveys its canny mathematical analysis with clean, clever graphical flourishes that smoothly align with Hock’s Ken Burns-ish nonfiction aesthetics. The result is a film that captures the underlying essence of baseball at the beginning of the 21st century: both humbly wistful and progressively cutting-edge.