Major League Baseball has changed a lot over the last decade or so. A lot of us grew up with “runs batted in” being an important statistic, but antiquated stats have now been replaced by dozens of bizarre sounding things that the Moneyball era of “stat nerds” use to produce championships. It’s all confusing and exciting at the same time.
George Brett played from 1973 until 1993, all for the Kansas City Royals. Brett is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and is also currently vice president of baseball operations for the Royals – a team that happens to be the defending World Series champions. (It probably goes without saying, but as someone who went to high school in Kansas City, Brett is “Mr. KC.” Also, my 14-year-old self is still in shock that I got to interview George Brett.) But having played then, and still being a big part of the team now, it’s interesting to get Brett’s take on the old-school versus new-school way of thinking.
Brett is promoting the new documentary, Fastball (which is playing in select theaters and is currently available on demand). The documentary explores the art of the fastball and – in maybe the nerdiest and greatest way possible – breaks down the limits of human ability for both a hitter and a pitcher and tells us why a 100 miles per hour pitch is at that limit for both.
Ahead, Brett talks about the toughest fastballs he faced (of course Nolan Ryan is mentioned, but Brett swears Ryan was “fun” to face), the biggest differences between today’s game and the game 30 years ago. Also, yes, the infamous pine tar incident is featured in the film, so Brett tries to explain why we’re still talking about something 33 years later that at the time he figured would just “blow over.”
Fastball is somehow nerdy and includes a lot of baseball history at the same time.
You know, baseball is becoming more and more nerdy, you might say, with all these stats. They have stats I don’t even know what they mean. Wins above replacement, I tried to figure that one out. Before, it was just RBI, runs scored, ERA and home runs. That was it. Maybe on base percentage was a big stat. But, nowadays, there are so many different stats. And in this film, it’s players and historians and even scientists – and they all disagree who actually was the fastest pitcher in history. And the film does the math.
And the film does a good job of bridging the divide between the new stat people and the “old school” players together. You have to rely on what the players said about Bob Feller to get a sense of how hard he threw.
Did you see the clip trying to measure how fast Bob Feller threw a baseball? They had a motorcycle guy driving down the road while Bob pitched. That’s how they used to do it! Now you see all these scouts sitting behind home plate with radar guns. And everybody is intrigued by how hard a guy throws because they put it on the scoreboard all the time. They’re intrigued about that!
If they had done that when you played, would that have gotten in your head?
I would think it would get in your head a little bit. I faced Nolan Ryan who everybody said threw the hardest. Frank Tanana, when he came up, threw hard. He threw really hard when he came up. Then he had arm problems, so he became a finesse pitcher instead of a fireballer. If you’re sitting in the dugout and you’re seeing 99, 100, 101, you’re going, “Oh my God, this guy is throwing hard.” It might alter your swing a little bit.