Fastball (2016)

Directed by Jonathan Hock

For any fan of the game of baseball, or even the casual fan who likes the ballpark atmosphere or fair-weather cheering their local team to victory, the fastball has long been the pitcher’s most electric pitch. Sure, the curveball and changeup can fool the hitter into looking silly, and novelty pitches like the knuckleball (which has a similar documentary about it) or the eephus are just as exciting, interesting and dumbfounding to the fans as they are hitters, but the pure speed matchup of a pitcher throwing the ball as hard as he can to see if the hitter can catch up to it is the oldest matchup in baseball. A true mano-a-mano moment in a team sport which pits two players against each other to begin every play.

Jonathan Hock, who has directed a few of the better installments of ESPNs 30 for 30 sports documentary series (The Best That Never Was, Unguarded, Of Miracles and Men), helms this project as well and brings a craftsman like approach to his filmmaking. That term, “craftsman”, can sometimes be taken as a negative, but in this respect I view Hock as an accomplished documentarian who is more than capable of telling compelling, sympathetic stories about sports. He shifts gears a little bit here with a story that doesn’t focus on a player, team or owner, it’s not even really about a community. It’s simply about a pitch. This subject matter is difficult to handle for any filmmaker (re: the lackluster Knuckleball! from Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg), but Hock presents the story that any fan of the game should gobble up. In true baseball fashion, the film relishes in the traditions of the pitch and both the pitchers and batters who make it exciting, while also bringing in the more modern technological analysis we have seen since the advent of Statcast and the growing popularity of Sabermetrics within the game.

For the most part, the film focuses on one simple question: who threw the fastest ball in the history of the game. Hock goes chronologically, starting with the Big Train, Walter Johnson and his experiment to gauge his speed with early 20th century technology, then moves on to Bob Feller and his competition with a motorcycle, Nolan Ryan and the advent of the radar gun, and finally Aroldis Chapman, who has the fastest pitch on record at 105 MPH. Within this timeline, Hock is able to explore the various histories and anecdotes surrounding the well known pitch, bringing in a who’s who of interviewees to add their two cents of experience to the proceedings. While adding much to the conversation, these past greats of the game are rarely the most interesting part of the runtime.

Rather, Hock’s scientific approach is what had me excited throughout. Using simple physics (which seems complicated to me), the scientist Hock interviews is able to calculate adjusted speed readings for all of the above mentioned experiments to capture the speed of a fastball. Without getting into the details, suffice it to say that Hock pairs the science speak with some slick graphics and archive footage to make a compelling, mystery cracking sequence to settle once and for all who was the fastest, which is easily the most compelling segment of the documentary. There are also parts which seem duller, more mundane and bogged down by the difficult task of making a movie about a ball travelling through space,  but from start to finish it is a fun ride suitable for any baseball fan (though perhaps not as compelling for others).

In The Best That Never Was, Hock tells the story of football running back Marcus Dupree and his storied high school career in conflict with his lackluster college career, overshadowed by expectations and superlatives. In Fastball, Hock inserts a similar vignette about Steve Dalkowski, a fireballer in the Orioles organization who was destined for stardom in the major leagues. But after spending a few seasons unable to get his fastball under control, Dalkowski never made it to the big time. By inserting a story like Dalkowski’s into the narrative of the history of the pitch goes to show Hock’s understanding and reverence for a game so many of us have played in our youth, dreaming of playing in the big leagues, but never making it. It makes those who do make it that much more special, and those who sit atop the zenith of the sport, names like Walter Johnson, Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan, all the more legendary.

*** – Very Good

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