Fifty-odd years ago, the baseball world was abuzz with stories about Orioles pitching prospect Steve Dalkowski. Dalkowski, a smallish (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) southpaw, left observers slack-jawed with the velocity of his fastball. Add an incredible lack of command, and a legend was born.
Dalkowski pitched for all or part of nine minor league seasons, during which he averaged nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings. We'll never know how many of those were a result of actual strikes or simply batters swinging out of total fear. Dalkowski, you see, also averaged more than 12 walks every nine innings.
In 1957, as an 18-year-old rookie, Dalkowski recorded 24 strikeouts, 18 walks, four hit batters and six wild pitches in an Appalachian League game. He lost.
Stories abound of hitters who would take three swings and hope for the best. If they made contact, great, but it was really more about self-preservation. Late Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr. always maintained that Dalkowski had the fastest pitch he'd ever observed, and that included names like Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. Ironically, though, Dalkowski managed to hit only 37 batters in just under a thousand career innings. He never threw a pitch in a major league game and was done by the age of 26.
Because radar guns had not yet become standard for scouts, we can only surmise how hard Dalkowski actually threw. Players who actually saw him up close and personal, teammates and opponents, say he clearly topped 100 mph with some regularity. Had those actual readings been available, I honestly believe he would've seen some big-league innings.
Every scouting director wants to know how hard a prospect throws. The average big league fastball is currently around 90 mph, so that figure becomes almost a prerequisite for conventional hurlers. Guys who hit 100 mph or higher get a longer look and frequently a quicker trip to the big leagues, even with command issues.
One local example of that is Washington's Henry Rodriguez. The Venezuelan righty hits 100 mph with some regularity. It's not always a strike, though, and Rodriguez's walks this year outnumber his strikeouts.
The Nationals love power arms and see Rodriguez as a potential future lock-down closer. The question is, how long do you wait for him to find consistency?
Rodriguez is out of options, and the ballclub is sure he'll be claimed on waivers if they try outrighting him to the minors. Still, how many under-.500 teams will take a chance on a pitcher with Henry's shortcomings? Velocity is a great weapon if you can control location, but that's been elusive for Rodriguez. If you had no pitching depth at all, keeping him in the big-league bullpen might make more sense, but there are other arms already under contract.
If "World Series or bust" is truly the mantra of the 2013 Nationals, I don't see how Henry Rodriguez can play much of a role in that type of success.
Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.