Guest post: A brief history of the split finger fastball

Editor’s note: It’s been more than a month since I posted anything here, the longest break in BPP history. I apologize for the absence. I started a full-time job in July and have also been freelancing for a football-related digital magazine for the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll soon resume posting here and I’ll be kicking off my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame in early November.

For now, please enjoy the latest from George Haloulakos. His brief history of the split finger fastball is apropos given the current league championship series. As George writes in his piece, multiple pitchers have used the split finger to take their teams deep into the postseason.

During the late 1980s, the split-finger fastball was in the words of baseball writer Roger Angell regarded as “a gimmick, a super-toy, a conversation piece and a source of sudden fame and success for its inventor.” While nothing in baseball is truly new, this particular pitch did become an equalizer in the perennial battle between pitcher and batter, and now is a standard weapon in the arsenal of a major league pitcher. In this article, we take a trip back through baseball’s time tunnel to learn more about this amazing pitch and its impact on the game.

The split-finger is essentially a mid-range fastball that suddenly drops under the batter’s swing as it crosses the plate. Thrown at various speeds, the split-finger fastball is gripped between the pitcher’s forefinger and middle finger (very similar to the forkball) but tucked very deeply into the hand. This reduces both the spin and speed of the ball when released. Accordingly, it is often thought of as a “slip-pitch.” If hitting is based on timing, then pitching is viewed as upsetting the hitter’s timing. Due to its sudden drop as it crosses the plate the split-finger was a major weapon in upsetting the timing of many a hitter, especially in the late 1980s.

Here are a few of the pitchers who made a name for themselves using the split finger fastball:

Bruce Sutter: Initially, the pitch first came to prominence in 1959 when Pirate reliever Elroy Face posted a stellar 18-1 win-loss record all in relief. Fast-forward to 1979 when Cub reliever Bruce Sutter relied on the split-finger fastball to win the Cy Young Award that year and then later preserved two wins in the 1982 World Series (including Game 7) as a member of the World Champion Cardinals.

Sutter’s mastery of the split-finger fastball enabled him to punch his ticket into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a 4-time National League “Fireman of the Year” who when he retired held the National League record for career saves with 300.

Roger Craig: The split-finger fastball entered into the mainstream of pitching arsenals in both leagues in the mid-to-late 1980s. Roger Craig is credited with having imparted his own variant of this pitch, most notably to Mike Scott and Jack Morris. Craig noted that both Scott and Morris were able to throw the split-finger at 85 miles per hour or better-– significantly faster than anyone else, and achieving enormous notoriety in both the National and American Leagues.

Jack Morris: In 1984, Jack Morris (having just learned the pitch from Craig during spring training) started the season with a no-hit/no-run game victory versus the White Sox on his way to posting a 19-11 win-loss record and leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series Championship by pitching two complete game wins in a 5-game triumph over the San Diego Padres. He later cemented his “big-game” reputation by using the split-finger fastball to pitch 10 shut-out innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series to lead the Minnesota Twins to a 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Mike Scott: For Mike Scott, the split-finger fastball was the pitching equivalent of King Arthur’s legendary sword, the Excalibur. In 1986, Scott went 18-10 for the Houston Astros while posting the National League’s lowest ERA at 2.22 and the most strikeouts at 306. Most notably, Scott’s ratio of hits (182) plus walks (72) versus innings pitched (275) was a scintillating 0.92.

Scott’s transformation helped the Astros rocket from a 4th place finish in the prior season to 1st place in 1986, putting a record-setting exclamation point with a new major league first in clinching a pennant: a no-hitter. Scott then reeled off 16 consecutive scoreless innings in the National League Championship Series while recording two wins against the Mets and giving up only one run to the eventual 1986 World Series Champions. This resulted in what is still one of the greatest “what if” scenarios in baseball history as fans have speculated about the Mets’ chances had they been forced to face Scott for a third time in what would have been a seventh and deciding game. The Mets avoided such a confrontation by triumphing over the Astros in a sixteen inning marathon in Game 6, thus clinching the National League flag for the New Yorkers without having to risk it all against Scott.

In the years since, a number of players have expressed that Scott may have scuffed the ball which enabled him to achieve sufficient movement to strike out opposing batters. This perception, only served to give Scott a greater psychological advantage for the Mets were only too glad to not have to face the split-finger artist in a winner-take-all game, as they themselves were convinced that they could not win against such a bewildering pitch.

What caused the unusual movement in Scott’s split-finger fastball? Craig explained that Scott was able to release the ball from his finger tips while throwing in a fast ball motion, thereby creating havoc for opposing hitters. Essentially Scott was able to slip his finger tips down along the outside of the seams, and upon the release, the ball would “tumble” or drop just as it crossed the plate. As a result, Scott recorded 86 wins while pitching for the Houston Astros from 1985-89, and winning 20 games in his final big year (1989) before a shoulder injury ended his career in 1991.

Dave Stewart: Nicknamed “Smoke” for possessing a blazing fastball, Dave Stewart had played for the Dodgers, Texas, and Philadelphia before landing in Oakland in 1986. While with the Athletics, Stewart mastered the split-finger fastball and then became the major league leader in wins with 84 from 1987-90 as he won 20 or more games each year over that period. Stewart excelled in league championship play recording eight wins with no losses while pitching for the Athletics and then for the Blue Jays in 1993. Equally impressive, Stewart was named Most Valuable Player three times in post season play (twice in the American League Championship Series and once in the World Series). He also pitched a no-hitter in 1990 while recording his final 20-win >season.

Like Scott and Morris, mastery of the split-finger fastball gave Stewart an enormous boost in self-confidence which enabled him to achieve unparalleled pitching success in league championship series play. Stewart’s four consecutive 20-game winning seasons helped return the A’s to postseason glory (in 1989 winning their first World Series since the early 1970s) and then in 1993 helping the Blue Jays become the first team to win back-to-back World Series Championships since the Yankees accomplished the feat in 1977-78.

With each baseball generation, new pitching techniques emerge imparting small, nearly imperceptible differences in ball movement and location that can be an infinitesimal difference between victory and defeat. Dizzy Dean once noted after a 1-0 game that the contest was much closer than the final score indicated. Like so many facets of baseball, it is not so much doing big things that make the difference but rather doing the small things in a big way that will often tip the scales of competition one way or another. For awhile, the re-emergence of the split-finger fastball in the late 1980s did just that.