Mastery of splitter led to Sutter's success
Bruce Sutter evolved into a Hall of Famer thanks in large part to his mastery at throwing the split-fingered fastball.
On the eve of the 1982 World Series, Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter was explaining to a young writer his signature pitch, the split-fingered fastball.
"How do you throw that?'' the writer asked, marveling at the way Sutter controlled a pitch that he threw by jamming a baseball between the index and middle finger. "Look at my fingers!'' Sutter said, his right hand several feet from his face. "Look how long they are! I can pick my nose from here.''
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Sutter didn't invent the split-fingered fastball, but he perfected it and glamorized it. He made it his primary pitch, not just an offspeed pitch that he threw occasionally. And it all started in minor league spring training in 1974, when Sutter, then a starting pitcher with an 88 mph fastball, was told by Fred Martin, the Cubs minor league pitching instructor, to try a new grip. Sutter was open to the suggestion because he recently had ulnar nerve surgery -- he didn't even tell the team about it -- and the scar on his right elbow was still purple.
There had been variations, of course, but Sutter's splitter was different than a forkball because the ball came out of his hand with a spinning action, just like a fastball. A forkball comes tumbling out of a pitcher's hand, and hitters could tell that it wasn't a fastball.
"We had seen the spitball, which acted a lot like the splitter,'' said Cubs current hitting coach Gary Matthews, who faced Sutter many times in his prime. "It acted like a forkball. We had seen that before. Back then, [Mets left-hander] Jerry Koosman was throwing a cutter, but we didn't call it that. But Bruce's ball just disappeared. With his arm motion, and with the movement of the ball, it was really hard to see, like Trevor Hoffman's changeup.''
Sutter used the split all the time because his fastball wasn't a dominant pitch.
"After he threw it, his fastball looked like it was coming 100 mph,'' Matthews said. "He could throw it for a ball, he could throw it for a strike. It was such a devastating pitch. If you stayed off of it, he'd get a called strike. If you swung, you would miss. He perfected something, [it was] something new on the scene. Clemens throws his split up here -- high -- but Bruce's was lower. It broke in different ways. And his arm speed was the same as his fastball.''
Cubs manager Dusty Baker also faced Sutter in his prime.
"Bruce wasn't the only one throwing that pitch,'' Baker said. "Diego Segui threw it back then. The terminology is different [now]. When we were kids, the curveball was a drop ball. In the Negro Leagues, the slider was the out-shoot, the sinker was the in-shoot. It's damn near impossible to do something with the ball that no one has ever done. Bruce was very smart. He understood pitching. He had great command of the bottom of the strike zone. He could mask each pitch to make it look like the other. If you looked for the split, he could throw the fastball by you.''
His ability to throw the splitter so well was due in part, Krukow said, "to Bruce being so good at motor skills. He was great in darts, pool, shooting hoops. There wasn't much he couldn't do.''
pitcher Mike Krukow
"Herman Franks was our manager in Chicago,'' Krukow said. "He told all the starting pitchers, Rick Reuschel, Ray Burris, Bill Bonham, to just get us through the fifth inning. Sutter can do the rest. He always took the ball. He never said no. In 1979, the year he won the Cy Young, he had a knot in his shoulder the size of a softball, but he kept pitching.''
There was a lot that made Bruce Sutter a Hall of Famer. But mostly, it was the split-fingered fastball.
"If it wasn't for that pitch, Bruce Sutter would be tending bar in Mount Joy, Pa.,'' Krukow said. "A lot of guys tried to throw that pitch, but no one threw it better than Bruce. No one.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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