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THE 10 TOUGHEST PITCHES
Tom Verducci
March 31, 1997
Raise the mound? Call the high strike? Hold on! Not all pitchers need help in this era of the slugger. One law of baseball hasn't changed, despite all the home runs that are being hit: A pitcher with good stuff is hard to beat. SI surveyed batters, pitchers, coaches and managers to determine the 10 toughest pitches to hit in the game today.
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March 31, 1997

The 10 Toughest Pitches

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Raise the mound? Call the high strike? Hold on! Not all pitchers need help in this era of the slugger. One law of baseball hasn't changed, despite all the home runs that are being hit: A pitcher with good stuff is hard to beat. SI surveyed batters, pitchers, coaches and managers to determine the 10 toughest pitches to hit in the game today.

1. Kevin Brown's sinker. The Marlins righthander throws this pitch 93 mph and with the tightest spin in the game, giving the ball a wicked sinking action in the last five feet before the plate. He varies the angle of his arm when throwing it—including a frightening sidearm delivery to righthanders—that makes the pitch even more difficult to read. "He's so tough that you feel lucky if you go 1 for 4 against him," says the Phillies' Gregg Jefferies. "And that hit was probably an infield dribbler."

2. Mariano Rivera's fastball. Others may throw harder, but Rivera's 93-mph heater is the hardest to hit. Why? The Yankees righthander lulls batters with an easy, slow delivery. "And for some reason, his ball just explodes at the end," says Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley, a former teammate of Rivera's in New York.

3. Greg Maddux's fastball. This control artist doesn't get enough credit for having nasty stuff. No one else's fastball has as much movement—and Maddux can make his sink and/or run it to either corner of the plate. "I got to hit against him in batting practice this spring," says Braves teammate Jeff Blauser. "I never saw a ball move so much. I'd be asking the umpires to check the ball if I faced him in a game. I can see why you'd think he was loading up."

4. Juan Guzman's Slider. Yankees pitcher David Cone calls this pitch "a manhole slider." He explains, "It's like the ball is traveling down the street and then all of a sudden it falls down an open manhole. That's how quickly that pitch drops." Opponents batted .228 against the Blue Jays' righthander—the lowest mark of any American League pitcher.

5. Randy Johnson's fastball. The 6'10" Mariners lefthander fires pure heat using a slingshot delivery. Says Phillies utility man Rex Hudler, formerly of the Angels, "On the night before we faced Johnson, some guys couldn't sleep." Johnson's 97-mph fastball has become even more feared since he gained control of two excellent sliders, one that breaks hard down-and-in to righthanders and the other a "backdoor" job that starts outside the strike zone and catches the edge of the plate.

6. Kevin Appier's "thing." Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn couldn't tell what kind of pitch righthander Appier threw him when the two faced off in the 1995 All-Star Game. When they both were with the Blue Jays, Devon White and Joe Carter used to argue about it: White thought the pitch was a changeup, and Carter thought it was a splitter. But Cone says, "It's a slider. I charted his pitches for two years [when Cone was with the Kansas City Royals, too]. It's so tough to read, hitters don't know what it is."

7. John Smoltz's slider. A classic, power breaking pitch that Braves righthander Smoltz throws as hard as most pitchers' fastballs. It's especially lethal to righthanded batters because the pitch appears to be a fastball until it snaps down and away as it nears the plate. Last year hitters had a smaller chance of reaching base against Smoltz (26%) than against any other pitcher in the big leagues.

8. Darryl Kile's curveball. "That's a knee buckler," says Yankees catcher Joe Girardi, who hit against the Astros righthander in the National League. Few pitchers throw a big breaking curveball anymore, which makes Kile's hook all the more impressive.

9. Pedro Martinez's changeup. "If he was playing in the 1950s with that pitch, they'd call it a screwball," says Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who used to coach Martinez on the Expos. Martinez, a righty, runs the ball down and in to righthanded batters by rolling the pitch off the side of his hand upon release. The pitch is especially effective because of his wicked fastball that rides into the hands of righthanders.

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