Roger Craig, a major league pitcher, pitching coach and manager for 35 seasons, popularized Sutter's innovation in the 1980s. As pitching coach of the Tigers, he turned the pedestrian Milt Wilcox into a 17-game winner in '84; as informal tutor, he made the Astros' Mike Scott, who had been 29-44 without the splitter, into a Cy Young Award winner in '86; and, as manager, he guided the '89 Giants to the National League pennant with a nondescript rotation ( Kelly Downs, Scott Garrelts, Mike LaCoss, Rick Reuschel and Don Robinson).
The 1989 World Series was to the splitter what Woodstock was to rock Of the 15 pitchers used by Craig's Giants and Tony La Russa's Athletics (whose pitching coach, Dave Duncan, also promoted use of the pitch), 10 threw the splitter. Ten years later, only six of the 18 pitchers used by the Yankees and Braves in the World Series threw it. In the intervening years Downs and Garrelts had their careers shortened by injuries, while pitchers who avoided the pitch and relied on the changeup, such as Atlanta's Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and the Red Sox's Pedro Martinez, had leaped to the fore.
Garrelts was finished in the big leagues at age 29 because of a blown right elbow; he languished in the minors for four years after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Reliever Bryan Harvey, who in the late 1980s and early '90s relied heavily on one of the game's nastiest splitters while racking up 177 saves for the Angels and Marlins, also had his career cut short because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his right arm. Earlier this month, Atlanta's John Smoltz, who quit throwing his splitter in the second half of last season because of right elbow pain, suffered the same injury. Smoltz was scheduled to undergo Tommy John surgery this week and is out for the season.
Now few starting pitchers besides Nomo use the splitter as their feature pitch—and Nomo's loss of velocity on his fastball (Stottlemyre's point) has added to the splitter's notoriety. The pitch remains popular among relievers, who throw fewer pitches and thus appear to be less at risk of injury from using the splitter. Those starters who throw the splitter employ it judiciously. Reynolds, for instance, goes to it only about 20% of the time. "It's a finishing pitch in the right count against the right hitters," says Duncan, now the pitching coach under La Russa with the Cardinals, "and you use it enough [so] that everybody knows you have it."
The split-fingered fastball is often confused with its close cousin, the forkball. The latter is thrown with such a wide split of the index and middle fingers that the ball comes off the inside of the fingers. The grip imparts very little rotation on the ball, which because of the lack of spin tends to tumble as it nears the plate. The forkball is a pure off-speed pitch with the velocity of a changeup.
The splitter is a fastball. It usually is thrown with the fingers split just wide enough to be on the outside of two parallel seams. It is treacherous for a hitter because it comes without clues. "I throw it just like a fastball, and it has two-seam fastball spin," Reynolds says, referring to a tight, fast, underspin rotation. "The difference is you can't throw it as hard as a fastball, and it has more downward action to it."
Clemens throws his splitter 10 to 15 mph slower than his fastball, but hitters can't recognize it coming out of his hand because with both pitches his wrist is square to the hitter. With sliders and curveballs, in which a pitcher's fingers come off the side of the ball rattier than the top, a good hitter sometimes can see the side of a turned wrist. "The splitter is thrown with a fat wrist, not a thin wrist" is how Clemens explains the pitch's appearance.
"It's actually thrown a lot more naturally than a curveball or slider," Cone says. "The big thing Roger Craig [in informal conversations] told me was to make sure you don't split your fingers too wide. That's how a lot of pitchers get into trouble."
Even proponents of the pitch agree the splitter isn't for everybody. To deliver it, a pitcher should throw over the top rather than sling the ball sidearm or three-quarters. He also needs long fingers. Cubs reliever Rick Aguilera conditioned his fingers after the 1986 season by frequently wedging them around a softball. Danger always looms: In '97 Cubs righthander Kevin Tapani snapped a ligament in his right index finger. Doctors told him it resulted from the strain of splitting his fingers over the previous 13 years.
"We don't generally teach the splitter," says Dewey Robinson, Houston's minor league pitching instructor, "but if a guy gets to a point where he doesn't have the feel for a changeup or doesn't have the aptitude to spin a curveball or a slider, then we'll talk about it. Ask any Double A pitcher this: 'I'll give you the chance to pitch five years in the big leagues, but with a high probability of breaking down.' Would you take it? That's a no-brainer."