Try this at home: Raise your hand as if hailing a taxi, extending only the middle and index fingers. Now split those fingers apart from each other, so they form a V. The ligaments in your fingers tighten, the muscles in your forearm grow tense, and the inside of your elbow may even feel slightly strained. The more you spread your fingers, the more pronounced these effects become. Now you know what it feels like to take your baseball life in your hands.
The split-fingered fastball, which is thrown with the fingers in the unnatural position mentioned above to make it dive savagely as it reaches the batter, is "the toughest pitch to hit" in baseball, according to no less an authority than Padres hitting professor Tony Gwynn. It's a career-maker, but it's also a career-breaker. Who wants to be a millionaire? When it comes to the splitter, the answer is borderline big league pitchers and orthopedic surgeons.
"There's a direct connection between the split-finger and ligament strain on the medial side of the elbow," says one former National League trainer who asked not to be identified. "It can also cause tendinitis in the hands. There is no doubt it exacts a tremendous toll and is a contributing factor in guys blowing out [elbows]."
The split-fingered fastball has gained such a notorious reputation that many organizations discourage their better pitching prospects or anyone below the Double A level from using it. For instance, when Astros righthanded prospect Tim Redding, who has a 97-mph fastball, fiddled with a splitter during a throwing session last year, a coach reacted as if Redding were playing with a lit stick of dynamite. Redding was told never to play with it again. Says one American League manager, "If I were a pitcher, I'd find a way to cheat before I threw the splitter."
Such fearful thinking explains why the splitter, like Duran Duran, is still out there but not nearly as popular as in its glory days of the 1980s. "Facing guys with good splits, like [Tigers righthander] Hideo Nomo, you can look for it and still not hit it," says veteran Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. "That's how tough it can be. But you don't see nearly as many as you did 10 years ago. Not even close. You know why? So many of those guys who threw it eventually got operations." Adds Braves shortstop Walt Weiss, "You rarely see the split anymore, especially in the National League. It used to be the pitch. Now it's the cutter. Everybody's trying to cut their fastball."
Then again, the splitter is the sole reason Red Sox reliever Rod Beck is a multimillionaire. He was struggling in Class A with an 85-mph fastball when he picked up the pitch in 1988, a few weeks before the As traded him to the Giants. Three years later Beck was called up by San Francisco, and he wound up the Giants' career leader in saves. "Without the splitter," Beck says, "I'd be pumping gas right now." Other active pitchers who have made careers out of the splitter include closers Jeff Shaw of the Dodgers and Dave Veres of the Cardinals, and Astros starter Shane Reynolds.
"It was the turning point of my career," says the 6'3", 32-year-old Reynolds, who last season went 16-14 with a 3.85 ERA for National League Central champion Houston. He picked up the splitter late in 1991: "My pitching coach in Venezuela in winter ball, Brent Strom, asked me if I wanted to spend one day in the big leagues or 10 years in the minors. Then he said, 'This is what you're going to do.' I don't think I would have made it without the splitter."
Then there are pitchers such as Chuck Finley of the Indians and Roger Clemens and David Cone of the Yankees who have enhanced long, mostly healthy careers with the splitter. Clemens has thrown a splitter since 1987, though he has used it more often in recent years, he says, as the strike zone has dropped below the belt. Cone, one of the foremost practitioners of the splitter, has thrown 2,396? innings without elbow problems since former big leaguer Diego Segui taught him the pitch in winter ball in '86. "If thrown properly, it's no more taxing on the arm than any other pitch," Cone says. "Dangerous? That's ludicrous!"
Yet Cone's pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, says, "It can strain the elbow. And I think it leads to losing velocity off your fastball, especially if you fall in love with it."
Love hurts. The splitter has been a temptress ever since then Cubs minor league pitching instructor Fred Martin taught it to reliever Bruce Sutter in 1973. Stunned National League batters hit .199 against Sutter over his first four seasons (1976 to '79). Even though hitters knew the splitter was coming—Sutter threw it 90% of the time—they couldn't hit it. "No one even knew what it was," says former outfielder Merv Rettenmund, now the Braves' hitting instructor. "It would look like a fastball right above the knee, you'd go to swing, and then—boom!—it was gone. "