If Craig has his evangelical way, everybody will soon be throwing his pet pitch. He does like to spread the gospel. Before he became manager of the Giants, he would demonstrate the split-finger at the drop of a suggestion. At the 30th reunion of the 1955 Dodgers, Craig happily showed the grip to old teammate Ron Perranoski, who also happens to be the current Dodgers pitching coach. Perranoski, in turn, showed the pitch to Jerry Reuss, Tom Niedenfuer, Hershiser and Welch. Now all four of them throw it against the Giants. "We'll be fine," says Giants catcher Bob Brenly, "if we can just get Roger to stop teaching that pitch to opposing pitchers." In fact Craig receives at least 10 requests a day from players, many of them youngsters, and coaches for information on the split-finger. To save him the bother of personal responses, the Giants have prepared with his cooperation a question-and-answer form letter—ROGER CRAIG TALKS ABOUT THE SPLIT-FINGERED FASTBALL—for mailing. Craig has also filmed an instructional videotape about pitching fundamentals, which features, naturally, the split-finger.
The pitch, as Craig teaches it, is thrown with exactly the same motion and arm speed as a fastball. Only the grip is different, the fingers being spread far apart instead of placed close together, and parallel to instead of across the seams. Pitches held across the seams gain rotation—and therefore speed—and tend to rise in flight from mound to plate, creating the hopping effect that great fastball pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan have had. Balls held outside the seams rotate more slowly and are thus less wind resistant. The knuckle-ball, which scarcely rotates at all, is at the mercy of the elements and will do almost anything in its languid journey to the plate. A pitch thrown as hard as the split-finger will start out briskly, then perceptibly slow down and finally, if thrown correctly, drop like a rock as it reaches the plate. Hub Kittle, the former Cardinals pitching coach, has rapturously described the Sutter split-finger: "As he comes over and down with very fast arm action, just like with his fastball, the ball squirts out with a sinker spin from his thumb. The ball comes in looking like a straight fastball with a velocity around 85 miles an hour. As it gets to the plate, it just seems to sit, like an airplane coming in for a landing."
It is this deceptive resemblance to the fastball that differentiates the split-finger from its ancestor, the forkball, a pitch much in vogue in the '40s and '50s when it was employed to great effect by such as Tiny Bonham, Elroy Face and Lindy McDaniel. There is still some confusion as to what distinguishes the two pitches; one major league pitching coach, Galen Cisco of San Diego, says, "I would like somebody to tell me the difference between the split-fingered fastball and the forkball." Well, the forkball is an off-speed pitch thrown with a slower arm action and generally with the ball held deeper into the palm of the hand. It is thrown with less rotation so that, according to Moore, "it flutters in like a knuckleball, which makes it easier [than the split-finger] for a hitter to pick up." Morris and Scott Garrelts of the Giants, for instance, will throw their split-fingers at speeds of up to 85 miles an hour.
Craig instructs his pupils to "think fastball" when throwing the pitch. In fact he advises them to warm up for it by simply throwing fastballs, as many as 20 or more, while gradually widening the grip and moving the thumb up the side of the ball. What has made Sutter's split-finger so effective over the years has been his skill in squirting the ball forward with his thumb to create the tumbling effect that makes that final drop so precipitous. Not every split-finger thrower has fingers as long as Sutter's, so Craig encourages his prot�g�s to experiment on their own until they find a grip that is comfortable. In spring training he had his own pitchers—and every one of them was taught the split-finger—toting baseballs around the clubhouse in the split-finger grip. To simulate the throwing motion, he also had them bouncing balls off the floor. But split-finger pitchers must learn to grow with the grip. Darling of the Mets literally grew with his. When he first experimented with the pitch three years ago, Darling spent much of spring training with a ball wedged between his fingers. He estimates now that this bizarre exercise increased the distance between his index and middle fingers by nearly a half inch.
Craig defines three stages in the development of the split-finger. In the first, the pitch becomes more of a straight change-up, which, since it is thrown with fastball arm speed, makes it confusing enough. In the second, the pitch develops a knuckle-ball or forkball flutter—effective certainly, but not as deadly as the crash-dive effect it achieves in the final stage when it tumbles from the split fingers looking for all the world like a fastball down the middle. "If it looks like a strike, it's not," says catcher Brenly. Both Garrelts and Robinson of Craig's staff had split-fingered pitches before Craig joined the Giants, but neither had taken them to the final stage. Now, says their manager, both pitchers have "dandies"—imposter fast-balls that dip like Gaylord Perry spitters. The pitch is just that much more effective if the pitcher has. as Robinson and Garrelts do, fastballs in the 90s.
Craig never threw the pitch in his 12-year major league career, although after he hurt his arm in 1957 pitching in the Brooklyn Dodgers' last game ever, he was desperately in search of an alternative breaking pitch. "There was no one to teach me," he says. As a matter of fact, he didn't learn to throw the split-finger until the winter of 1980, when he was 50. He was teaching then at the San Diego School of Baseball, which he helped found, before starting his first season as Sparky Anderson's pitching coach in Detroit. Most of his students were teenagers. "I was trying to find a breaking pitch that those youngsters could throw that wouldn't put a strain on their arms," he recalls. "I remembered that at the end of my own career I'd tried everything, including a forkball." In his school, Craig found that if he used a variation of the forkball grip, holding the ball farther away from the palm, and threw with a fastball motion, strange and wonderful things happened.
It became an easy pitch to teach, and since throwing it involved none of the twists of elbow and wrist that curveballs and sliders require, it put no more strain on the young arms of his pupils than throwing a fastball would have. He was definitely on to something. If he could teach kids 14, 15, 16 years old to throw the thing—if, for that matter, he could throw it himself at his age—then why couldn't he pass it on to major leaguers? Milt Wilcox, a pitcher plagued for much of his career with arm problems, was his first student. Morris, intrigued by his teammate's progress, was his second, in 1983. In the glory year of 1984, Wilcox won 17 games and Morris 19. Suddenly, the split-finger was all the vogue. What before had been Sutter's freak pitch, one few pitchers deigned to try, now became, with the success of the Tigers, the pitch everyone wanted. Craig had established that a pitcher need not have the hands of a giant to throw it. He could teach it to anybody and, occasionally to the Tigers' dismay, he seemed prepared to teach it to everybody.
As with anything that suddenly becomes fashionable, there has been a reaction. Some pitching coaches claim that the pitch can be hard on the arm, and indeed both Moore and Sutter are on the disabled list with shoulder injuries. Anderson, once Craig's staunchest supporter and still a good friend, lashed out against the split-finger this spring after Morris, his ace, got off to a wretched start, throwing split-fingers that didn't drop and fastballs that didn't pop. After Morris' ERA climbed over 6.00, Sparky protested that one pitch was ruining the other. "Jack has reached the point where he relies on [the split-finger] and it has taken away from his fastball," said Sparky. "His fastball is too good to throw that many forkballs [sic]. You keep throwing that thing and you lose pop on the fastball. It affects velocity, and you don't get rise on the fastball. In the beginning, [the split-finger] was so wonderful because it was a freak thing for the hitters. But once you throw it, throw it, throw it, the hitters sit there and watch, and it's no longer the same pitch."
"I one hundred percent disagree with Sparky," says Craig. "The split-finger is a lot easier on the arm than the curve or the slider. It's just another version of the fastball. I think Jack's problems this season were the same ones he had in early '84. He had trouble then with his motion, and he lost about three miles an hour off his fastball. And it's cold in Detroit in the spring. The split-finger is tough to command on cold nights because the fingers become numb."
Morris also disagrees with his manager. "There ain't no doubt about it—and you can call me cocky—but if it is thrown properly, there's no one living who can even hit it, and if they do, it will be a ground ball. It has better movement, I think, than the slider. It moves on a vertical plane, which is a tougher pitch to hit. The rotation is also tougher to pick up than a slider. I don't throw it perfect all the time, but I have to give that pitch a lot of credit. It's turned me into a strikeout pitcher."