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Seaver and Palmer worked hard over the winter to strengthen their ailing bodies. Palmer, who was lean to begin with, even lost eight pounds. Still, they approached spring training with uncertainty. "I kept waiting for my hip to hurt," says Seaver. It did not. And neither did Palmer's arm, although in recent weeks he has been plagued with a recurrence of tendinitis, an inconvenience he says he can live with as "a small price to pay for a major league career."
At this week's All-Star break, Palmer and Seaver were leading or approaching the lead in most pitching categories. Palmer, 13-6, had pitched six shutouts, three of them 1-0 games, and had the best ERA among American League starters and was tied for the best winning percentage. Seaver had won eight of his last nine decisions to run his record to 13-5, and his 1.94 ERA led the National League. In the opinion of many hitters, both were throwing better than ever. Palmer, 29, and Seaver, 30, came to the majors as fastball pitchers. Both still use that pitch most frequently, but they have added refinements.
Palmer's graceful, sweeping motion is considered the best in baseball. As he pitches, he appears to be expending about as much effort as a man reaching for a light switch, but this, of course, is a deception. "When you see an easy thrower like him, you get lulled into believing that ball is coming up there easy," says the Angels' Dave Chalk. "It's not. It's coming up there hard and doing all kinds of things. It's amazing how quick the ball gets to you."
There is nothing deceptive about Seaver's delivery. He explodes on the mound, driving hard toward the hitter with his powerful legs and stocky body like a fullback bursting through a hole in the line. "I can't think of any pitcher with his type of delivery," says Cub Manager Jim Marshall. "His uniqueness is in his rhythm. When he drives toward the plate, he's got it all together—timing and rhythm."
While Palmer's fluid windup lulls hitters into believing he is throwing softer than he is, Seaver's explosive delivery frightens them into thinking he is throwing harder than he sometimes does. "He'll throw you a 75% fastball," says Von Joshua of the Giants. "Then when he gets along in the count, he'll throw you a 90% fastball, and when he gets two strikes on you, he'll throw that 100-percenter you aren't looking for. You figure you've seen his best fastball already, but you haven't."
Putting a little more into their pitches when they get ahead of hitters—or teams—is a trait Palmer and Seaver share. Both seem to be at their best late in games when they have narrow leads. "If you don't get to him early, nine times out of 10 you won't get him," says Tiger Gates Brown of Palmer. "The longer he goes, the tougher he gets. If you ain't got him by the seventh inning, you're beat."
No wonder that when he was asked which pitcher he would prefer to bat against, Cincinnati's Merv Rettenmund, Palmer's former teammate in Baltimore and now one of Seaver's opponents, said, "That is like asking if I'd rather be hung or go to the electric chair."
Since his undergraduate days at Southern Cal Seaver had struggled unsuccessfully to perfect a changeup, a pitch thrown with the same motion as the fastball but at considerably reduced speed. He had been advised by some experts that his violent delivery militated against the change. But Seaver continued to try, experimenting with grips as complex as fraternity handshakes. Then while playing catch this spring with teammate Jon Matlack, he chanced upon the solution.
"It came about purely by accident," Seaver says. "I said to Matlack, 'Watch this pitch,' and I gripped the ball in a way you'd never advise a kid to hold it. I formed a circle with my index finger and thumb and put the other three fingers on the ball. The index finger is dominant in most of my pitches, but in this one it is off the ball. As hard as I tried, I couldn't throw the ball hard. I had my changeup."