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Bruce Sutter is baseball's counterpart of that singular character in the Rodgers and Hart song Johnny One Note. Johnny's range is restricted to a lone note, as the title suggests, but so artfully and so resonantly does he sing it that he requires no others to rise above his limitation. Similarly, Sutter, a Chicago Cub relief pitcher, has only one pitch, but like Johnny's note, it is unique and overpowering, and it has made him, at age 26, the best reliever in baseball—and, just possibly, the best in baseball history. At week's end, Sutter, whose won-lost record is a misleading 4-5, needed only three saves to break the major league record of 37 in a season. He had an earned run average of 1.82 and 94 strikeouts in 89 innings. Although the Cubs have recently slumped to fourth in the National League East, it's a pretty fair bet that Sutter will win the Cy Young Award.
Sutter calls his magic pitch a "split-fingered fastball," which is an accurate-enough description in that his fingers are spread apart when he releases the ball. But the fastball part is debatable for the simple and—for hitters—maddening reason that the ball's speed changes at least once, maybe twice, in the course of its flight. In fact, if Cub Catcher Barry Foote is to be believed, the split-fingered fastball is really three pitches in one.
"Bruce's pitch looks like a fastball when it leaves his hand, because of the arm speed," says Foote, "but it gets to the plate like a change, and then it drops down like a spitter or a forkball."
"It's unhittable," says Montreal Manager Dick Williams, "unless he hangs it, and he never does. It's worse than trying to hit a knuckleball."
"It's incredible," says Lou Brock, who has seen a few pitches in his 19 major league seasons. "You'd figure that if a guy stayed around long enough, he'd learn how to hit it. But no one has."
One reason no one has is that Sutter (pronounced SUIT-er) is really the only pitcher throwing it, and to paraphrase the baseball axiom, you can't hit what you don't see much of. Phillie Reliever Rawly Eastwick has experimented with the split-fingered fastball this season—and used it to beat Sutter last week—but he is still wary of using it in crucial situations, and relief pitchers are almost always in crucial situations. It took Sutter three years to control the pitch, and even now he insists, against impressive evidence to the contrary, that he hasn't mastered it. He cannot, for example, consistently control the direction in which it sinks. "Eighty percent of the time," he says, "it will drop straight down." The rest of the time, it will dip right or left. He would prefer it to constantly dip away from the hitters, so that it would appear as a sinking curve to righthanders and a sinking screwball to lefties. Sutter says that by exerting a certain sort of finger pressure, he can achieve this devastating effect some of the time. Foote thinks he does it subconsciously. "If I took him out before a game and asked him to sink it left and sink it right," Foote says, "I don't think he could do it. But somehow in a game he can." If Sutter ever gets this down pat, the hitters should seek an injunction.
Like almost anything worth doing, throwing the split-fingered fastball is no piece of cake. For one thing, it helps to have fingers the length of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's. Sutter is not so generously endowed, but his own digits are long enough and strong enough to spread over the ball in a V shape and to clamp down on it with viselike force. This grip is not to be confused with the one used in throwing the forkball. The fingers also are spread in delivering that pitch, but the ball is wedged back in the palm of the hand, and the thumb plays no real role in the delivery. Sutter grips the ball tightly on top with the tips of his fingers and underneath with the thumb. On release, the thumb actually forces the ball through the gap in the spread fingers, which accounts for the pitch's spin. A man trying this with ordinary-sized fingers would never play the piano again.
The forkball is a slowpoke all the way to the plate. As noted, Sutter throws his pitch with a fastball motion, so that it starts out in a hurry and continues apace until the spin finally overwhelms it, causing it to slow up as it nears the plate and go into its drastic descent. Envision, if you will, an auto speeding on a pier, braking at the last moment and then plunging over the side into the drink.
Sutter does have a vestigial fastball, and the few hitters who have seen it say it is decent, but he uses it only as a diversionary tactic. There was an occasion last month, however, when he struck out one of the finest hitters in baseball with his heat. "I had a one-ball, two-strike count on Ted Simmons, a one-run lead and runners on first and second. Now, to me, Simmons is the best hitter in the National League. He's a switch hitter. He doesn't get leg hits, because he has a catcher's legs, but he always bats around .300, and he'll hit 20 to 25 home runs a season. When a game is on the line, I'd like to have him hitting for me. Anyway, I'd gotten the strikes on him with the split-fingered pitch. Now I'm ready to waste one, so I tried to throw him a high fastball, thinking maybe he'd pop it up. He took it all the way, and it was right down the middle of the plate. He just walked away without saying a word."
It is difficult to say what was on Simmons' mind, but a fair guess would be that he was expecting another split-fingered job and decided this time he was simply going to watch it drop in the dirt. Instead, the pitch came straight, and Simmons missed an opportunity to hit one a mile. Sutter keeps hitters honest this way. He is the first to acknowledge that he throws few strikes. How can he with a pitch that dives like a famished gull? But, as Montreal's Williams laments, "They don't look like balls when they're coming up there." What they do look like are fastballs that have lost their smoke and, therefore, are candidates for upper-deckdom. It is a rare hitter who will allow so tempting a morsel to pass by untasted, and Sutter keeps a mental record of those who do. They are the few who see the occasional fastball down the middle; the rest get the dipsy doodle. Sutter detests surrendering intentional walks, preferring to take his chances "throwing four in the dirt. Maybe they'll take them for the walk. Maybe I'll get the strikeout." And he is so consistently effective that Manager Herman Franks usually lets Sutter decide whether to pitch to or walk a dangerous hitter with first base open and runners in scoring position. Sutter invariably goes for broke.