|Wednesday, May 15
Staying back is key to hitting splitter
By Tony Gwynn
Special to ESPN.com
As a hitter, I couldn't figure out how to attack a new pitch until I had seen it and recognized what it did. That was the case when I saw my first major-league split-fingered fastball, courtesy of Bruce Sutter.
Sutter was killing everybody with the splitter because hitters had never seen anything like it before. When he threw it, the ball did the same thing every time -- it looked like a fastball until it fell out of the zone.
The first time I faced Sutter, I was an easy out. I saw the ball and went into a fastball-hitting mode -- until the bottom fell out. As a defensive hitter, I could stand at the plate and foul off some pitches. But after a while, I would catch one of Sutter's splitters off the end of my bat, and Ozzie Smith would come flying in to scoop up my grounder and throw me out.
The splitter was the single most difficult pitch for me to hit during my career. In hitting, everything is based off the fastball. When a pitcher throws a fastball with giddyup and can also throw an effective splitter, the hitter has little chance of success. I struggled with the splitter for the longest time. If a pitcher like Sutter had the splitter in his repertoire, he could throw me one thigh-high, and I would roll it to second base for the out.
To hit a splitter, the hardest part was recognizing what it does. I always looked first for movement. It's tough to adjust to a ball that comes out hard and suddenly drops. How am I supposed to track that pitch with my bat?
When Sutter threw his splitter, the ball would start to dive downward about halfway to home plate. At that point most hitters are already committed because they initially think the pitch is a fastball.
Fortunately, I was able to use video to see the pitch over and over again and figure out my best approach. It finally dawned on me that I shouldn't try to pull the ball. Every time I tried to pull it, I would end up hitting grounders to the second baseman.
I eventually learned to stay back on the pitch, let the ball get deep in my stance and then hit it the opposite way. My stroke was tailored to go to left field anyway. I never moved back in the batter's box to give myself more time to react. Instead, I forced myself to wait for the ball a little bit longer.
With that approach, the splitter became easier for me to attack because I was trying to go to left field on every pitch. Against a pitcher with a good splitter, the only time I tried to pull the ball was if he threw me an offspeed pitch. And I would only swing at the splitter if it were up in the strike zone, where I could put a good swing on it.
Hitting the splitter takes years of knowing yourself and knowing how to adjust. Watching the college game this season, if a pitcher has a good splitter, he gets everybody out. The hitters are locked into hitting the fastball and give themselves little time to adjust.
The pitch has evolved from when Sutter threw it. Now pitchers are able to control it with finger pressure and make the pitch break like a curveball. Other splitters are like Sutter's, going straight down. Some splitters would just tumble.
Pitchers started to hurt their elbows, so many backed off throwing splitters. Last season the pitch wasn't used as prominently as it was in the late '80s and early '90s when the entire San Francisco Giants staff was throwing it.
In fact, former Giants pitcher Scott Garrelts had the best splitter I ever saw. It was absolutely electric because he could throw it 90 mph. I can't take anything away from Sutter, who threw it when nobody else was. I once saw Ryne Sandberg put a good swing on a Sutter splitter, but only because Sutter hung the pitch.
In today's game, the Dodgers' Kevin Brown has the game's best splitter. Because he has had arm problems, Brown doesn't throw it as much as he used to. When he was with the Padres, he could throw a 96-97 mph fastball with a 90 mph splitter.
In Los Angeles, though, he has taken some velocity off the pitch. He realized that 90 may have been too hard, not giving the pitch much time to move. Now he will throw it 85 mph. When he mixes the splitter in with a 95-mph heater and a slider ... wow, I'm glad I retired.
Tony Gwynn, who will take over as the head baseball coach at San Diego State next year, is working as an analyst for ESPN.