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Wednesday, May 15
Updated: May 17, 6:49 PM ET
The pitches that scare major leaguers

By Jayson Stark

We are now leading you to home plate in Yankee Stadium. We're going to have the great Bob Sheppard announce your name. We're going to let you feel every one of those sparks and thunderbolts that dart through the night air in the Bronx.

Are we having fun yet? Well, the fun is about to stop -- because now you have to stand 60 feet, 6 inches from a man who possesses one of The Five Most Devastating Pitches in Baseball: Mariano Rivera and his fabled cut fastball.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera's cut fastball has led to many game-ending celebrations.

We know this officially because we spent the last week polling 20 people in baseball -- players, scouts, coaches and general managers. Our mission: determine which active pitchers possess the most lethal pitches in the universe, and what makes them so untouchable.

Incredibly, 41 different pitches got at least one vote. Six pitchers even got votes for more than one pitch.

Before this column is over, we'll identify every one of them. But we're going to start with the two pitches that tied for the honor of the Most Devastating Pitch.

One is the pitch that continues to defy every law of physics -- Trevor Hoffman's changeup. The other is a pitch that has put a whole bunch of World Series rings on the fingers of a whole bunch of Yankees -- Rivera's man-eating, bat-devouring cutter.

The Tourney Finals

  • Eastern Regional Champ: Mariano Rivera's cutter (11 votes): OK, you're back at home plate at Yankee Stadium. You're watching Rivera lurch into his delivery. You know what's coming.

    Did you bring a referral for an orthopedic specialist? Or should we just rush your bat to the emergency room?

    "You know it's coming hard," says Blue Jays pitcher Dan Plesac. "But you have no idea if it's moving straight -- or eating up your thumbs."

    "It runs in on left-handed hitters," says the Twins' Denny Hocking. "And if you swing at it, there is a chance you will lose a finger."

    Rivera's cutter comes at you at 95 mph, as fast as a four-seam fastball. And once in a while, that pitch heading your way turns out to be a four-seam fastball. But it's probably going to explode into destructive cutter mode -- boring in on the hands of left-handed hitters, scaring the equilibrium out of right-handed hitters.

    "He's got great accuracy with it, and it's 95 miles an hour -- with cut action," says Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal. "So you've almost got to say to yourself, 'OK, if it starts at my hip, if it looks like it's going to hit me in the hip, I should swing.'"

    Ah, but that's the secret. The brain can tell the body what it should do. But the body says, "Be serious." And by that time, you're out.

  • Western Regional Champ: Trevor Hoffman's changeup (11 votes): Once, Hoffman had a fastball that whooshed along in the mid-90s. Nowadays, that fastball peaks at 87 or 88 mph. So theoretically, the astounding Padres closer's money pitch -- that killer changeup -- shouldn't be as effective anymore.

    Right. Tell it to the guys who have to hit it.

    "You know it's coming," says one NL GM, "and it doesn't matter."

    Precisely. If you could write a definition for a devastating pitch, that's it: Here it is ... We'll be back in a moment with the postgame show.

    Hoffman's arm action on his change is totally indistinguishable from his delivery on his fastball. Except when you go to swing, you can't find the baseball.

    "I think it physically stops on its way to the plate," says one NL hitter who pleads for anonymity.

    "When he throws it correctly," laughs one NL executive, "the hitters couldn't hit it if they got three swings on the same pitch."

    The Final Four

  • Southwest Regional Champ: Randy Johnson's fastball-slider combo (10 votes for the slider, 5 votes for the fastball): The problem with picking out one pitch from The Unit is that the 100-mph fastball sets up the plummeting, 90-mph slider. And the plummeting slider makes the 100-mph fastball look like it's 200 mph.

    It's Mr. Snappy. One of the few disappearing pitches in baseball. His arm angle and velocity force you to commit to this pitch long before it's on you. And when it is on you, it's usually between your feet -- and you've still swung.
    Curt Schilling on Randy Johnson's slider

    How do you hit either of these pitches alone, let alone in combination with one another?

    Start with the slider, thrown by a man who looks taller than the foul pole, delivered from somewhere around the first-base dugout, finished by a stride so long that Johnson appears to be 20 feet from the plate when he follows through.

    "That slider," says Gary Hughes, the Reds' director of pro scouting, "from that body and that arm slot should be declared illegal."

    With hitters geared for a smokeball that is a threat to hit 100 on the gun, they see that slider flying up there at speeds higher than many pitchers' fastballs. Then ... it happens:

    Spin, gravity and the big man on the other end combine to make you look like an idiot, when the ball winds up two inches above the ground.

    "It's Mr. Snappy," says Johnson's stablemate, Curt Schilling. "One of the few disappearing pitches in baseball. His arm angle and velocity force you to commit to this pitch long before it's on you. And when it is on you, it's usually between your feet -- and you've still swung."

    Another Unit teammate, Luis Gonzalez, says: "I've seen some of the worst hacks -- by good hitters -- I've ever seen against that pitch."

    It's a pitch that doesn't discriminate, because it inspires left-handed hitters to take a night off and inflicts genuine pain on right-handed hitters.

    "Find a left-handed hitter who would like to see it," says one NL GM. "And find a right-handed hitter who likes it when it's hammered foul off a shoetop."

    But we have to remember what sets it up -- probably the hardest fastball thrown by any left-handed starter in the sport, certainly from inning one through nine.

    "Filthy," says one NL front-office man of that Johnson fastball. "Nasty. Heavy. Dominating And it's still all of that late into the game. It almost makes his slider look hittable (which it isn't, of course)."

  • Northwest Regional Champ: Robb Nen's slider (6 votes): It's the Year of the Palindrome (2002), so it ought to be Nen's year. But the Giants closer doesn't make this final four for his spelling. He makes it for a pitch that drops so much, travels so fast and collapses so late, it looks like he tossed it out the hatch of a plane.

    Lieberthal compares it to Randy Johnson's slider, only from the right side. Astros catcher Brad Ausmus shakes his head at the 91- to 93-mph steam Nen puts on this breaking ball. Scouts rave about its "late tilt."

    Nobody sums it up better, though, than Nen's former teammate in Florida, Mets pitcher Al Leiter.

    "Robb Nen's slider is unhittable," Leiter says. "Announcers think he throws a forkball. The way the ball comes out of Robbie's hand with such downward plane and drop, the pitch is mistaken for a forkball. I wish I had one of those."

    The Elite Eight

  • Pedro Martinez's Triple Threat (4 votes for changeup, 3 for fastball, 2 for curve): How great do you have to be to get votes for three different pitches in your repertoire? Well, you have to be Pedro Martinez, obviously.

    "You can make a case for three pitches with Pedro being 'devastating,'" says Hughes. "He's in another world when it comes to pure stuff."

    The change: The moment you realize it's a changeup, you've already swung and missed," says Schilling. "He's able to mirror his fastball mechanics so well that you can't pick it up."

    The fastball: "It has that elusive movement where you swing and miss, walk back to the dugout and ask another player, 'Did that ball rise?'" says Hocking. "And they say, 'Yes.'"

    The curve: "That hard curveball, down and in, just overmatches left-handed hitters," says one scout.

  • Curt Schilling's knockout punches (3 votes for fastball, 3 for splitter): Schilling is another ace whose unhittability can't be traced to just one dominating pitch.

    The fastball: "What makes him a complete power pitcher," says Plesac, "is the command of his fastball, to all four quadrants of the plate, like no power pitcher in years. He's Picasso with a machine gun."

    The split: "Is it a split? Is it a forkball? Whatever it is, you still can't hit it," says one NL hitter. "It seems he has two different ones -- one that falls off the table and another that moves away from you, with not as much down action. My theory is: pick one or the other. They're both filthy."

  • John Smoltz's trifecta (1 vote for fastball, 1 for slider, 1 for splitter): John Smoltz was the only pitcher besides Pedro to get votes for three pitches -- with all his votes coming from scouts.

    An AL scout compared Smoltz's slider with Robb Nen's: "Very tough on right-handed hitters, with late break and 89-91 mph velocity."

    An NL scout gushed about his "fastball on the low, outside corner," which blows away right-handed hitters

    And an AL scout cited Smoltz's increasing use of the splitter, which is really "becoming a weapon against left-handed hitters."

    Is this the perfect, power closer's repertoire, or what?

  • Byung-Hyun Kim's frisbees (2 votes for fastball, 2 for slider): The one thing nobody ever seemed to bring up during that World Series last fall was that about 99 percent of the time he takes the ball, Byung-Hyun Kim is more unhittable than Randy Johnson.

    Opponents are hitting .186 against Kim (143 hits, 293 strikeouts) in his career. Right-handed hitters are a ridiculous 72-for-434 (.166), with 185 whiffs. And the secret is the most unorthodox delivery in baseball -- and the most unorthodox pitch assortment.

    "Forget the World Series," says his former teammate, Plesac. "He has the filthiest slider to a right-hander in baseball when he's on. It never stops breaking. And his 90-mph fastball from the down-under angle keeps hitters honest."

    The Sweet 16

  • Greg Maddux's repertoire (2 votes for fastball, 1 for changeup): "Incredible combination of movement, command and change in velocity," says one AL executive.

  • Al Leiter's cutter (3 votes): "Guys start to swing at it on the outer half," Schilling laughs. "A hundredth of a second later, there are bat shards scattered all over the infield."

  • Jason Isringhausen's curveball (3 votes): "He's got a Gooden- or Ryan-like hammer," says an AL front-office man. "A kneebuckler for both left-handed and right-handed hitters."

  • Kevin Brown's dirtballs (2 votes): The ugly hacks speak for themselves.

  • Mike Mussina's knuckle-curve (2 votes): "When it's on, it's totally unhittable," says an NL GM. "Makes him nasty on both left-handed and right-handed hitters."

  • Barry Zito's curve (2 votes): "Has such a change in plane, from 12 to 6," Hughes says, "that the hitter's best chance is that the umpire misses it. Tough pitch to call."

  • Armando Benitez's dive-bombs (2 votes): "When he throws it properly, it's devastating to right-handed hitters," says an NL executive. "Looks like a splitter, but it's not. It's a slider."

  • Mike Myers' breaking stuff (2 votes): Hey, we had to get one set-up man into this round. And Myers is the left-handed Byung-Hyun Kim: "They both throw sliders that actually break up," says their teammate, Schilling. "Everyone calls a good curveball a 12-to-6 hook. Rick Helling and I call BK's the 5-to-11 -- and Mike's slider the 8-to-2."

    Advanced to second round

  • Kazuhiro Sasaki's splitter (2 votes).
  • Tom Glavine's changeup (2 votes).
  • Billy Wagner's fastball (2 votes).
  • Javier Vazquez's changeup (2 votes).
  • Tim Hudson's splitter (2 votes).
  • Josh Beckett's curve (2 votes).
  • Kazuhisa Ishii's curve (2 votes).
  • Paul Shuey's splitter (2 votes).
  • Kerry Wood's curve (2 votes).

    Invited to the dance

  • Roger Clemens' splitter (1 vote).
  • Tim Wakefield's knuckleball (1 vote).
  • Felix Rodriguez's fastball (1 vote).
  • Keith Foulke's changeup (1 vote).
  • A. J. Burnett's fastball (1 vote).
  • Derek Lowe's sinker (1 vote).
  • Shane Reynolds' splitter (1 vote).
  • Matt Anderson's fastball (1 vote).

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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