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Wednesday, May 15
Baseball's greatest pitches of all-time

By David Schoenfield

"I never saw anything like it. I didn't think there was a man in the world who had so much speed. I have heard a great deal about Johnson's speed, but now I know. There isn't a man in the world who can touch him. He is in a class by himself."

-- Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Nap Rucker on Walter Johnson, 1912

Walter Johnson
Walter Johnson rode his fastball to 417 victories.
Ninety years later, it's easy to imagine Nap Rucker saying the same superlatives about another Johnson. From Walter to Randy, there have been many great pitchers. Some, like Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, relied on a variety of pitches, mixing speeds and location with a good fastball. Others, like the Johnsons, could depend on one dominating pitch. Here is one list of the 10 greatest pitches of all time (in no particular order):

Walter Johnson's fastball
Johnson's heater was so fast, he earned the nickname "The Big Train." Delivered with an easy sidearm motion, it was so fast he relied on it almost exclusively, developing a curveball only late in his career. Nonetheless, he led his league in strikeouts 12 times. Some analysts doubt Johnson approached the speed of modern-day hurlers throwing across his body like he did, and appeared faster than his contemporaries only because he threw hard every pitch. Of course, it doesn't really matter, does it? The Big Train used his fastball to register 417 wins.

Bob Feller's fastball
When Feller reached the major leagues as a 17-year-old schoolboy from Iowa (striking out 15 in his debut in 1936), he was immediately compared to Johnson. Who threw harder? Upon seeing Feller pitch in 1937, Johnson, an extremely modest man, told legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich that Feller didn't throw as hard as he had. While Feller also had a devastating curve and added a slider when he returned after World War II, it was the fastball that made him a legend. He led the AL seven times in K's and six times in wins. And imagine if they had kept pitch counts in his day: in 1946 he pitched 371 innings, fanned 348 and walked 153.

Christy Mathewson's fadeaway
Mathewson had great control of several pitches. When he reached the big leagues, he wrote in his book "Pitching in a Pinch" that he had a big, slow curveball, but he ditched that in favor of a "drop ball." He also stressed changing speeds. However, he became famous for his "fadeaway" -- what we now call a screwball. But he didn't throw it often. "It is a very hard ball to deliver," he wrote. "Pitching it ten or twelve times a game kills my arm, so I save it for the pinches." Mathewson won 373 games and led the NL fives times each in ERA and strikeouts.

Carl Hubbell's screwball
Hubbell, who led the Giants to three World Series trips in the 1930s, threw his screwball much more than Mathewson. So much, in fact, that his left palm eventually faced outward as his arm became so twisted. While in the minor leagues with Detroit, Ty Cobb reportedly told Hubbell to stop throwing the pitch. He didn't and ended up winning 254 games.

Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball
Wilhelm didn't reach the majors until he was 28 years old but lasted until he was 48. A reliever throughout most of his career, he won 15 games and led the AL in ERA in his only full season as a starter. Wilhelm had amazing control of the knuckler: he walked just 778 hitters (and fanned 1,610) in over 2,200 innings. He finished with a 2.52 lifetime ERA and held batters to a .216 average.

Sandy Koufax's curveball
Koufax had a blazing fastball -- perhaps the best of the 1960s -- but it was his curveball that allowed him to lead the NL in ERA five straight years before being pushed into early retirement with arthritis. Ed Linn wrote that Koufax's curve wasn't a conventional big bender: "The 'curveball' about which so much has been written wasn't a curve at all by normal standards, it was a sinker. It broke straight down." The pitch also benefited from the high mound at Dodger Stadium: Koufax was 57-15, 1.37 at Dodger Stadium and 54-19, 2.57 on the road in the same years.

Randy Johnson's slider
Like Koufax, Johnson uses his explosive heater to set up his devastating "offspeed" pitch. But Johnson always had the great fastball; it wasn't until he learned to throw the slider for strikes that he became a four-time Cy Young winner with four consecutive 300-strikeout seasons.

Lefty Grove's fastball
Some observers say he threw harder than Feller. Grove's fastball was reportedly very straight, but it didn't matter: he led the AL seven straight times in K's upon joining the Philadelphia A's in 1925. No pitcher has matched his nine ERA crowns. After a trade to the Red Sox in 1934, he suffered arm problems that forced him to throw his other pitches more often. He was still pretty good: he led the AL four times in ERA with Boston.

Pedro Martinez's changeup
As ESPN analyst Dave Campbell says, "Sandy Koufax would just strike you out. But Pedro will embarrass you." Martinez's amazing control and movement on his changeup allowed him to post ERAs of 1.90, 2.89, 2.07 and 1.74 from 1997-2000. Compared to the league ERA, no pitcher has done better over a four-year stretch.

Eddie Feigner's fastball
Eddie who? OK, we're cheating. Feigner was a fastpitch softball pitcher -- but, hey, we never said we were sticking to baseball. Feigner was once timed at 104 mph ... and remember, he's pitching closer to home plate. In a two-inning exhibition in 1967, he fanned Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Brooks Robinson, Maury Wills, Harmon Killebrew and Roberto Clemente. He's nearing 80, but "The King" still tours with his "Court."

With apologies to Steve Carlton's slider, Roger Clemens' fastball, Tom Seaver's slider, Ed Walsh's spitter, Bruce Sutter's splitter, Satchel Paige's hesitation pitch, Mariano Rivera's cutter, Goose Gossage's fastball, Bert Blyleven's curveball, Gaylord Perry's "hard slider," Nolan Ryan's fastball, Rube Waddell's fastball and Whitey Ford's scuffball.

David Schoenfield is's baseball editor.

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