Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan had a blazing fastball, the first ever clocked at 100 mph, during 27 seasons that included 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters. Mariano Rivera has used a devastating, bat-cracking cutter for a record 608 saves to be part of five World Series championships with the New York Yankees.
R.A. Dickey? He mastered one pitch, the knuckleball, and at age 37 became an All-Star for the first time.
Then Yu Darvish came to America this year with an array of different pitches, at least seven and maybe more depending on how you might classify his repertoire. The Japanese ace won 10 games for the Texas Rangers before the All-Star break.
“Everything from the velocity to the way he spins the ball is impressive. … He can do a lot of different things with the baseball,” Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “When he needs to make a pitch, he has a lot of different things he can do.”
There are fastballs, sliders, curves, slurves, palmballs, splitters, forkballs and even the infamous gyroball. The curve has nicknames like hammer, deuce or Uncle Charlie.
But are there really that many more pitches these days? Or are things more specific because of all the advance scouting and modern technology that can track the speed and movement of every pitch?
“Now you’re talking about two-seamers, four-seamers and cutters. That can be three pitches off the fastball, where before it was just a fastball,” said Arizona manager Bob Melvin, a former big-league catcher. “I think with video and bats and breaking things down and analyzing now, now you’re just getting a little more complex where those pitchers might have been there in the past, but now they’re designated all as different pitches.”
More than the typical fastball, curve, slider and change of the past.
“I put down one (finger) and got whatever they threw me,” said Melvin, who played in the majors from 1985-94.
Like Darvish with his wide variety of pitches or Dickey and his specialized toss, every pitcher who has ever stood on a mound is trying to do the same thing: Get the guy out.
Seattle right-hander Kevin Millwood, who last month threw the first six innings of a combined no-hitter, is in the 16th season of his major league career that began in Atlanta when he was on a staff with four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
“I guess you can have as many pitches as you want as long as you can control them and know where they’re going. I have a hard enough time with four,” Millwood said with a chuckle.
“I watched Glavine win a lot of ballgames throwing pretty much two pitches, Smoltz was pretty much the same way,” he said. “Maddux, he would use three different pitches really and might mix in a curveball here and there. But for the most part he was fastball, changeup and a little cutter.”
Satchel Paige had his bow-tie pitch, which was a neck-high fastball sure to back batters off the plate. Christy Mathewson threw his fadeaway pitch that was later known as a screwball and thrown so effectively by Pedro Martinez and Fernando Valenzuela.
Dickey, the New York Mets right-hander, baffles batters and sometimes his own catchers. He is the only current major leaguer whose primary pitch is the knuckleball, a pitch with little or no spin is hard to hit because it floats and can unexpectedly dart or move in any direction. It’s also supposed to be hard for pitchers to control.