Splitting headache: The split-fingered fastball is hard to hit and hard to throw

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka throws a pitch

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka throws a pitch during spring training practice Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. (Credit: AP / Charlie Neibergall)

Unlike any other pitch, the split-fingered fastball tends to provoke a visceral response when mentioned in a conversation.

Hitters groan at the thought of facing a good one -- that hollow feeling of watching the bottom drop out of a seemingly normal fastball, a swing connecting with nothing but air.

After dealing with Masahiro Tanaka for the first time, the Phillies' Marlon Byrd used his hand to map out the pitch's flight path while describing what he was thinking during the at-bat.

"Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike," Byrd said, moving his flattened hand in a straight line.

Suddenly, his hand plummeted straight down, like a runaway elevator from the 20th floor.

"Ball," Byrd said dejectedly.

By then, it was too late. With a fraction of a second to react, Byrd swung through the spot where the fastball was supposed to be -- and realized he'd been had by the splitter.

"It just disappears," the Phillies' Ryan Howard said.

Sounds like some magic trick, right? Defies gravity, eludes a hitter's radar. Pure sorcery.

Then why did only 11 starting pitchers -- with a minimum 160 innings -- even bother to throw one last season, according to statistics compiled by FanGraphs?

The Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished third in last season's AL Cy Young balloting, was at the top of that exclusive club; 22.8 percent of his pitches were splitters, as counted by FanGraphs. The Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda was second at 21.0 percent. Another Japanese star, the Rangers' Yu Darvish -- runner-up for the Cy -- was at the bottom with 4.5 percent.

Some of the group in between were the Orioles' Miguel Gonzalez (19.8), the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija (17.5) and the Nationals' Dan Haren (16.8). But it's a select few, and the reason might have to do with the other type of response the splitter elicits, this time among pitchers:

A face contorted in pain.

While dozens have fooled around with the splitter grip and even flirted with throwing the pitch during a pregame toss, it rarely gets more serious than that. Just the mention of a splitter can prompt a pitcher to start clutching at his upper forearm and elbow, shaking his head.

Try it. Grab a baseball, then jam it between your index and middle fingers, stretching them wide apart. After 10 or 15 throws with that awkward grip, the muscles and ligaments already begin to ache.

That scares away most of those brave enough to experiment. Some organizations discourage pitchers from throwing it. But David Cone, who was among the elite who thrived by using the splitter during the '80s and '90s, believes the pitch doesn't cause injury on its own.

Cone developed a life-threatening aneurysm in his shoulder that required surgery to fix in 1996, and a lifetime of piling up innings was blamed. But that was from an accumulation of pitches, not any one type in particular. Cone dabbled in a variety of deliveries and grips, but the splitter was a signature punch-out weapon, and he never thought it was inherently dangerous.

"I know a lot of people have speculated on it," said Cone, a former Cy Young winner and now a YES analyst. "I don't know if there's really medical data to prove it. I think the wider you split your fingers -- which is more of a forkball as opposed to a splitter -- maybe can cause some more strain."

The perception that the splitter is a harmful pitch was news to Kuroda, who didn't hear any such concerns until he signed with the Dodgers in 2007. By then, the splitter already had been through its Renaissance period in the States, thanks to aces such as Roger Clemens, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling. But in Japan, the splitter's popularity never waned.

"When I was young, as a teenager, I didn't even know what a changeup was," Kuroda said through his interpreter. "And there was nobody that could teach me such a pitch. So if you wanted to use an off-speed pitch, you were bound to use the split. That's how I learned."

Kuroda still ranks the splitter behind his curveball and slider in order of importance. But for someone like Tanaka, who has seven pitches in his repertoire, the splitter is what gets all the attention, partly because it's not something that is seen very often during a major-league game -- especially one that good.

"I think his is outstanding because he really gets a good finish on it with his wrist action," Cone said, demonstrating by snapping his right hand downward. "You've got to really have a little tug on it at the end and he's got that, that wristy tug on the end that gives the late movement on it."

The way Cone spoke about Tanaka's splitter was similar to listening to another artist admire a Monet. As an aficionado of the pitch, Cone knows what makes it work and what to look for. He learned the splitter from watching Ron Darling during their days together on the Mets, then spent the rest of his career mastering it.

Just getting the feel for the pitch takes time. The splitter is the only grip that doesn't use the baseball's seams -- with the fingertips touching only leather to take some of the rotation off the ball. When Cone tried to teach David Wells on the Yankees, Wells accidentally wound up throwing more of a knuckler. He never dared to try one in a game.

"It's a little trickier because the ball can slip out of your hands," Cone said. "You don't have the friction on the seams. But once you get the feel for it, it can really be effective. It really dives at the last minute."

Poof! In a blink, the splitter vanishes. But despite teetering on the brink of extinction here in the States, it's not gone yet.

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