WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For Jeurys Familia’s next trick, he’s hoping to break out an old one.
The Mets righthander, coming off of an injury-plagued and suspension-marred season, is looking to reestablish himself as one of the game’s premier closers with the help of his splitter, a pitch he all but abandoned in recent years.
As Familia has sprinkled the split into his handful of spring training games — largely good outside of a five-run outing Thursday — the early returns are mostly promising.
“I want to get to the point where I can trust it and can throw it in any count,” Familia said. “It’s something I’ve been working on in the offseason. I know I will get a good [result] if I have trust and throw it again.”
Familia’s logic for reintroducing his splitter is the same for any pitcher sharpening or adding a pitch: The more options he has, the more a hitter has to think about and be ready for, and the easier it is for him to get a batter out.
The splitter is a good option because it looks similar to his sinker — Familia’s primary pitch — for most of its trip to home plate, albeit a few miles per hour slower, around 91 mph instead of 97.
“To the hitter, it looks the same coming out of his hands,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “It’s obviously a little slower, and that’s what gets them out. They see it, they see it, they go to get it and it’s gone.
“Right before it gets to home plate, the bottom falls out as it crosses the plate. When he throws it right.”
Throwing it right is the hard part. Familia used splitters about one out of every 10 pitches in 2015, averaging more than one per outing. Opposing hitters batted .114 — in a small sample size, granted, considering it was his No. 3 offering at best — and slugged .200 against it, according to Brooks Baseball.
Then, in a sort of chicken-or-egg phenomenon, Familia moved away from the split and it became less effective. The past two years, he has thrown splitters just two percent of the time, once every three appearances on average.
“It wasn’t working the way I wanted it to work,” Familia said.
The work began again in the offseason and has continued during spring training, though Eiland noted that Familia will try the splitter out more so in the next two weeks than he has in the past two weeks. It’s important to build arm strength first, Eiland said.
But Familia has already seen instances in which his splitter was useful, including his last pitch in a recent outing against the Marlins. Outfield prospect Braxton Lee managed to make contact, but rolled it over to second base for an inning-ending groundout. That weak contact is the type of result he is looking for.
Familia doesn’t need to throw many splitters for it to be worthwhile. Even one or two in a game can make a difference in a sport with razor-thin margin between success and failure.
One pitch can change the dynamic of an at-bat, which can change the dynamic of an inning.
“If he’s got it going, he’s throwing it good, it’s going to be a big pitch,” Eiland said. “It’s going to be a big put-away pitch for him.”