Splitting fingers, not hairs

Mike Ehrmann

Some say the splitter hurts arms, others promote its usage. This October, a number of prominent pitchers have utilized the pitch and for the most part, succeeded. What should we know when it comes to the splitter?

When it comes to pitching in baseball, often times, theories and philosophies trump results, and other times, vice versa. For many years now the Minnesota Twins organization has shown a penchant for pitch-to-contact hurlers, hoping to use the advantage of rangy defenders and a larger ballpark to decrease pitch counts. Debating the merits of this philosophy, especially during a time in which strikeouts are on the rise, is a discussion for another time, but the general idea of pitching philosophies provides a nice segue to the notion of splitter-throwing pitchers.

During the postseason, fans have witnessed four impact relievers who use the splitter as an effective pitch in the hopes of inducing outs. Those four pitchers include Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa, Joaquin Benoit, and Joel Peralta. Especially with the extreme national attention given to closers like Uehara and Benoit, it makes sense to analyze the itch that helps them to dominate opposing hitters.

Amongst relievers who have thrown at least 200 splitters this season, the top five by pitch count include all four of the aforementioned pitchers. Edward Mujica, threw more splitters this season than any of the other four, but since the Cardinals moved Trevor Rosenthal into the closer's role in, Mujica has seen his innings pitched numbers decrease, leading to fewer appearances in the playoffs.

According to BrooksBaseball, Uehara threw his splitter 536 times this season, even more than his fastball (508), a


pitch that splitter-throwers depend on to set up the splitter. Benoit's fastball velocity regularly sits in the mid 90's making the pitch more effective with or without the splitter, as opposed to Uehara, whose average fastball velocity sits closer to 90 mph. While Tazawa's fastball/splitter velocities compare more similarly to Benoit's, Joel Peralta's pitches have more similarities velocity-wise to Uehara. Velocity impacts the effectiveness of the splitter immensely in that, like other off-speed pitches such as the circle changeup and straight changeup, the splitter looks like a fastball out of the pitcher's hand, but comes in at a slower speed in order to fool the hitter. A solid difference in velocity between the two pitches is crucial to effective usage.

While velocity remains important, better hitters with quick hands and more polished mechanics can overcome the speed difference even over the course of a single at bat. The most devastating aspect to the splitter seems to be the extreme downward "fall-off-the-table" movement that occurs as the ball reaches home plate. Of the four relievers mentioned, let's examine how they fared when comparing pitch movement.

Fastball

Splitter

pfx HMOV

pfx VMOV

pfx HMOV

pfx VMOV

Uehara

-5.40

11.58

-6.81

4.86

Benoit

-7.70

8.05

-8.54

2.09

Tazawa

-4.01

10.11

-6.05

5.47

Peralta

-3.14

11.71

-3.83

6.07

Looking at the above chart, we can see that Uehara, Tazawa, and Peralta show major differences in vertical movement difference between fastball and splitter, which proves favorable when throwing one after the other. Benoit has a solid 6-inch difference, but his splitter doesn't have the sharp break of the other three relievers. Taking a quick glance at how effective these pitches have been, we see that Fangraphs' pitch values suggest that Uehara's splitter dominates the other four (Fangraphs denotes Benoit's splitter as a changeup).

Fastball (total runs)

Splitter/CH (total runs)

Uehara

10.1

19.1

Benoit

5.6

5.1

Tazawa

-0.6

-1.8

Peralta

11.3

-6.4

The fact remains that for a fastball/splitter combination to prove effective, a pitcher must throw both pitches well. In that vein, it should be no surprise that the Tigers and Red Sox entrust more of the higher leverage situations to pitchers, Benoit and Uehara, with both good fastballs and solid off-speed stuff.

Finally, one fact remains fairly certain about the splitter, other than its effectiveness. Throwing a splitter puts more strain on a pitcher's elbow. In a 2011 New York Times piece, titled "Split-Finger Fastball, Once Popular, Is Falling Away", the Associated Press reported that while the splitter proved popular in the 1980's, fewer and fewer pitchers have utilized it as part of their repertoires since.

The piece quotes Rays Manager Joe Madden saying,

"I always thought that if thrown properly with the fingers really split like a forkball, that's when you can get hurt because there's no resistance against the ball being thrown and it really put a lot of pressure on the elbow,"

The piece goes on to quote other MLB coaches, most of whom agree that teaching the splitter to younger pitchers leads to more cases of elbow injuries. Just as a quick exercise, take the nearest baseball you have, or forgo the ball all together. Reach out your dominant, or throwing, arm in front of you and spread your pointer and middle fingers apart, paying specific attention to your elbow. Whether you feel pain or not is not the issue, but performing this action, especially around a hard object like a baseball, puts strain on your elbow. Now imagine trying to throw that that baseball with your fingers in that position over and over at high velocities. Pg-sf_medium

The true issues develop though when one combines throwing the splitter with inconsistent mechanics. Anyone who listens to Baseball Prospectus' Doug Thorburn and Paul Sporer on their TINSTAAPP podcast knows that pitchers develop arm issues, not when one aspect goes wrong, but multiple aspects at the same time. This leads me to believe that while any of the four relief pitchers above might develop elbow problems, blaming them solely on throwing a splitter constitutes shortsightedness, but also proves that teaching the pitch to pitchers still developing or improving proper mechanics might be harmful. Still, none of the four pitchers listed above are young or inexperienced, which also makes me believe that learning to throw and command a splitter might prolong a pitcher's career.

No matter the case, pitchers who utilize the splitter well have seen dramatic results. Every pitch has plusses and minuses attached, and while some pitching philosophies shy away from splitters, it seems that in the right situation learning and then utilizing the pitch can prove quite beneficial. The recent trend in bullpens has been to find pitchers who ratchet up the velocity, flamethrowers like those that make up almost the entire St. Louis Cardinals bullpen. Yet, when we see pitchers like Uehara and Peralta using the splitter proficiently in the art of fooling hitters, we see another approach, maybe one that teams should implement more often.

. . .

All statistics & info courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Brooksbaseball.net, and thecompletepitcher.com.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and The Good Phight. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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