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Do splitters ruin arms?

The splitter is a very effective pitch. However, it has a reputation for ruining arms. How have splitter throwers fared in recent years?

Scott Iskowitz

Hold a baseball with a splitter grip. Right away, you'll notice the extra tension it puts on your elbow and forearm when compared to a fastball grip. Bruce Sutter introduced the pitch in the late 70s and 80s, and Roger Clemens built a career around an explosive fastball and a devastating splitter. For a while the splitter was in vogue. Nowadays, the splitter has fallen out of favor. Splitters account for only a little more than one percent of all pitches, and several organizations have gone so far as to forbid young players from learning the splitter. Concerns over its effect on pitchers' arms have overhadowed its effectiveness.

Lets take a look at the injury history of pitchers who utilize the splitter. From 2010-13, there have been about 15 starting pitchers per season who use their splitter with at least a ten percent frequency.

2010 Splitter% DL Y/N Days Missed
Brad Penny 34.2 Yes 134
Jorge de la Rosa 27.4 Yes 74
Manny Parra 27.4 No
Carl Pavano 22.2 No
Mike Pelfrey 17.5 No
Carlos Zambrano 13.6 No
Freddy Garcia 13.4 No
Hiroki Kuroda 13.2 No
Dan Haren 13.1 No
Ubaldo Jimenez 12.9 No
Roy Halladay 11.6 No
Vicente Padilla 11.3 Yes 57
Brandon Morrow 11.1 No
Ricky Nolasco 10.7 Yes 35
Tim Hudson 10.6 No
Ryan Dempster 10.4 No

2010 was a good year health-wise for splitter-throwing pitchers. Penny accounted for nearly half the time missed, and his injury was an oblique strain. As a group, these 16 pitchers missed a total of 300 days, with only a quarter of them missing any time at all (though Morrow was subjected to an innings limit).

2011 Splitter% DL Y/N Days Missed
Jorge de la Rosa 28.4 Yes 126
Freddy Garcia 21.8 Yes 20
Carl Pavano 21.8 No
Alfredo Simon 17.3 Yes 16
Brad Penny 17.1 No
Roy Halladay 16.0 No
Ubaldo Jimenez 15.9 No
Hiroki Kuroda 14.7 No
Mike Pelfrey 13.3 No
Daisuke Matsuzaka 11.9 Yes 134
Brad Lincoln 11.8 Yes 11
Alex White 11.6 Yes 94
Ryan Dempster 10.8 No
Dan Haren 10.6 No
Ricky Nolasco 10.3 No

In 2011, six of the fifteen pitchers ended up on the DL, with two of them undergoing season-ending surgery. In all, there were 401 days missed. Notice that Penny cut his splitter usage in half upon returning from injury and Morrow scrapped the pitch for the 2011 season.

2012 Splitter% DL Y/N Days Missed
Jorge de la Rosa 36.3 Yes 170
Carl Pavano 24.7 Yes 123
Hisashi Iwakuma 21.2 No
Carlos Zambrano 20.4 No
Jeff Samardzija 18.7 No
Ubaldo Jimenez 17.4 No
Dan Haren 16.7 Yes 18
Roy Halladay 15.7 Yes 50
Hiroki Kuroda 14.6 No
Ricky Nolasco 14.2 No
Miguel Gonzalez 13.7 No
Ryan Dempster 13.2 Yes 15
Mike Pelfrey 11.8 Yes 164
Brandon Morrow 11.4 Yes 74
Daisuke Matsuzaka 10.0 Yes 122

Half of these sixteen pitchers landed on the DL, missing a whopping total of 736 days. It bears mentioning that the time missed by de la Rosa and most of the time missed by Matsuzaka resulted from an injury suffered the prior year.

2013 Splitter% DL Y/N Days Missed
Jorge de la Rosa 27.7 No
Hiroki Kuroda 22.2 No
Hisashi Iwakuma 22.1 No
Miguel Gonzalez 19.8 Yes 17
Roy Halladay 18.2 Yes 111
Ubaldo Jimenez 17.5 No
Ryan Dempster 17.3 No
Dan Haren 16.3 Yes 15
Jeff Samardzija 15.7 No
Jason Marquis 14.6 Yes 71
Brandon Morrow 14.4 Yes 120
Homer Bailey 12.8 No
Tim Hudson 12.1 Yes 66
Ricky Nolasco 11.9 No
Freddy Garcia 11.8 No

Six out of fifteen pitchers did time on the DL, missing a total of 400 days. Overall, 24 out of 62 pitchers landed on the DL, That number might look high, but it matches up exactly with Jeff Zimmerman's finding that the average starting pitcher has a 39 percent chance of going on the DL. The average DL stint for splitter throwers is 77 days and the median is 74 days. That's higher than the average of 69 and the median of 51 for all pitchers, so perhaps splitter throwers are more likely to have major surgery. In general though, the results for these pitchers are pretty close to that of the general population of major league starting pitchers.

Obviously, this isn't the full picture. There's some selection bias in that I've picked pitchers whose arms have been able to handle the splitter to some extent. For every pitcher listed here, there could be several others who gave up on the splitter early because it bothered their arm. Furthermore, I don't have a handle on how many minor league pitchers have suffered arm injuries due to splitter usage, or pitchers who have been relegated to the bullpen due to their splitter usage. Finally, there could be a myriad of other factors causing the injuries besides the splitter.

Still, it doesn't appear that pitchers who are throwing a splitter are at a higher risk of injury than pitchers who do not. Given that the 18 starters who have thrown at least ten percent splitters since 2002 have been five percent better than their counterparts, perhaps some teams are being a little too quick to decry the splitter.

. . .

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Heat Maps

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves