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mysteries of the single-finger screwball

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with so many opinions circulating about bruce sutter's hall-of-fame worthiness -- line 'em up one two three and four -- i figured i'd chime in w mine. the article is recycled from my old blog, one of the very earliest posts and hence read by almost no one. so pretend it's fresh and composed this very day with great care. . . . .

sutter does not merit inclusion, imho, even though he made a revolutionary contribution to the game: he was the first guy to perfect the now-ubiquitous split-finger fastball. there was no such thing before he came along; there was the forkball, a similar pitch, but hardly anybody threw it (diego segui for one, i recall). the split-finger was a great mystery at the time -- nobody could figure out the physics of the thing, or explain why it dropped so sharply just as it reached the plate. it was as if sutter were practicing a form of sorcery, employing a power no one understood. i remember watching a segment on nbc's "game of the week" pregame show in which ex-dodger relief pitcher mike marshall stood next to sutter during a bullpen session and tried to figure out how he cast such a spell on the baseball. marshall (whose career stats are comparable to sutter's, by the way) scrutinized his subject the way old-time anthropologists used to study contortionists or tribal medicine men; nbc shot some super-slow-motion video of the session, and marshall pored over that too. he concluded that sutter was throwing not a split-finger fastball but rather (as he called it) a single-finger screwball. the super-slo-mo revealed all: as the ball left sutter's hand his index finger fell completely away, and the ball rolled off his middle finger in a tight clockwise twirl, so that it broke toward right-handed hitters and away from lefties -- the opposite of the typical break from a right-handed pitcher.

hence the mystery -- batters had never seen anything like it from an rhp before. (a similar sense of awe and disbelief apparently attended carl hubbell's invention of the classic screwball in the 1930s.) sutter had stumbled upon a gimmick pitch -- and once hitters figured it out, the jig was up. in his first three and a half seasons as closer (1976-79), he struck out 9.6 men per 9 innings and held hitters to an avg below .200 -- they could barely lay bat on ball. but they eventually adjusted, and in his next six seasons (1980-85), until injury basically ended his career, sutter whiffed only 5.9 per 9 innings, with correspondingly weaker eras, hits-per-innings, avg allowed, etc etc. though sutter remained a very effective pitcher, he was no longer a dominant one -- and 400 innings of dominance does not a hall-of-famer make, in my estimation.

data are courtesy pinto's day by day database:

ip era whip k/9 h/9
1976-79 390 2.33 1.02 9.6 6.5
1980-85 587 2.97 1.20 5.9 8.2