Monday, July 25, 2011

Special Bonus Post! Five Exotic Major League Pitches

Tim Wakefield is one of only two knuckleballers pitching in the Major League today (the other is R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets). I realized yesterday that I don't actually know what a knuckleball is, nor could I explain several of the other pitches Wakefield threw yesterday. So for my edification and yours, a quick rundown.

1. Knuckleball. A pitch thrown deliberately to minimize the ball's spin in flight, which creates erratic speed and motion. Knuckleballs are hard to throw, hard to catch, hard to hit and hard for umpires to call. The pitcher who brought it to the Major Leagues, Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox, actually held the ball with his knuckles before throwing it; Tim Wakefield holds it with his fingertips. Knuckleballs are slow -- 55-75 mph -- so it's their unpredictability that makes them hard to hit.

2. Cutter. A fastball that breaks slightly toward the pitcher's glove side as it reaches the plate. Most effective against opposite-handed batters.

3. Splitter. A split-fingered fastball, related to the changeup, sometimes called a forkball (though a forkball differs slightly, and I'll be grateful to anyone who can explain how). Splitting the fingers when throwing a fastball makes it behave more like a knuckleball, but (obviously) faster. The ball drops and moves right or left as it reaches the plate, forcing the batter to try to chase it with the bat.

4. Slider. A pitch slightly slower than a fast ball that breaks sideways and down as it reaches the plate, and is thus a type of breaking ball.

5. Changeup. Sometimes called a slow ball or an off-speed pitch, it's created by changing the grip on the ball. Pitchers generally use two fingers to throw a fastball; changeups use three, with the ball held closer to the palm, or cradle the ball in a circled hand. The goal is to fool the batter about the speed of the approaching ball, so that even if the batter makes contact, the ball flies foul.

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