Alex Gallardo, File, Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — In the '80s, everyone was doing it.
From Jack Morris and Roger Clemens to practically every pitcher on Roger Craig's staff in San Francisco, the split-finger fastball was the ticket to success on the mound.
The pitch that looks like a fastball but falls off the table at the last second was revolutionizing the game, reviving careers and tormenting the unlucky guys standing in the batter's box.
It also was one of the stars of October, with power arms such as Clemens, Morris and Oakland's Dave Stewart riding it to World Series glory. It turned Mike Scott from just another guy into a Cy Young winner and helped Bruce Sutter become one of the game's great closers.
"Everyone was throwing that pitch," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was a catcher for the Dodgers in the 1980s. "It was the pitch of the '80s just like the pitch of the '60s was a slider."
If many pitching coaches and executives across the league have their way, it's also a pitch that is seeing its last days. Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, the Angels' Dan Haren and Boston's Jonathan Papelbon are among the big names who still have it in their arsenals, but concerns about the strain it can put on a pitcher's arm are causing some teams to ban their prospects from throwing it.
The Angels, Twins, Giants, Reds, Padres and Rays are among the many major league teams that discourage their pitchers from developing a splitter, citing health reasons as well as the belief that throwing it too much can reduce the velocity of a pitcher's fastball.
"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," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "But it's not just about them getting hurt. They'll never develop their other pitches because they'll always get guys out with that pitch."
A split-finger fastball is thrown with the same arm-action of a regular fastball, but the pitcher's pointer and middle finger are spread wide to cradle the ball. The grip causes the ball to tumble quickly down in the zone, tempting hitters to chase it in the dirt.
"You can just take your fingers and the more you put them apart, the more you put stress on the elbow," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "It's a pitch we really try to shy off of."
And those who still use it do so cautiously.
"I've never abused it," Haren said. "I don't throw it too much in between starts, and even during the course of the game I throw it 20-25 times. If you think about it, every five days, throwing it 25 times isn't too bad. Not abusing it."
When Craig was teaching it to anyone who would listen in the '80s, the splitter was billed as a safe off-speed alternative for those who struggled to master the nuances of the changeup.
"It's a wild pitch waiting to happen, but it's also devastating on the hitter if you can learn to control it, especially a closer or setup guy," said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, who was on Craig's staff in the early '90s. "Those guys make a lot of money."
But as the years wore on and more pitchers adopted the splitter, it started to become apparent that it could have significant consequences. Splitter-heavy pitchers who have developed shoulder and elbow problems include Bryan Harvey, Rod Beck and John Smoltz, who took a break from throwing his splitter after experiencing elbow pain.
"I think there is a correlation between some stresses put on the arms — some guys have had elbow problems, forearm problems, shoulder problems — and that pitch," Scioscia said.
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