The Splitter: The Pitch of 2014?
I came of baseball-age in the 1980s, and if you’re in the same demographic, you remember Mike Scott. Scott was the journeyman righty with the Mets and Astros who always seemed to under-perform his velocity, and then, all at once, turned into one of the best starter in the National League at age 30. He was a fastball/slider pitcher who’d posted 663 below-replacement level innings through age 29 when he went to work with Roger Craig, guru of the split-finger fastball. Scott took to the pitch, and posted about 25 bWAR over the next five years. His splitter was so good, hitters would ask the umpires to check the ball dozens of times per game. The turnaround was sudden and complete. Scott won the 1986 NL Cy Young award, and had a solid late-career run up until 1990. Scott’s splitter was so good that people semi-seriously talked about banning it, the way MLB outlawed the spitter about 50 years prior.
Scott was merely the face of the trend – as Roger Craig became a pitching coach in San Francisco, he brought the splitter to plenty of pitchers. Every journeyman hurler picked it up. As a result, the pitch is frequently called “the pitch of the 80s.” But just as it was establishing itself, people began associating the pitch with arm injuries. The problem is that so many pitchers get injured, that it’s tough to isolate the effects of any one pitch. You’ll hear from pitching coaches who swear that pitches don’t matter, and that proper mechanics can keep a pitcher healthy. And then there are others, and many teams, who tacitly or not-so-tacitly outlaw the pitch, both because they worry about elbow injuries and that it can harm a pitcher’s fastball velocity.
After the initial wave of splitter pitchers retired, the pitch got a shot in the arm from aging pitchers who extended their careers in part by utilizing the change-like splitter. Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens are the most famous examples, but we saw a somewhat similar phenomenon a few standard deviations down the talent spectrum with Jarrod Washburn. But with the retirement of Johnson/Clemens (and the attrition of Washburn), the pitch fell out of favor. The NY Times talked about it becoming passe in 2011 (which means it was probably passe in 2010 or 2009).
In 2014, the pitch appears to be back in a big way. Jason Collette’s article at fangraphs today ID’s six pitchers who have publicly talked about adding the pitch this spring training. I made a joke about Randy Wolf picking one up simply by standing next to Hisashi Iwakuma, but then Ryan Divish tweeted that he actually WAS learning a splitter. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Two of the biggest big league stories last year were Hisashi Iwakuma and his run at the ERA title and Alex Cobb, the unlikely Rays ace. Before the 2011 season, Cobb was somewhere around the 10-12th best *pitching* prospect in the Rays organization. They were deep, but still. Iwakuma signed with the M’s for a pittance after having shoulder issues in Japan. Hiroki Kuroda posted yet another excellent campaign in his age *38* season (and signed an extension with the Yankees this offseason). Jeff Samardzija, Dan Haren, Ryan Dempster and other starters featured it. And, perhaps most famously, Boston reliever Koji Uehara rode his splitter (he threw it about 50% of the time) to an historic season and an iconic World Series win. To review, Uehara struck out 101 batters and walked NINE. Two of those were intentional. He yielded 33 hits in 70+ innings. Even when batters knew what was coming, they had no choice.
Several of the most prominent splitter-mavens came from Japan. This season’s biggest free-agent signing, Masahiro Tanaka, also features a splitter. What’s kind of interesting is that many observers weren’t sure what pitch these guys would feature in MLB. Hiroki Kuroda used to be a sinker-slider pitcher. Before he was posted, Iwakuma was known as much for his slider as his split.* Even after he’d been in MLB for a bit, some tabbed the straight fastball as Uehara’s best pitch. Given that Tanaka used a slider so much in Japan, it seemed noteworthy that MLB observers were so consistent and so public in their identification of his splitter as his signature offering.
Was there a bias against the pitch league-wide? Is that why people seemed to miss that Alex Cobb was a big-league player? Why Iwakuma went to the M’s for $1.5m guaranteed? Why Koji Uehara was traded for spare parts (ok, one of whom turned into a surprising superstar like Uehara himself) and was then left off the playoff roster and sent packing after that? Do we still associate the pitch with last-gasp efforts to stick in baseball – with Dan Haren, or Dempster? Or does the perception that it ruins arms still dominate MLB front offices?
This is where data would be so helpful. OK, so, we have tons of data. This is where unambiguous, clear, *clean* data would be helpful. If you look at Fangraphs’ pitch fx numbers, you’ll find that NO qualified starting pitcher in baseball used a split more than 2% of the time back in 2009. Our old friend Jarrod Washburn led the league at 1.8% usage. Look at 2013, and there are starters using it more than 20% of the time, including Jorge de la Rosa and Iwakuma. Add relievers and the list just grows – Edward Mujica used it more than Uehara, and we all remember Brandon League and his unhittable split (until it stopped being unhittable). So split usage has exploded in the past four years, right?
Well, I’m not sure. The picture isn’t as clear using Brooks Baseball’s hand-coded pitch IDs. There, you’ll see Tim Lincecum riding his splitter to two Cy Young awards. Or Manny Parra, or Mike Pelfrey (in 2010 more than 2009, but still). Part of the reason the two sources differ is because it’s not always clear how a splitter differs from a change-up. The most common change-up of the late 80s-late 90s was the circle change, made famous by John Smiley, Frank Viola, John Franco and Tom Glavine. But Lincecum was among the first (that I heard about – not saying he was the first overall) to utilize a forkball grip for his change-up. After seeing Lincecum in AAA, I thought he was throwing a splitter. I was told it was a change-up, and that’s fine – in some sense it doesn’t matter what you call it, what matters is what the pitch *does.* Fangraphs uses the change-up label, while Brooks uses splitter. You could do this with several of the most famous splitter-users, Cobb among them. Even the Brooks Baseball data shows evidence of an increase in splitter usage, though – just not a dramatic one.
Still, whether splitter usage has grown exponentially after becoming nearly extinct as a weapon for starting pitchers, or whether it’s spread more slowly from late-career wrinkle to an increasingly-common change-up alternative, its use is on the rise. Is this because teams are less convinced it’s an injury risk? If so, why (I mean, Uehara’s spent time on the DL, and Iwakuma fell to the M’s after shoulder problems plagued his final NPB season)? Is it seen as an easier version of the change-up to master?** Was its absence (if there was one) the key to its current effectiveness? Have hurlers like Cobb, Iwakuma and Kuroda, none of whom has a big fastball, shown a route to success for guys who aren’t blessed with elite velocity and “pure stuff?”
Apparently, we’ll see. The pitch appears ready to grab plenty of MLB headlines. If Tanaka lives up to his contract, it’ll be because his splitter proves as unhittable as some scouts think it is. If the M’s hang around contention all year, a big part of that will likely be another big year from Iwakuma. If the Rays win the East, you have to think Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Heath Bell (the latter two of whom have picked up the pitch this spring) will be factors. It’s bizarre to watch the pendulum swing on pitches – the way the cutter was clearly the pitch of the last four-five years, and the way the slider dominated baseball at times from the 60s through the Randy Johnson/Robb Nen versions of the early 2000s. If the splitter enjoys even more success in 2014, and that’s a big if, it’d be the clearest sign of a “market inefficiency” since that term became hideously overused by bloggers like me. That is, if the pitch was effective and if its arm-shredding properties were overstated, some teams grabbed an advantage either by actively targeting splitter pitchers or by passively allowing their guys to throw it. The M’s, notably, were one of those teams, as their pick-ups of League and Iwakuma indicate. This shows, perhaps, that there’s a pretty big gap between ID’ing something as an efficiency and riding that knowledge to unexpected success. But it also makes you wonder how far you could push this. Cobb/Iwakuma/Tanaka and their many copycats may help us find out in 2014.
* Full credit to pitch fx guru Mike Fast who ID’d the split as the plus pitch in Iwakuma’s arsenal from a handful of WBC pitches.
** Your humble scribe’s forgettable baseball career was centered upon his attempted mastery of the splitter. I mean, I had mirrored the first part of Mike Scott’s career simply by being a mediocre-to-worse pitcher. I was sure that a subtle tweak of that pitch was all that would stand between me and small-high-school glory. I will say that it WAS an easier pitch to control, but that it cannot turn a righty throwing 70 into any sort of useful baseball player.