Breaking down the splitter, the least-popular pitch in baseball

Thursday May 8th, 2014

Hiroki Kuroda, who has a 4.43 ERA this year, throws more splitters than any other pitcher in baseball.
John Cordes/Icon SMI

The splitter is one of the least popular pitches in the majors, at least in terms of usage. According to Pitch F/X, just six pitchers throw the pitch at least 10 percent of the time. Hiroki Kuroda leads all pitchers, throwing his splitter on 23.4 percent of his offerings. Masahiro Tanaka and Ubaldo Jimenez both throw it at least one-fifth of the time, with Tim Hudson, Dan Haren and Jeff Samardzija ranging from 10.2 percent (Samardzija) to 16.4 percent (Hudson). It's an exclusive club, which makes sense since the splitter can be a high-risk, high-reward offering.

This is likely old information for most of you, but a splitter is a variation of a fastball that is gripped outside the seams and moves sharply downward when it enters the hitting zone. It's generally somewhere between six and 10 mph slower than a pitcher's four-seam fastball and, given it's movement and velocity, usually takes the place of a changeup in a repertoire. If you want to think of it in shorthand, consider the splitter a changeup thrown by righties to neutralize lefties, though they will throw it to same-siders, as well.

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While all six guys above use their respective splitters effectively, I want to focus on the three who have gotten the most out of it in recent years, both in terms of usage and effectiveness. It helps, too, that one of the three can be considered at each of the slow, middle, and fast velocities of the splitter.

Let's start at the high end with Tanaka. We knew all about Tanaka's slider before he ever threw his first major league pitch considering it's the main piece of his game that helped him get $155 million from the Yankees. The Angels found out all about it in late April.

Tanaka struck out 11 in that start. His strikeouts at the 32-second, 42-second, 1:11, 1:14, 1:18 (Mike Trout), 1:23, 1:28 and 1:40 marks are all by virtue of the splitter. You can see what makes this pitch so deadly once a pitcher has mastered it. Let's take the one to Trout, the best hitter in the game today. Tanaka throws this one in a 2-2 count with the Yankees leading 1-0 and Trout leading off the fifth inning. It comes out of his hand looking not like the cutter that also gave the Angels fits that night in the Bronx, but the regular four-seam fastball, and it appears to be coming in about knee-high. Trout gets his normal load, and just as he commits to swing, the ball dives out of sight. The game's most dangerous hitter swings helplessly over the top for strike three as it bounces in the dirt. ESPN's radar gun tells us the pitch was 87 mph, a slight touch higher than Tanaka's average splitter.

Samardzija's splitter is the Goldilocks in this comparison. It's not too fast or too slow, but just right, averaging 84.7 mph. Samardzija has leaned heavily on his splitter since becoming a starter in 2012, throwing it 14 percent of the time that season and 15 percent last year. He's throwing it less often this year, but it's just as nasty.

The Cubs' offense has abandoned Samardzija this year, but not his trusty splitter. He dominated the White Sox his last time out, allowing just one unearned run in nine innings while striking out seven. Two of those came on the splitter, and you can see them in the clip below. He fans Jose Abreu with it at 1:01 and Adam Dunn at 1:07.

Again, you can see that same devilish movement on the pitch. He's able to get the righty Abreu and the lefty Dunn to go fishing, showing its effectiveness regardless of the handedness of the batter. Samardzija is throwing his two-seamer more than ever, and it has been a lights-out pitch for him this year. But that splitter still remains an important, off-speed part of his toolbox.

What's interesting when comparing Tanaka's split to Samardzija's is the difference in velocities compared with their other fastball offerings. Both pitchers throw a four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and splitter, and Samardzija throws the first three significantly harder than Tanaka. The Cubs' ace throws his four-seamer at 94.1 mph on average, his two-seamer at 93.8 and his cutter at 91.9. For Tanaka, those numbers are 91.6, 91.7 and 90.1, respectively. However, Samardzija's splitter is nearly two full mph slower than Tanaka's. It's likely that either Samardzija purposely takes something off, or Tanaka puts some extra on, to get more movement on the pitch.

The difference is interesting, but it admittedly isn't that substantive when evaluating the pitch's effectiveness. What it does illustrate, though, is that a splitter is all about command and placement, and that it can be a devastating pitch at any velocity. Our final splitter artist helps drive that point home.

Hudson has always thrown a splitter, but he never threw it in large quantities until 2012 when he threw it 10.6 percent of the time. He completely eschewed the changeup that season and hasn't looked back.

In his last start against the Pirates, Hudson threw 8 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and fanning five batters. That game will be remembered as the first walkoff replay review in MLB history, but we're less interested in this space in Starling Marte's game ending at-bat than we are in Neil Walker's sixth inning strikeout. You can see strike three of that at-bat in the 40-second mark of the video below.

Like Tanaka and Samardzija, Hudson pulls off the deception here like a master. Walker can't believe he's getting a 1-2 fastball, until it turns out he's not. Of course, by time he realizes that, it's too late. He swings futilely at the pitch in the dirt, which Buster Posey corrals before applying the tag to finish off the strikeout. The PNC Park reading says the pitch came in at 81 mph, and that tracks well with his 80.2 mph average. There's a 7-mph gap between Hudson's splitter and Tanaka's but both are similarly confounding for hitters.

This all speaks to the versatility of the splitter. It's a more challenging pitch to master than a changeup, and has the same downside; if a pitcher leaves his splitter up, it's probably going to travel a long way. It has a bit more pace than a changeup and, importantly, as the same rotation as a four-seam fastball. And, as Tanaka, Samardzija and Hudson prove, so long as a pitcher commands the pitch and gets a wide enough margin between his heater and his splitter, it can be a filthy out pitch.

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