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THIS PITCH IN TIME SAVES NINE

Sept. 17, 1979
Sept. 17, 1979

Table of Contents
Sept. 17, 1979

U.S. Open
Steelers
Sutter
Knute Rockne: Part 2
Baseball
College Football
Krazy Guys
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THIS PITCH IN TIME SAVES NINE

When Chicago requires late-inning help, out of the bullpen comes Bruce Sutter, whose unique "split-fingered fastball" has made him the most effective relief pitcher in the game

Bruce Sutter is baseball's counterpart of that singular character in the Rodgers and Hart song Johnny One Note. Johnny's range is restricted to a lone note, as the title suggests, but so artfully and so resonantly does he sing it that he requires no others to rise above his limitation. Similarly, Sutter, a Chicago Cub relief pitcher, has only one pitch, but like Johnny's note, it is unique and overpowering, and it has made him, at age 26, the best reliever in baseball—and, just possibly, the best in baseball history. At week's end, Sutter, whose won-lost record is a misleading 4-5, needed only three saves to break the major league record of 37 in a season. He had an earned run average of 1.82 and 94 strikeouts in 89 innings. Although the Cubs have recently slumped to fourth in the National League East, it's a pretty fair bet that Sutter will win the Cy Young Award.

This is an article from the Sept. 17, 1979 issue Original Layout

Sutter calls his magic pitch a "split-fingered fastball," which is an accurate-enough description in that his fingers are spread apart when he releases the ball. But the fastball part is debatable for the simple and—for hitters—maddening reason that the ball's speed changes at least once, maybe twice, in the course of its flight. In fact, if Cub Catcher Barry Foote is to be believed, the split-fingered fastball is really three pitches in one.

"Bruce's pitch looks like a fastball when it leaves his hand, because of the arm speed," says Foote, "but it gets to the plate like a change, and then it drops down like a spitter or a forkball."

"It's unhittable," says Montreal Manager Dick Williams, "unless he hangs it, and he never does. It's worse than trying to hit a knuckleball."

"It's incredible," says Lou Brock, who has seen a few pitches in his 19 major league seasons. "You'd figure that if a guy stayed around long enough, he'd learn how to hit it. But no one has."

One reason no one has is that Sutter (pronounced SUIT-er) is really the only pitcher throwing it, and to paraphrase the baseball axiom, you can't hit what you don't see much of. Phillie Reliever Rawly Eastwick has experimented with the split-fingered fastball this season—and used it to beat Sutter last week—but he is still wary of using it in crucial situations, and relief pitchers are almost always in crucial situations. It took Sutter three years to control the pitch, and even now he insists, against impressive evidence to the contrary, that he hasn't mastered it. He cannot, for example, consistently control the direction in which it sinks. "Eighty percent of the time," he says, "it will drop straight down." The rest of the time, it will dip right or left. He would prefer it to constantly dip away from the hitters, so that it would appear as a sinking curve to righthanders and a sinking screwball to lefties. Sutter says that by exerting a certain sort of finger pressure, he can achieve this devastating effect some of the time. Foote thinks he does it subconsciously. "If I took him out before a game and asked him to sink it left and sink it right," Foote says, "I don't think he could do it. But somehow in a game he can." If Sutter ever gets this down pat, the hitters should seek an injunction.

Like almost anything worth doing, throwing the split-fingered fastball is no piece of cake. For one thing, it helps to have fingers the length of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's. Sutter is not so generously endowed, but his own digits are long enough and strong enough to spread over the ball in a V shape and to clamp down on it with viselike force. This grip is not to be confused with the one used in throwing the forkball. The fingers also are spread in delivering that pitch, but the ball is wedged back in the palm of the hand, and the thumb plays no real role in the delivery. Sutter grips the ball tightly on top with the tips of his fingers and underneath with the thumb. On release, the thumb actually forces the ball through the gap in the spread fingers, which accounts for the pitch's spin. A man trying this with ordinary-sized fingers would never play the piano again.

The forkball is a slowpoke all the way to the plate. As noted, Sutter throws his pitch with a fastball motion, so that it starts out in a hurry and continues apace until the spin finally overwhelms it, causing it to slow up as it nears the plate and go into its drastic descent. Envision, if you will, an auto speeding on a pier, braking at the last moment and then plunging over the side into the drink.

Sutter does have a vestigial fastball, and the few hitters who have seen it say it is decent, but he uses it only as a diversionary tactic. There was an occasion last month, however, when he struck out one of the finest hitters in baseball with his heat. "I had a one-ball, two-strike count on Ted Simmons, a one-run lead and runners on first and second. Now, to me, Simmons is the best hitter in the National League. He's a switch hitter. He doesn't get leg hits, because he has a catcher's legs, but he always bats around .300, and he'll hit 20 to 25 home runs a season. When a game is on the line, I'd like to have him hitting for me. Anyway, I'd gotten the strikes on him with the split-fingered pitch. Now I'm ready to waste one, so I tried to throw him a high fastball, thinking maybe he'd pop it up. He took it all the way, and it was right down the middle of the plate. He just walked away without saying a word."

It is difficult to say what was on Simmons' mind, but a fair guess would be that he was expecting another split-fingered job and decided this time he was simply going to watch it drop in the dirt. Instead, the pitch came straight, and Simmons missed an opportunity to hit one a mile. Sutter keeps hitters honest this way. He is the first to acknowledge that he throws few strikes. How can he with a pitch that dives like a famished gull? But, as Montreal's Williams laments, "They don't look like balls when they're coming up there." What they do look like are fastballs that have lost their smoke and, therefore, are candidates for upper-deckdom. It is a rare hitter who will allow so tempting a morsel to pass by untasted, and Sutter keeps a mental record of those who do. They are the few who see the occasional fastball down the middle; the rest get the dipsy doodle. Sutter detests surrendering intentional walks, preferring to take his chances "throwing four in the dirt. Maybe they'll take them for the walk. Maybe I'll get the strikeout." And he is so consistently effective that Manager Herman Franks usually lets Sutter decide whether to pitch to or walk a dangerous hitter with first base open and runners in scoring position. Sutter invariably goes for broke.

This has been the healthiest and, in many ways, the most restful of Sutter's three-plus seasons in the major leagues. In 1977, he had 22 saves by the first week of July, along with 87 strikeouts in 74 innings and an earned run average of less than 1.00. But he strained a muscle in his side, sat out two weeks, missed the All-Star Game and was placed on the disabled list in August. He still finished with 31 saves and a 1.35 ERA. Last year it was said that, as the Cubs' only dependable reliever, he wilted from overwork in August and September. Sutter denies this, insisting that it was just a late slump. Slump or not, he still had 27 saves and 106 strikeouts in 99 innings and, as he did this year, got the win in the All-Star Game. But his ERA climbed to 3.18, well above his career 2.24.

This season he has benefited from the addition to the Cubs' bullpen of Dick Tidrow, who was obtained in a May trade with the Yankees. Tidrow has given Franks a strong long reliever to go with his incomparable short man. With these two in the wings, Cub starters rarely finish games—they have only 17 complete games—but as one of them, Lynn McGlothen, says, "We can go all out after the sixth inning, knowing there is help out there. Herman just tells us to go as hard as we can for six or seven innings." Should trouble arise early, Tidrow is at the ready, and Sutter is on hand for the mop-up. Sutter's assignment is to hold the opposition if the score is tied or if the Cubs have a narrow lead. He rarely enters a game with his team behind, and when he does, as he did last Wednesday in a 4-3 loss to the Expos, he is as startled as Lord Olivier might be if asked to appear opposite Miss Piggy.

"I thought I'd come in one hitter earlier [when the score was still tied]," he said, after having arrived on the scene with two outs in the ninth. Gary Carter, the only hitter he faced, grounded out to end the inning. It isn't the fault of Sutter or Tidrow that the Cubs, contenders for most of the season, fell into an early September slump.

Sutter is effusive in praise of Tidrow, the man who has spared him overwork and allowed him to be used where he can do the most good. "This is still a team game, despite the individual statistics," he says, "and I wouldn't have 35 saves without Dick Tidrow."

In his present enviable situation, Sutter believes he enjoys an almost unfair advantage over the hitters he faces. As a short reliever, he rarely confronts the same man twice in a game, which means most batters have only one chance to solve the riddle of the split-fingered fastball. Considering the vagaries of today's scheduling, a batter might see Sutter's pitch in June and not again until August, when time has mercifully clouded the memory of it. As a one-pitch pitcher, he is, he says, spared the agonizing reappraisals that those with more varied repertoires endure. "I don't second-guess myself," he says. "If somebody gets a hit, I don't stand there thinking maybe I should have thrown him a slider." And as a late-inning man, he sees an unusual number of pinch hitters, unfortunates for whom he professes the most profound sympathy. "The pinch hitter is stiff," Sutter says. "He hasn't seen a ball all night. He might not have hit in two weeks. He's in a pressure situation. Maybe he has to go for the long ball. I'm in there more often than he is. It's awfully tough on him."

Sutter has not always been in position to afford the luxury of such magnanimous sentiments. A three-sport star at Donegal High School in Mount Joy, Pa., which is about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, he was drafted after graduation in 1970 by the Washington Senators. But—apparently to the Senators' surprise—he had just turned 17, and "because the rules prohibited them from talking to me until I was 18, they never made a true offer." So Sutter enrolled in Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He visited academe just long enough to learn that "I couldn't get into the studying part of it." Then he went home and started playing with the semiprofessional Hippey's Raiders of Lancaster, Pa. There he was discovered by Cub scout Ralph DiLullo and signed as a free agent for the princely bonus of $500. In 1972 he pitched in only five innings in four games for Bradenton in the rookie Gulf Coast League before his arm gave out. In his naivetè, Sutter refrained from telling the Cubs of the seriousness of his injury, fearful they would regard him as a helpless cripple and send him packing. In January of 1973 he underwent surgery at his own expense for a pinched nerve in his right elbow.

He had been a fastball-curveball pitcher until then, but at the start of the 1973 season he felt obliged to inform his employers that he could no longer throw hard. It was then that Sutter fell under the protective wing, as it were, of Fred Martin, the Cubs' minor league pitching instructor that year. All Martin did was show him how to throw the pitch that would make him rich and famous. "He [Martin] had used it in the minors as a change of speed," says Sutter. "For me, it was a necessity." Struggling to control the new pitch during the early portion of the '73 season, Sutter had an ERA of "six something" for Quincy, the Cubs' Class A farm. He finished at 4.13, and three years later he was in the big leagues. Martin, who died earlier this year, was, for young Sutter, "like a second father."

His actual father, Howard, a retired accountant, is credited with both teaching him how to play baseball and cultivating in him an equanimous approach to life. Sutter is tall and lanky, and were it not for a rather scraggly Fu Manchu mustache, he would have the aspect of a young Jimmy Stewart. The look fits his easygoing nature. "You won't see me mad out there," he says. "Looking at me, you won't be able to tell if I'm pitching bad or good. I know I'm not going to be good all the time. As long as I know everyone's trying, I can't get upset. That's the way my dad is. He's a low-keyed person. He never got upset, and he had six kids."

Sutter's vaunted cool was sorely tested as he departed Wrigley Field one day last week. As he maneuvered his car from the players' parking lot, heading for the home he shares with his wife and two sons in Arlington Heights, he was pursued down the busy street by swarms of children in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Sebastian Venable's flight from the cannibalistic youngsters in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. As their number increased, Sutter feared his followers might be injured, so he pulled over and rolled down his window. "O.K., I don't want to see any of you guys killed, so let's have 'em." The kids pressed upon him programs, baseballs and strips of paper, which he dutifully signed. When the last boy shot an open palm through the open window, Sutter seemed confused. Was he to sign the bare flesh? Would the kid ever wash that hand again? "Naw, man," the boy finally said, "I don't want your autograph. I just want to shake the hand of Bruce Sutter." Sutter cheerfully obliged and then drove off, as the youngsters retreated in search of new prey.

Sutter did not drive far. He pulled into a parking lot a block away in front of the Muenchner-Hof restaurant on North Clark Street. "I don't think anyone saw us," the slightly shaken Sutter advised a companion. "I just didn't want those kids to get hurt in the street chasing me over here. Let's go in for a quick beer." A cool one well earned.

View this article in the original magazine

TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERSutter demonstrates his grip for his money pitch, which changes speed and direction in mid-flight.

THE KING OF THE BULLPEN

Among relief pitchers with 200 or more appearances, Sutter is the only one in history to have won or saved more than half of his games, which puts him well ahead of second-place Johnny Murphy.

Seasons

Wins

Saves

Total

Games

% of Games Won or Saved

BRUCE SUTTER

1976—

25

103

128

232

55.2

JOHNNY MURPHY

1932, 34-43, 46-47

73

107

180

375

48.0

ROLLIE FINGERS

1968—

83

221

304

664

45.8

DICK RADATZ

1962-67, 69

52

122

174

381

45.7

RICH GOSSAGE

1972—

44

97

141

314

44.9

BILL CAMPBELL

1973—

52

94

146

342

42.7

FIRPO MARBERRY

1923-36

53

101

154

364

42.3

MIKE MARSHALL

1967, 69—

88

184

272

653

41.7

SPARKY LYLE

1967—

84

220

304

739

41.1

ELLIS KINDER

1946-57

44

102

146

362

40.3