Listen very carefully. If you stand close enough to the plate,
you can hear the best weapon a pitcher can wield in his bid to
survive in one of baseball's greatest offensive eras. A good
fastball announces itself in flight with an angry whisper. "It
goes sssssssss," says Atlanta Braves righthander Greg Maddux,
softly blowing air through his teeth in what sounds like the
preamble to a steaming teakettle's whistle. "You can hear the
When a baseball spins fast enough, it creates a hiss as it cuts
through the air. The faster the spin, the louder the hiss, which
explains why the sinking 93-mph fastball thrown by Florida
Marlins righthander Kevin Brown sounds like air rushing out of a
punctured tire. "I stood and watched Kevin Brown throw on the
side at the All-Star Game last year," Maddux says. "His ball
didn't go sssssssss. It went SSSSSSSSS! It was the loudest ball
I've ever heard. You can see why his stuff is so nasty."
Says Marlins backup catcher Greg Zaun, "His sinker hurts your
hands when you don't hit it on the good part of the bat. And
just catching it isn't easy. You can't get too cute with it or
else you'll hurt your thumb. You don't worry about framing it or
anything like that. You just try to catch it."
Brown had a 1.89 ERA last season--2.32 better than the National
League average (one of the biggest such differentials in the
game's history)--and held batters to the lowest slugging
percentage (.289) in the majors. While more taters flew out of
ballparks than ever last season, Brown permitted just eight home
runs over his 233 innings. He faced 906 batters and walked only
31 unintentionally. "With the kind of movement he has on the
ball," says Florida pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "that's the
most amazing statistic from last season."
March 31, 1997
Heard any good fastballs lately? Not likely. Pitchers such as
Brown, 24-game winner John Smoltz of the Braves, 265 2/3-inning
workhorse Pat Hentgen of the Toronto Blue Jays and Randy Johnson
of the Seattle Mariners, who has gone 55-16 since 1993 and
appears recovered from back surgery performed last September,
are anachronisms. They are pitchers who have the heat to
dominate games consistently. They matter in a sport in which the
owners, in their quest to grab the attention and disposable
income of the casual, give-me-action fan, have turned the
pitcher into a prop.
"What it takes to succeed as a pitcher now is so much more
refined than it was 10 years ago," says St. Louis Cardinals
pitching coach Dave Duncan. That explains why young, unpolished
pitchers, in particular, are getting their lunches handed to
them. Only one pitcher younger than 27 won more than 15 games
last year: Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees. Only three
younger than 27 kept their ERAs below 3.50: Pedro Astacio and
Ismael Valdes of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Steve Trachsel of
the Chicago Cubs.
These days baseball belongs to the biggest, strongest men ever
to have played the game swinging extremely light bats at
baseballs that seem harder and livelier while the dimensions of
ballparks and the strike zone grow smaller. Owners have ignored
recent suggestions to raise the pitching mound or to insist that
the umpires expand the strike zone to the dimensions that are
called for in the rule book. Instead, the owners have assured
the further escalation of offense by adding two expansion teams
that will begin play next season--meaning that about 40 more
pitchers who don't belong in the big leagues will be on major
league rosters--and by planning another wave of retro ballparks
designed to minimize foul territory and maximize home runs.
Today's state-of-the-art hitter crowds the plate with such
impunity that he needs to wear a protective plastic guard over
his lead forearm while his hands hang in the strike zone. He
virtually ignores the inside pitch, knowing the umpire is not
likely to call one a strike and the pitcher doesn't want to risk
inciting a brawl or give up a home run by throwing one. So the
batter dives into the pitch--he doesn't simply stride toward the
pitcher as in the old days--and is just as likely to pull an
outside pitch out of the park as he is to hit it out to the
opposite field. Then, as Gary Sheffield of the Marlins did after
crushing 42 dingers last year, he goes home to lift weights with
a former Mr. Olympia to get bigger and stronger.
The 1990s hitter has a batting cage in his basement and a
library of videotapes in his den. Batters, especially designated
hitters, watch pitchers on the clubhouse television during
games. It's not unusual for a batter to run to the clubhouse VCR
after one of his at bats.
The home run, the quickest way to a fat paycheck, is so driving
baseball that striking out is no longer taboo for batters, who
last year whiffed at a higher rate than ever. The
grip-it-and-rip-it school of hitting does not encourage cutting
down on one's swing even with two strikes. Mo Vaughn of the
Boston Red Sox was the American League MVP in 1995 while
striking out 150 times, the most by an MVP in either league.
Sixty-one players belted at least 25 home runs last year, but
only seven of them didn't strike out at least 80 times (Barry
Larkin, Sheffield, Bobby Higginson, Frank Thomas, Bernie
Williams, Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken).
Home runs now occur more frequently than double plays, and
nearly half the regular players hit at least 20 dingers (43% of
the players with 400 at bats did so last year). For a pitcher to
come away from this climate with the level of success achieved
by Brown, Smoltz, Hentgen and Johnson is as difficult as coming
away from a Jenny Jones show appearance with your dignity. Never
mind the spotted owl. Who'll save the starting pitcher?
"The best thing you can do is intimidate hitters with your
stuff," Smoltz says. "If you don't have really good stuff, I
honestly don't know what you do. I believe so much in my stuff
that I can dictate the game. I still believe if you make good
pitches, it wouldn't matter if they were swinging aluminum bats.
But hitters today are so good and so strong that if you don't
have good stuff, they'll make you look real bad real quick."
Says Brown, "I don't buy the dilution-of-pitching theory. The
offensive explosion has been dictated more by the size of the
strike zone and the hitters. They've become stronger, and they
have a smaller area to focus on as far as the strike zone is
concerned. People say pitchers don't pitch a lot of innings
anymore. That's because they have to put more into every pitch.
That takes more out of you."
Hitters have raised the standard of what is considered quality
pitching. In the mid-1980s, for instance, Dwight Gooden of the
New York Mets dominated the National League with just two
pitches: a fastball, which he usually threw high in the strike
zone, and an overhand curveball with a big break. Davey Johnson,
his manager then and the Baltimore Orioles' skipper now, thinks
more hitters would catch up to pitches of that quality today.
"They have more bat speed now," Johnson says. "It was unheard of
then to have a centerfielder who lifted heavy weights. I've
noticed a big difference in the past 10 to 12 years. It's like
golf--it's all about clubhead speed now."
Gooden, too, has had to adjust, adding a changeup and slider to
his repertoire. In one game last year against the Cleveland
Indians, Gooden, who now pitches for the Yankees, threw nine
straight sliders. "There are some lineups where every guy can
take you deep," he says.
The strike zone used to be shaped like a refrigerator, with
classic hard throwers such as Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax going
top-shelf to get strikes. Now it has become flatter and wider,
and it is not only shaped like a shoe box but also is barely
bigger than one. Pitches about the width of a baseball outside
the plate generally are called strikes, and ones that hit the
inside corner are often called balls. Pitches at or above the
belt are usually called balls.
Pitchers like to blame umpires for the shrinking strike
zone--umpires say that the zone they call has not changed,
despite films of games as recently as the early 1980s that prove
the contrary--but the pitchers are the ones most responsible.
Because it has become harder to throw the ball past hitters and
because mistakes on the inside half of the plate often become
home runs, not just singles and doubles, pitchers nibble
maddeningly off the lower and outside boundaries of the strike
zone. The rare pitch high or inside suddenly looks too high or
too inside after an umpire sees a continual barrage of pitches
down and away.
What, then, do the best pitchers do to thrive in the powerball
--Establish the fastball. The five toughest pitchers to hit last
season in each league (according to opponents' batting average)
were all power guys: Al Leiter, Smoltz, Hideo Nomo, Brown and
Curt Schilling in the National League and Juan Guzman, Roger
Clemens, Hentgen, Kevin Appier and Alex Fernandez in the
American League. Johnson, with his 97-mph fastball, is annually
among that group when he isn't ailing.
Even finesse pitchers such as Maddux and teammate Tom Glavine
work primarily off their fastballs. "If I throw 100 pitches in a
game, I'll probably throw as many as 70 fastballs, unless it's a
night when I have a great changeup," Glavine says. "Too many
guys pitch backward. They throw their breaking ball so much that
it's almost like their fastball is their off-speed pitch. What
you have to realize is that a breaking ball is tougher to throw
for strikes. That means you have more pitchers pitching behind
in the count, and that's when you get hit."
Young pitchers in particular tend to stray from the fastball, a
habit formed in high school and college where hitters whip
28-ounce aluminum bats. "You can't throw the ball hard enough to
get it past someone swinging those bats," Duncan says. "And if
you do jam somebody, he can still hit it out. I have two sons
whose coaches want them to be pitchers because they have good
arms. But they want to hit. I don't blame them."
Pitchers need to be retrained to develop the arm strength to
throw with greater velocity. In 1991 the Dodgers drafted a high
school pitcher named Rick Gorecki in the 19th round. Gorecki had
an outstanding curveball, but his fastball maxed out at only 82
mph. The Dodgers ordered him to throw fastballs 80% of the time
at rookie league Great Falls. Gorecki didn't win a game that
first season, but his fastball eventually reached 90 mph. Now,
at 23, he's one of L.A.'s better prospects. "We did the same
thing with a couple of pitchers at [Class A] Bakersfield a
number of years ago," says Dodgers pitching coach Dave Wallace.
"That team lost 102 games, but we had a couple of young pitchers
named Ramon Martinez and John Wetteland."
--Be aggressive. "Nowadays too many pitchers go into a
self-defense mode," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
"It's as if they're afraid to throw the ball over the plate."
Pitchers have become so intimidated that hitters see the fear on
their faces. Los Angeles catcher Mike Piazza says, "I notice
that you don't see young pitchers being aggressive. I don't know
if you'd call it cockiness, but you hardly see anyone with a
presence on the mound. That's why someone like Pedro Martinez
Martinez, a 25-year-old Montreal Expos righthander, has a
natural sailing motion on his fastball that carries the ball
toward the hands of righthanded hitters. It's the type of pitch
that prompts offended batters to charge the mound. "Hitters
disregard the inside corner so much that you can throw a pitch
in the strike zone and they'll jackknife out of the way," says
one American League All-Star pitcher. "Frank Thomas is the worst
one for that, and umpires won't call inside strikes on him."
Pettitte, a lefty, features a cut fastball that bores in on
righties. A cutter acts like a hard slider with a smaller,
sharper break. Leiter, also a lefthander, held righthanded
hitters to a major-league-low .194 average last year employing
"The way hitters stand on top of the plate now and dive into the
ball, you have to pitch inside to keep them off the plate,"
Seattle's Johnson says. "You have to come inside so that they
don't feel comfortable." In a spring training game Johnson
fractured the lower left orbital bone of San Francisco Giants
first baseman J.T. Snow with one of his don't-get-too-
--Emphasize location. That's what Hentgen did last season on his
way to a 20-10 record. "I always knew it was important," Hentgen
says, "but last year I really made location my Number 1
priority. That could be the key element in pitching today."
Atlanta's staff is a case in point. Smaller strike zone? Somehow
the Braves' pitchers have expanded it, especially Maddux.
Whereas Jim Palmer once worked "up the ladder"--pitching
incrementally higher in the strike zone, an extinct art because
of the devolution of the zone--Maddux has turned the ladder on
its side. With laserlike precision, he pecks away at the outside
corner with such regularity that he gets more pitches farther
off the plate called strikes than anyone else. It's not unlike
Michael Jordan escaping traveling violations that apply to other
NBA players. "Maddux pitches to a bigger strike zone than
anyone," Duncan says. "If you watch Maddux, the games in which
he gets hit are the ones in which he's not getting those pitches
called and he has to come in to where the strike zone is for
In last year's World Series the Yankees were amazed at how often
Atlanta pitchers worked off the outer edge of the plate. The
Braves' outfielders shifted to the opposite field on every
Yankees hitter because of that pitching style. "My objective
with the strike zone is to see how much I can get away with,"
Glavine says. "I know I get pitches off the plate. You've got to
see how far you can go. You start out at a certain spot and see
how much more you can get on the outside corner. Every umpire is
different and every game is different, so you have to find out."
--Be creative. "Varying the speeds of your pitches to throw off
the timing of the hitter is much more important than it used to
be," Yankees righthander David Cone says. "Teams have charts now
that show what pitches you throw and in what location on a
3-and-2 count. So you've got to have at least three pitches,
Says 22-year veteran Dennis Eckersley, the Cardinals' closer,
"It's getting to the point where you have to have a trick pitch.
You always have to think, What can I do differently? That's one
reason Nomo is so effective. It's that twisting delivery. Nobody
else pitches like that."
For at least 10 years the trendiest trick pitch has been the
split-finger fastball. The splitter looks like a low fastball
before it breaks down with a late tumbling action. It rarely
results in a called strike because it usually sinks out of the
strike zone. Good splitters result in missed swings and ground
balls. Smoltz, whose fastball and slider long have been
nightmarish for righthanders, reached an elite level last season
after he added a splitter to neutralize lefthanders. The pitch,
however, has become so common that it has lost some of its
effectiveness. "When a few guys first threw it--guys like Bruce
Sutter and Mike Scott--they were unhittable," Yankees pitching
coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "But it's not a novelty anymore. You
can play a three-game series against somebody, and every one of
their starters throws a splitter."
Adds Maddux, "The slider was the pitch of the '70s and the
splitter was the pitch of the '80s. I think the changeup has
become the pitch of the '90s. You've got to have something to
mess up a hitter's timing."
Maddux has so much confidence in his changeup that he has been
known to intentionally miss the strike zone with a 2-2 pitch so
he can shock a hitter with a full-count changeup. Says Johnson,
"As hard as I throw, I know everyone sits on my fastball and
tries to time it. If I throw 125 pitches, maybe only five to
eight are changeups, but it's enough to throw them off,
especially when I mix in my breaking ball."
The changeup, however, can be fickle, especially for young
pitchers, because it requires "feel" that can be elusive--like
putting as opposed to whaling away with the driver in golf.
Pettitte won 12 games as a rookie in 1995 using a changeup as
his out pitch. "Last year I hardly threw it," he says. "I didn't
have the feel for it. I mostly went with the cutter, fastball
and curveball. Maybe the hitters kept waiting for the changeup."
Brown is the rare pitcher who can dominate hitters without a
changeup. Everything he throws is hard, but his slider, cutter
and sinker all have such movement that he doesn't need much
variation in pitch speeds. "There were maybe five times last
year where I thought, This would be a good spot for Kevin to
throw a changeup," his coach Rothschild says. "That's getting
picky." What makes Brown deceptive is that he throws his pitches
anywhere from sidearm to overhand, which prevents hitters from
quickly recognizing what's coming. "I'll throw from 10 arm
angles," he says.
Only three years ago, when he was still with the Texas Rangers,
Brown yielded the most hits in the majors and went 7-9. "I'd had
a lot of pitching coaches over my career, and I worried so much
about my mechanics that I forgot how to pitch," he says. "The
last couple of years I just said, The heck with it. I'm just
going to go back to what's comfortable."
Brown begins his delivery with his left foot in front of his
right, spins his back to the hitter without raising his arms
over his head, then slings the ball while untwisting his body.
"Kevin rotates his hips more than most anybody," Rothschild
says, "and he throws the ball as easily as anybody I've ever
been around. You don't see a lot of strain. A lot of that is
Pitchers with Brown's kind of stuff are increasingly rare in an
occupation forced to lower its standards. Only 10 pitchers in
the American League had ERAs of less than 4.00 last year. Heck,
only 37 in the league--and just 82 among all 28 teams--pitched
enough innings (162) to qualify for the ERA title. "I was nearly
run out of baseball in 1986 for having a 4.50 ERA," Eckersley
says. "Now I see guys with a 5.00 ERA walking around with their
heads held high like they're hot stuff."
The pitching world is populated with hurlers like Wilson Alvarez
of the White Sox, who says, "If I go seven innings every time I
pitch, I did my job. I gave us a chance to win." And he's
considered a pretty good pitcher by today's standards. "People
complain that nobody pitches nine innings anymore," Duncan says.
"Well, it's really hard to go nine without having so many counts
in the hitter's favor. What the small strike zone does more than
anything is change the count. Something needs to be done. The
game is out of balance."
Short of a telethon or coffee at the White House, needy pitchers
would benefit most from a return to the strike zone as it's
defined in the rule book. However, that is the least likely form
of aid because it is the most controversial. Umpires and hitters
don't want the grief involved in retraining their judgment of
what is a ball and a strike. "The least controversial thing to
do," Cone says, "is to change the slope and height of the mound
and see where that takes us. It's the fairest change to make."
Without a fundamental change, the downward spiral of pitching is
likely to continue. Those who can do what Brown did last year
will become all the more phenomenal. "What you're going to see
is relief pitchers getting more and more decisions," Glavine
says. "You're going to see pitchers with ERAs under four
considered to be having a great year. And because teams are so
careful about protecting young pitchers as they come through the
minors, you're going to see pitchers who can't work beyond 100
pitches in a game, which means they'll be done after four or
five innings. What happens then?"
The hiss of a nasty fastball blowing past the thick barrel of a
weightlifter's thin-handled bat grows fainter. Is anyone