MLB Pitches Over the Past 100 Years
Major League Baseball has prided itself on delivering a timeless experience to generations of fans. Children, parents, and grandparents heading to the park to enjoy nine wholesome innings of play – all while chowing down on hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks – is a slice of Americana. (Though, the food has even started to change – hello “Burgerzzia” and “Irish Nachos.”)
While MLB fans have experienced culinary changes at the ballpark, the players have also seen changes over the years. Pitchers, much like parks’ food services teams, needed to spice up their game by inventing new pitches to stay ahead of batters. Over the past 100 years, from 1870 to 1970, pitchers invented several new ways to keep batters guessing as the ball whizzed by them and over the plate. As pitchers have found ways to put some extra mustard on their balls and strikes, fans and hitters both have enjoyed getting to ask, “Just what was that pitch?”
Curveballs and Screwballs: 1870s to 1880s
In the sports’ infancy, William Arthur Cummings, known as “Candy Cummings,” delivered baseball its first curveball. He invented the pitch while tossing sea shells into the Atlantic Ocean and quickly applied efforts to perfect this new style of throwing. Fans frequently debated whether the ball actually curved in the air, but researchers in the 21st century have proven that it does, in fact, curve.
This pitch succeeded by breaking downward in a way that confused batters, leaving plenty swinging far away from where the ball actually was when it passed across the plate. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw hasn’t earned as sweet of a nickname as Candy, but he’s the modern example of a ruthless curveball pitcher. He won the 2013 Cy Young Award (MLB’s recognition of the year’s best pitcher) by using his curveball between 10 to 15 percent of the time.
There were other pitches created during the 1870s and 1880s, such as variants of the fastball – two-seam and four-seam. Breaking ball creation occurred with the introduction of the screwball – Los Angeles Angels left-handed pitcher Hector Santiago might be the last modern pitcher throwing these in MLB today – and the knuckleball, still thrown today by pitchers like Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey and Boston Red Sox’s Steven Wright. Dancing more erratically than a student at their first school dance, a well-thrown knuckleball doesn’t spin at all, allowing it to fall (break) multiple times before it reaches the batter.
Spitballs and Sliders: 1900s to 1920s
As baseball began to grow as a sport, pitchers developed an edge with the next pitch that appeared in their arsenal: the spitball. These balls earned their name after pitchers would literally spit on them, either with saliva or after chewing another substance – tobacco, licorice – to get some extra stick. This offered the pitcher more control over the ball, leaving them with better command thanks to an enhanced grip.
Beyond the doctoring of the ball, it really didn’t differ at all from the standard fastball in flight. Its presence wasn’t long lived, as the sport eventually banned the pitch for being unsportsmanlike prior to the 1920 season. This didn’t stop pitchers from, occasionally, trying to bend the rules and getting away with an altered ball.
This period in baseball also lead to the introduction of the slider. Thrown with a sidespin, a slider moved across (rather than breaking downward like a curveball) and enabled pitchers to trick batters with another atypical pitch. In the modern era, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jonny Venters has thrown a slider so “nasty” it was unhittable seven out of every 10 swings for a period of time.
Changing it up With a Splitter: 1940s to 1970s
In the 1940s, pitchers decided to throw batters off their game with another style of pitch: the changeup. Thrown almost identically to a fastball, the changeup is hurled at a much lower velocity in order to confuse the batter and catch them out of rhythm. Six-time All-Star and Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez has made it one of his featured pitches.
The most recent pitch developed by pitchers is the splitter. Appearing in the 1970s, it’s used by just a handful of professional players today. There’s high risk for a pitcher if the command of the ball isn’t right. Slower than a four-seam fastball, the splitter breaks downward right before reaching the plate. New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka unleashed his splitter on MLB in 2014, throwing it a fifth of the time.
Three Strikes, You’re Out
Ballpark food: changed. Players’ uniforms: changed. Pitches: changed. Even for a sport as rich in history as Major League Baseball, change is necessary to remain competitive. Pitchers find ways to stay ahead of the count by creating new pitches to keep their ERA under control. There are plenty of amazing pitchers on the mound today – Kershaw, Price, Arrieta, Bumgarner – who owe their success to the inventive players who took the mound before them.
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