The Fastball: A Story of Particulars

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It is called such because it comes at the hitter with some mustard on it. Don’t worry this is not in the literal sense. That would be illegal, especially these days. Remember you aren’t allowed to apply a foreign substance to the baseball. What we are discussing in the case of a baseball with mustard on it is the fastball. Mustard applied to a baseball means, figuratively, that it is coming at the hitter at an increased rate. The idea is to throw the ball fast enough to prevent it from being hit.

Fastball Particulars

The fastball has a split personality. It is exciting and boring at once. It is exciting because it is thrown with great power and creates a certain amount of fear in the batter, so much so that when thrown hard enough even the best of hitters hesitate to dig in. And while a fastball can be a hair-raising experience it is also as common as the crows you see perched in your tree every morning. The monotony of the most common pitch can lead to a lackadaisical contest of similarity.

Magnus Effect

A spinning object–in this case a baseball–that is in motion, creates a force on the air around it. And according to Sir Isaac Newton and his Third Law, the air creates an equal and opposite force against the spinning object a.k.a. the baseball, which in turn alters its flight path. In the case of the fastball, which is usually thrown with backspin, old Magnus and its Effect creates an upward force on the ball. The backspin put on the fastball keeps it in the air longer. Whereas if one were to put topspin on the ball it would make its way to the ground sooner. And born from these factors is the fastball.

Four-Seam Fastball

The most common species of fastball is the four-seam fastball. This pitch is thrown by gripping the ball across the wider part of the seam. The four-seamer is typically the fastest pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal and has been clocked at over 100 mph. Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher, Aroldis Champman holds the title for the fastest clocked pitch in the Major Leagues at 105.1 mph. This is nothing to sneeze at, but surely something to try to swing at, although the success factor would be on the lower end.

The four-seam fastball is used for many things. From getting ahead in the count to intimidating the batter (nobody likes to see a fastball coming at their chin) to being the ideal pitch for warming up one’s arm. When it comes to throwing a baseball, the four-seam fastball is as common as they get.

Two-Seam Fastball

The two-seam fastball is gripped with the index and middle fingers over the area on the baseball where the seams are closest together. By throwing the pitch this way the ball will tail off to the left or the right. But it can also be made to sink. This is known as a sinker. It all depends on the fingertip pressure and velocity applied to the baseball, as well as the arm angle. As with any pitch, the idea is to make it harder for the batter to make contact. And not only does the two-seamer accomplish this, but it also makes it harder to hit the ball hard or to square it up. Consequently, the two-seam fastball causes lots of weak pop-ups. And in the case of the sinker, multitudes of ground balls.

If you are looking to see a two-seam fastball in all its glory look no further than Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. These two masters of their craft dominated and frustrated batters for years with the two-seamer to the delight of the teams they pitched for.

Cutter

The cutter is held in much the same way as a four-seam fastball with the only difference being an inward rotation of the thumb and an outward rotation of the middle and index fingers. The pitch has a late break to the inside or outside that fools many batters. Why does it fool them? Because the delivery looks the same as a four-seam fastball, so the batter is anticipating that. But, what they aren’t expecting is the late break. The surprise causes the same thing as the two-seamer, producing a symphony of weak ground balls and pop-ups.

The maestro of the cutter was the all-time saves leader, Mariano Rivera. Rivera spent his career closing the door on last-minute rallies and crushing the hearts of hopeful opponents and their fans.

Split-Finger Fastball

Deception is the name of the game when it comes to the split-finger fastball. Also known as the splitter, this pitch is designed to look like a fastball, but is more of a change-up. Named the split-finger because of the way that it is gripped with the index and middle fingers split on either side of the horseshoe seam. The pitch tends to drop as it approaches the batter and then breaks either to the right or the left. This is a pitch that requires larger hands and great arm strength. Using this pitch frequently puts extra stress on a pitcher’s arm and can cause injury, so it is one to be used with less frequency.

Pitchers John Smoltz and Roger Clemens both used the splitter with great success.

Rising Fastball

It wouldn’t be baseball without a little bit of myth added in. So, let’s welcome the rising fastball also known as the four-seam fastball thrown at different speeds.

The rising fastball is an optical illusion. This is because it is not physically possible for a person to throw a ball with backspin fast enough to make it rise. And while most pitches drop as they approach the batter, the fastball holds its plane. This gives the illusion of rising. Even though many batters claim to have seen the ball rise, they are mistaken. Another possibility is that the players are seeing the same pitch at different speeds. This difference plays a trick on their perception causing them to think the ball is rising. It’s not. Possibly after another few thousand years of evolution, we will be able to throw a rising fastball, but not now. For now, this pitch goes the way of the Abner Doubleday creation myth.

 

 

 

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

 

Players Mentioned:

Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, Roger Clemens