April 5, 2011

A FALSE FAVORITE:

The Phillies’ Four Aces (PAT JORDAN, 3/31/11, New York Times Magazine)

When I pitched in the minor leagues, we called it “stuff.” A pitcher’s currency. Hard stuff, breaking stuff, slow stuff, trick stuff. Trick stuff was Phil Niekro’s knuckleball. He won 318 major league games by digging his fingernails into the seams of a ball and throwing it toward the plate as if he were pushing open a door. Trying to hit his knuckleball was like swatting at a fly with a straw.

Slow stuff was a changeup like Christy Mathewson’s famous “fadeaway,” which was said to dissolve — poof! — as the batter swung. Or Stu Miller’s slow, slower and slowest changeups. Batters swore Miller didn’t throw the ball — he just put it on his arm and let his pulse carry it to the plate.

Breaking stuff included a curveball, a slider and a screwball, pitches that radically changed direction as they approached the plate. The greatest curveballs (from Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, John Smoltz) were thrown hard and broke almost straight down. The Unfair One is what pitches like that were called. They were unhittable. A slider was a “nickel” curve with a short, sharp, last-second break. The Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had a slider that mimicked his fastball until the batter began his swing, then the ball darted six inches off the plate. A screwball was a reverse curveball. If the arm motion behind a curveball is akin to a man gracefully sweeping a woman into his arm, then a screwball requires the opposite: the pushing away of an assailant. There have been few great screwball pitchers (Fernando Valenzuela, Warren Spahn, Tug McGraw) because it’s so hard to master such an unnatural arm motion. The greatest screwballer was Carl Hubbell, who in the 1934 All Star game struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession. Hubbell’s left arm was so twisted that it hung by his side, his palm facing away from his body.

Hard stuff was a fastball (Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan) thrown near 100 m.p.h., and with movement. Koufax’s fastball seemed to rise from a batter’s waist to his eyes as the batter swung. Some great fastballs moved left, right, down — and some mediocre fastballs became great fastballs as they approached the plate and then, impossibly, seemed to pick up speed.

The greatest starting pitchers had at least one Unfair pitch, maybe two. Some great pitchers, like Whitey Ford and Spahn, never had an Unfair pitch but an assortment of excellent pitches instead.

The game has changed a lot since those days. But, as one pitching coach has said, “the game never changes to help pitchers.” That’s why today’s pitchers have been forced to evolve from predators to jackals. “Pitchers today don’t out-stuff hitters,” Buck Showalter, the Baltimore Orioles manager, says. Pitchers today are con men, pickpockets, masters of deception. Their weapons are small pitches: cutters, splitters, circle changeups.

No team in baseball today has a greater number of successful deceptive pitchers than the Philadelphia Phillies. They have brought together four of the best starting pitchers in the game: Roy (Doc) Halladay, a 33-year-old two–time Cy Young Award winner; Cliff Lee, 32, and also a Cy Young winner; Roy Oswalt, 33, with 150 career wins; and the 27-year-old Cole Hamels, a World Series hero three years ago. Before they have even thrown one pitch for the same team, they are being hailed as the best four-man rotation in baseball, maybe the best ever. They are being compared with the great staffs in baseball history: the New York Yankees in the 1930s; the Cleveland Indians in 1954; the Orioles with their four 20-game winners in 1971; and the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s. As soon as Lee rejoined the team last December, the Phillies immediately became everyone’s favorite to win this year’s World Series.



Posted by at April 5, 2011 6:54 PM
  

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