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Blue Jays: The history of a pitch that made Kevin Gausman an ace

Apr 26, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /
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Kevin Gausman has been incredible in his first six starts with the Blue Jays this season. In 38 innings, Gausman has struck out 46 while only walking a single batter. He set a franchise record for innings pitched without allowing a  walk and has been worth every penny of the $110 million deal that was signed in the offseason, at least so far. Gausman’s success can be largely attributed to his signature pitch—the split-finger fastball.

Gausman’s splitter has been his primary out-pitch for the majority of his career and thankfully this season is no different. Gausman tosses his splitter 33% of the time and has recorded 32(!) strikeouts on that particular pitch alone.

It’s hard to fathom just how impressive Gausman’s mastery over the splitter really is. In fact, Gausman is really a two-pitch pitcher who occasionally will mix in a slider and an incredibly rare changeup. The splitter and fastball dominate his repertoire and for good reason. If you can record 46 strikeouts while authoring an ERA of 2.13 while only utilizing two pitches, there isn’t any point in throwing another one.

But Gausman’s success is all the more peculiar and noteworthy in large part because of his signature pitch. Only a handful of pitchers in the big leagues throw the pitch, making the Blue Jays pitcher a member of an exclusive fraternity of hurlers who still dabble in the split-finger. But why don’t more throw it? Pitchers like Gausman, Shohei Ohtani, and Nathan Eovaldi all utilize the pitch to tremendous effect. Even historically speaking, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Jack Morris dominated with the split-finger in the 1980s and 1990s. But now the pitch is a rarity, only fitting in the arsenals of a select few in today’s game.

It’s worth looking at the history of the splitter in order to deduce its mystique and gravitas, where did it come from, who shoved it to the forefront, and why is it no longer as common as it once was?

The first documented account of a variation of the splitter was in 1908

In 1908, Bert Hall, a pitcher for a Class-B team in Tacoma, Washington referred to the pitch he threw as a “forkball”. Much like a changeup, a forkball sits back in a pitcher’s palm, with the ball pushed deep between the index and middle finger, and has the same deception as a change-up—fastball appearance with drastic velocity change and downward action. Hall briefly appeared in the majors in 1911 with the Phillies. He pitched in just seven games before returning to Tacoma and it would take a couple more years for the forkball to resurface.

Bullet Joe Bush won a pair of championships pitching on the 1913 Philadelphia A’s and 1918 Boston Red Sox, but an injury in 1920 lost him his curveball and he sought out a new pitch. He eventually found the forkball and used it to win another championship with the Yankees in 1923, but as he was unwilling to divulge the secrets of his newfound weapon, the secrets of the forkball would remain hidden for many more years.

For a time, the forkball would occasionally appear on the big league scene, a pitcher here and there would pick up the grip in hopes of finding a pitch to revitalize their stagnant career, but the forkball and subsequent split-finger fastball didn’t become widespread common practise until Roger Craig made it the most sought after tool in a pitcher’s toolbox.

Craig, a righty who won a pair of championships with the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, became the most vocal and influential teacher of the pitch. Oddly enough, Craig never threw either pitch and only ever taught the split-finger, emphasizing that the two were very different pitches—the splitter is held like a fastball with the fingers on the side, while a forkball sits back in the palm. Towards the latter half of his career, Roger Craig bounced from team to team, until his playing career ended and his coaching career began. First as a pitching coach with the Padres in 1969, then a stint with the Astros in the 1970s, where he would have the incredible fortune of meeting legendary Cubs closer, Bruce Sutter.

Sutter was the National League MVP in 1979, a six-time all-star, and World Series Champion. He collected 300 total saves with the split-finger and rode the pitch all the way to Cooperstown, where he was inducted into the hallowed halls in 2006. Sutter picked up the pitch after a couple of injuries looked to derail his promising career. When Craig met Sutter in San Diego in the 1970s, the former was heading up a baseball academy. Ever the coach, Craig knew his young pupils would need to add a breaking pitch if they ever wanted to succeed at a higher level. Craig wanted them to add something safe, something that wouldn’t manipulate the wrist and extend the chances of injury. The split-finger was just that, a pitch that requires no wrist manipulation, it’s just a fastball with a wider grip.

Kevin Gausman has mastered the split-finger fastball and has used the pitch to become the ace the Blue Jays have been missing.

Craig became the Tigers pitching coach in 1980 and started teaching the pitch to the Tigers starting staff, including Hall of Famer and future Blue Jays starter, Jack Morris. Morris needed a new pitch to replace his flattening slider and the splitter proved to be exactly what he needed. Morris would win more games than any other pitcher in the 1980s and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018, and the splitter was largely the reason.

With the success of Morris and the other Tigers pitchers, the splitter took off, quickly becoming THE pitch in baseball. However, the craze would not last. Serious, career-ending injuries to pitchers who threw the splitter, including Bruce Sutter, marked a decline in the pitch’s popularity as the century turned over.

Injury concerns keep the splitter from the mainstream pitch arsenal

Because of the perceived health risk, young pitchers tend to make the choice to steer clear of the splitter, choosing to instead protect the health of their arms. But an inverse side-effect of the splitter becoming a forgotten art is that hitters no longer have a familiarity with the pitch because they’re no longer facing it. Pitchers who do throw it have the added advantage of surprise and unfamiliarity.

The idea that the splitter is the cause of serious injury is largely disputed. The act of pitching itself is an unnatural motion that human beings were never meant to do and any stress on the arm can cause muscles to tear and tendons to rip. Bruce Sutter firmly believes that the splitter did not cause the injury that ended his career, but others like Sutter may point to the pitch as the cause of their arm pain. The splitter is not for everyone, to throw it a pitcher must have both long and flexible fingers, able to split apart enough for the ball to fit firmly between them. Not everyone is born with the genetics to divide their fingers in such a way and when the grip is forced, that is what causes injury.

Any pitch can cause injury so the splitter has been subjected to rather unfair treatment, but nonetheless, it has persevered. Like a generational trait passed from person to person, the splitter has passed through the bloodline of professional baseball. Now it’s passed to the current generation of hurlers, including Gausman.

Gausman and his split-finger

A lanky kid in high school, Gausman’s fastball sat in the high 90s but he needed a breaking pitch to add to the mix. The Blue Jays starter learned his splitter from Chris Baum, a former collegiate pitcher who coached at Gausman’s high school in Colorado. Gausman’s splitter evolved as he moved from high school to college. His performance at Louisiana State University got him drafted fourth overall by the Orioles in 2012 and into the big leagues in 2014.

The Orioles traded Gausman to the Braves in 2018 and Atlanta’s coaches would advise Gausman to adhere to the style of pitching that has dominated MLB—fastballs up in the zone, breaking balls down. Gausman would pitch ut of the Reds bullpen in 2019 after the Braves DFA’d him and his two-pitch approach flourished out of the pen. As a free agent, the Giants promised Gausman a spot in their rotation, but under the condition that he continue to pitch the way he did in Cincinnati. Basically becoming a two-pitch stater, Gausman excelled in San Francisco in 2020 and 2021 and signed a huge free-agent contract with the Blue Jays, which brings us to the present day.

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Gausman’s success story has been tethered to the split-finger fastball. Without it, there is really no saying where he would be, probably not an ace worth north of a hundred million dollars and starting for the Blue Jays. Like Sutter, Morris, and Bullet Joe before him, Gausman belongs to a small, exclusive grouping of pitchers whose careers have been made by a pitch so elusive and memorable that it defined an entire generation of ballplayers.

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