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In baseball, timing is everything for hitting. Striking a round ball approaching faster than the speed limit, with a round bat, is extremely difficult. Pitchers know this, so they purposely mix in different types of pitches to mess with that all-important timing, messing with velocity, and how balls move at the end of flight.
For instance, consider the splitter vs. changeup. These pitches can look the same, yet there are nuances to help identify them. Both approach home plate slower than a fastball. Then it’s about what happens at the end: if the ball drops hard downward, it’s probably a splitter. If the batter swings too soon, or the ball seems to drift a little at the end like a Frisbee, it’s likely a changeup.
Both pitch types are “paired with the fastball,” meaning they are thrown to look like a fastball leaving a pitcher’s hand, so a batter’s mind thinks “Hurry!” and orders the body to swing fast. Once the body initiates the swing, the splitter and changeup do their damage by acting differently than the batter’s brain perceived.
- Changeups are slower in speed; batters more often swing too early, or before the ball gets to home plate.
- Splitters are between a fastball speed, and a changeup. The change in velocity is one element to disrupt hitters’ timing, but not the only one.
- Split-finger fastballs drop downward rather violently, often bouncing in the dirt before reaching the catcher. Batters tend to swing over these pitches, or strike the top part of the ball resulting in ground balls.
- Changeups can also move at the very end, and sometimes down, but usually laterally toward the side of the pitcher’s throwing hand. This is called a “fade,” kind of like how a Frisbee gently fades left or right at the tail end of its flight.
The splitter and changeup are sometimes categorized differently ~ as a fastball variant or an off-speed pitch, respectively. However, in reality both are a type of off-speed pitch. That is, they are off the typical speed (velocity) of a fastball.
For those new to baseball, these pitch names may seem odd, compared with straightforward descriptions like fastballs and curveballs. Those balls are fast, or curve.
Yet balls don’t actually change or split. There are reasons for those particular names, which we’ll explain below. It may not be easy for new fans to learn the differences, but once they do, they’ll wonder why pitchers don’t throw them more often.
Pitchers use many different grips to throw a changeup, and quite often these grips are quite personalized. They learn to hold the ball however it feels best, or acts best, in the motion of throwing. Perhaps the most common way is to throw the ball with the middle and ring fingers as the primary controllers ~ as opposed to the index finger and middle finger working together like with fastballs.
This way is similar to a lot of changeup grips, where the ball is more snug with the palm, as opposed to pinching it between the index and middle fingers at top and thumb at bottom for fastballs.
Take for instance the now-popular “circle change.” To do this grip, simply make the “okay” sign with the hand, that is, touch the index finger to the inner half of the thumb. It should form a little circle, maybe a half-inch wide. Place that circle on the side of the ball, and over the top let the middle and ring fingers go over the top, across or along a seam.
Pressure the ball with the middle and ring fingers at top, downward to the thumb; the pinky finger can lay limp, or some pitchers use it for additional stability or control.
During delivery, the arm action will be fast and look like a fastball, but the ball will spin slower out of the hand compared with the tight fastball grip ~ slowing the ball down just enough to mess up the batter’s swing.
For the splitter, remember that it’s a type of fastball, so the grip is similar, just wider, or “split.” For both regular and split-finger fastballs, use the index and middle fingers to top the ball. However, for a fastball those two fingers are close together but not usually touching, either across a seam to form two tt’s (4-seam fastball), or along or atop the two closest seams on the ball (2-seam fastballs).
A splitter grip is like a 2-seam grip, only the fingers are wider apart, often along the outside of those closest-together seams, instead of atop them.
Development of the Splitter and Changeup Pitches in Baseball
This pitch is named because it’s a change, or change of pace, from a fastball. Fastballs are the most common type of pitch; basically anyone who picks up something and throws it forward with maximum effort is throwing a fastball. Nothing else was attempted to change the flight or velocity of the object in the air.
And fastballs alone are hard to hit; they come in very fast and batters’ brains have a split second to decide whether or not to swing, and if so, where to guide the hands to hold the bat in the best position to strike the incoming ball.
This is what early baseball pitchers began tinkering with long ago: how to fool batters into thinking a fastball is coming, while in reality something slower will approach. That’s a changeup.
In the major leagues the change in miles per hour does not have to be severe, maybe 7 to 10 mph slower. The key is in the pitcher’s arm and body movement while delivering a changeup. It must look exactly like the throwing of a fastball.
That is, the throwing arm cannot slow down to toss a slower pitch. Usually this involves gripping a ball more deeply into the palm, e.g. not by the fingertips like fastballs, but to more roll the ball off the palm while the hand snaps downward hard ~ as if a fastball was thrown.
Many changeups have movement at the very end of the ball flight, known as a tail, or run, as in “The ball tailed in on him,” or, “That pitch ran outside.”
The batter sees the same motion and fast arm action as a fastball, so his brain thinks of the fastball, and quickly triggers the body to commence a swing. Unfortunately, instead of the ball arriving at 92 mph, for instance, the ball floats in around 85. That may not seem like a lot, but trust us, it is.
Because the batter started the swing early, and his brain is still thinking about the fastball midway through the ball’s flight, his bat barrel will fly through the hitting zone just before the ball arrives.
In short, it makes batters swing a little too soon. It messes up their ability to time the ball’s arrival into the hitting zone and across home plate.
An effective changeup can be a nasty, terribly effective weapon for pitchers who can command them. From there, the split-fingered fastball adds another layer of nastiness: not only does the ball arrive a little slower, it drops downward very swiftly at the very end of the flight.
Good splitters are almost unfair to a batter, who starts to swing thinking fastball, and can’t hold back on the bat barrel as it enters the hitting zone early. Then, even if in mid-swing the batter’s brain tries to adjust the barrel to the new ball flight path, the ball drops off that path at the very last moment.
While versions of the split-fingered fastball may have been thrown for decades (only with different names, like a “forkball,” if pitchers named them at all), it wasn’t until the late 1970s when the pitch became a devastating option. Especially for relief pitchers.
It was made popular by future Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter, who dumbfounded hitters with a brutal splitter as a closer in the late ‘70s through the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, former MLB pitcher Roger Craig as a coach taught the pitch to other new pitchers, like Jack Morris, who rode it to fame.
Much the same as a changeup: the ball looks like a fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand, so the swing commences, with the brain ordering the hands to quickly send the bat barrel to a certain point in the hitting zone, only to see the ball drop below the bat at the last split-second.
If teen-agers had to compare the split-fingered fastball and the changeup, they’d probably say they’re kind of different but kind of the same. Both try to trick batters into thinking they are fastballs, but in reality they are disguised offerings that arrive slower than perceived by the batters’ eyes and brain. The changeup floats in toward the batter, sometimes dipping down, or also toward or away from a batter, depending on the pitcher. The splitter comes in faster but drops violently down at the last moment. Both pitches, if commanded well, are very hard to strike well.