Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan had a blazing fastball, the first ever clocked at 100 mph, during 27 seasons that included 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters.
Mariano Rivera has used a devastating, bat-cracking cutter for a record 608 saves to be part of five World Series championships with the New York Yankees.
R.A. Dickey? He mastered one pitch, the knuckleball, and at age 37 became an All-Star for the first time.
Then Yu Darvish came to America this year with an array of different pitches, at least seven and maybe more depending on how you might classify his repertoire. The Japanese ace won 10 games for the Texas Rangers before the All-Star break.
“Everything from the velocity to the way he spins the ball is impressive. ... He can do a lot of different things with the baseball,” Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “When he needs to make a pitch, he has a lot of different things he can do.”
There are fastballs, sliders, curves, slurves, palmballs, splitters, forkballs and even the infamous gyroball. The curve has nicknames like hammer, deuce or Uncle Charlie.
But are there really that many more pitches these days?
Or are things more specific because of all the advance scouting and modern technology that can track the speed and movement of every pitch?
“Now you’re talking about two-seamers, four-seamers and cutters. That can be three pitches off the fastball, where before it was just a fastball,” said Arizona manager Bob Melvin, a former big-league catcher.
“I put down one (finger) and got whatever they threw me,” added Melvin, who played in the majors from 1985-94.
Like Darvish with his wide variety of pitches or Dickey and his specialized toss, every pitcher who has ever stood on a mound is trying to do the same thing: Get the guy out.
Seattle right-hander Kevin Millwood, who in June threw the first six innings of a combined no-hitter, is in the 16th season of his major league career that began in Atlanta when he was on a staff with four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
“I guess you can have as many pitches as you want as long as you can control them and know where they’re going. I have a hard enough time with four,” Millwood said with a chuckle.
“I watched Glavine win a lot of ballgames throwing pretty much two pitches, Smoltz was pretty much the same way,” he said. “Maddux, he would use three different pitches really and might mix in a curveball here and there. But for the most part he was fastball, changeup and a little cutter.”
Satchel Paige had his bow-tie pitch, which was a neck-high fastball sure to back batters off the plate. Christy Mathewson threw his fadeaway pitch that was later known as a screwball and thrown so effectively by Pedro Martinez and Fernando Valenzuela.
Dickey, the New York Mets right-hander, baffles batters and sometimes his own catchers. He is the only current major leaguer whose primary pitch is the knuckleball, a pitch with little or no spin is hard to hit because it floats and can unexpectedly dart or move in any direction. It’s also supposed to be hard for pitchers to control.
Now there is Darvish, who won 93 games and had a 1.99 ERA as a two-time MVP and five-time All-Star over seven seasons in Japan before signing with Texas last winter.
“He really throws seven, eight different pitches,” said All-Star starting catcher Mike Napoli of the Rangers. “Yu’s stuff, all of his pitches are pretty good.”
Texas manager Ron Washington is quick to point out that Darvish is still learning the different hitters in his new league.
“We may not see the real Yu Darvish until toward the end of the year and going into next year,” Washington said. “He’s doing things on the fly. He’s in a tough situation and his still thriving. ... He’s got stuff and he’s going to figure out how to package it and use it.”
And he still already has five games with at least 10 strikeouts this season, matching Dickey’s total before the All-Star break.
Steve Busby is a former major league pitcher who threw no-hitters in each of his two full seasons for Kansas City (1973 and 1974) before his career was derailed by rotator cuff surgery. He’s impressed with Darvish.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen a right-handed pitcher that can make the ball do what he can make it do any better,” said Busby, now a Rangers broadcaster. “There’s some guys that have pretty good movement, but he has the ability to make the ball move both ways on his fastball. ... That’s a critical ability.”
Lefty Bruce Chen has been in the majors for 14 years. He is with his 10th different team, the Royals, and believes he has made it this long by expanding from the basic three pitches he was throwing in the minors.
“When you’re coming up, they want fastball, curveball, changeup,” Chen said. “And then when I got to the major leagues, I realized I needed a slider, and then people started adjusting, and they said, ‘You know, you need a cutter to make sure you keep guys honest.’”
While Ryan played longer in the majors than any other player and had so much success throwing fastballs past hitters, few pitchers try to do it like he did. At least those starting games.
“Now we’re seeing a lot of different people pitching off their fastball or their cut fastballs, what they call two-seam fastballs trying to get the ball to sink or run it. ... People are trying to develop movement off their fastballs,” Ryan said. “I think part of that is you don’t see a lot of just real hard throwers coming up in the game where that’s considered still the best pitch in baseball, and that’s somebody that throws above-average fastballs.”
More common are hard-throwing relievers who aren’t expected to throw extended innings each night. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said it seems every team has several guys like that these days.
“Back in the day, 95 (mph) used to mean something,” said Wedge, who like Melvin played in the majors as a catcher. “Look at just how prominent that cutter has become in the game. And the changeups or the split-fingers. ... You’re getting a lot more action on the baseball at home plate nowadays.
“If you look at what the pitching has done versus what the hitting’s done in regards of moving forward, “ he said, “I think the pitching is ahead of the hitters without a doubt.”