Now that spring is here, it means that baseball is finally back in full swing. After a few busy weeks, I was finally able to catch a game on TV where the Red Sox were ahead late, and watched new closer Craig Kimbrel in action.
He did not disappoint.
Kimbrel struck out the side for his fourth save of the season, and did so in spectacular fashion. With his fastball routinely sitting at 98 miles per hour, Kimbrel blew through the heart of the Blue Jays’ lineup and made them look silly. One particularly devastating pitch was a nasty slider that struck out Edwin Encarnacion, who was fooled so badly that he swung Kimbrel’s wipeout pitch that was a good five feet short of the plate.
A few days later, I watched Noah Syndergaard take the mound for the New York Mets against the Philadelphia Phillies. Syndergaard, aptly nicknamed Thor, was electric, throwing triple-digit fastballs for the first few innings and mixing in a 94 mile per hour slider and a 90 mph changeup just for fun. It was as exhilarating a performance as I’ve ever seen on the baseball diamond.
But for every power pitcher like Kimbrel and Thor, there are the polar opposites. Pitchers like Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle relied on control and movement to carve out over a decade of MLB success, even with their barely 85 mph fastballs at their disposal. Former Red Sox closer and current set up man Koji Uehara owns the game’s best split-finger fastball and is lucky to touch 87 mph on the radar gun, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t effective. Buehrle and Moyer combined for 483 wins and over 3500 strikeouts, and Uehara had 52 saves in his three seasons as closer for the Sox.
That’s the beautiful thing about pitching. Teams don’t care if you throw 100 mph or 85 mph. They just want their pitchers to keep opposing batters off balance and give their own team a chance to win the game.
The golden age of pitching is upon us, and we are surrounded by impressively effective pitchers of all types. Aside from Kimbrel and Thor, there are the rare left-handed power pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Aroldis Chapman. Kershaw owns a devastating fastball and knee-buckling curveball. Chapman is nicknamed “the Cuban missile” and threw the fastest pitch ever recorded at 105.1 mph.
There’s also Astros’ southpaw Dallas Keuchel, who owns one of the game’s best sinkers and thrives on forcing weak contact from hitters. And it’s impossible to mention the game’s best lefties without Madison Bumgarner, one of the best all-around pitchers in the business.
Pitching isn’t all about throwing the ball, however. A pitcher’s delivery can be equally as important as the speed is when facing a batter.
Yankees reliever Andrew Miller uses his tall and lanky frame and a sidewinding release to throw arguably the best slider in baseball coupled with a high-90s fastball, making the lefty a useful weapon against left and right-handed batters.
Orioles reliever Darren O’Day drops his arm below his body, throwing submarine-style to keep batters off guard. It’s not a gimmick though, as O’Day has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last few seasons and boasts a career earned run average of 2.29.
All these variables of pitching are what make the pitcher’s matchup against the batter so fascinating to watch. While it’s easy to pay attention to the batter, next time you watch a baseball game, focus on the pitcher, even more so if it’s a good one. Watching them manipulate the ball to make it move up and down, left or right, and fast or slow is a sight to behold, but one that’s often overlooked.