A pitcher can do magic with a baseball.
He can throw it harder than 100 mph, or slower than 70 mph. He can make it break to the left, or the right, or make it look like it's rising or sinking. It's amazing to watch.
Now here's how to tell which of the magician's tricks is which.
There are a whole array of pitch types, and each one has its own unique qualities, its own combinations of grip and speed and movement.
So here's your guide to the different pitches you might see in an MLB game -- and how to tell them apart.
Let's start with the fastballs.
This one's easy. A four-seam fastball is the fundamental pitch of baseball. It's straight, and it's hard. Heck, if it's a really good one, it might even look like it's rising. That's an optical illusion -- one of the cooler ones a pitcher can pull off with a baseball. Justin Verlander is one of the best at it.
Here's how it works: A four-seamer is thrown with straight backspin. When the ball is spinning that way, it will resist the pull of gravity slightly longer. So if a pitcher does it just right, a four-seam fastball will look like it's "exploding" up and past the hitter. The hitter will swing under it and miss. Ask any hitter who's had to face Max Scherzer, and they'll tell you what that feels like.
Two-seam fastball / sinker
A four-seamer is your basic fastball. The two-seamer and sinker are the main variations. They're pretty similar, so we group them together. Two-seamers and sinkers have basically the same speed as a four-seamer; the big difference is the way they move. A four-seamer is straight, sometimes so straight it looks like it's rising. Two-seamers and sinkers move side to side, or down. Or both.
If the pitch moves more horizontally -- and it'll be in the "tailing" direction, running from left to right for a right-handed pitcher or right to left for a left-handed pitcher -- then it's a two-seamer. If the pitch has more vertical drop, it's a sinker.
See how this pitch from Yu Darvish moves hard from left to right? How Matt Carpenter thinks it will be inside, and then it runs back over the plate for a strikeout? That's a two-seamer.
See how this pitch from Zack Britton drops straight down? That's a sinker.
There's a third type of fastball, but it's a little different from four-seamers, two-seamers and sinkers. It's the cutter.
The main difference, again, is the direction of the movement. Four-seamers carry. Two-seamers run. Sinkers drop. Cutters, well, cut. "Cutting" movement means horizontal, in the opposite direction of a two-seamer. A cutter from a right-handed pitcher takes a turn from right-to-left; from a lefty, that cut is left to right. A lot of the time, a cutter doesn't even break all that much. The movement isn't wide and sweeping, it's sharp and tight.
Here's Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen throwing a nasty one for a game-ending strikeout. He's probably the best known cutter user today.
Mariano Rivera made the Baseball Hall of Fame because of one pitch: his legendary cutter. Rivera's cutter moved just enough to make a hitter think it would be in one spot when it would end up in another.
Now we move on to the breaking balls -- the pitch types whose defining quality is movement, rather than speed. Let's start with a slider.
The slider moves sideways, in the same direction as a cutter -- right to left for a right-handed pitcher, left to right for a righty. And actually, sometimes those two pitch types can be hard to tell apart. But here's the best way to do it: Usually, a slider's movement is more sweeping, and larger, than a cutter's, and it can also include more vertical as well as horizontal break. Here's one from Chris Archer.
A cutter will head straight like a fastball and then take a sudden left or right turn. With a slider, you should see the break happening from the beginning to the end.
That's especially true when you have someone who throws from a lower arm angle, like sidearming lefty Chris Sale. Look at how his slider "sweeps" across the plate, in addition to breaking down. This is the pitch that ended the 2018 World Series.
Many a baseball fan will tell you that the curveball is the game's most aesthetically pleasing pitch. When you see one done perfectly, it's easy to understand why.
A curveball's break is loopy and large. It goes up, and then down. You can see it jump up out of the pitcher's hand, and then tumble almost in slow motion back to earth. Faced with a great curveball, a hitter might often be rendered unable to swing, watching helplessly as it falls for a strike. Maybe his knees will even buckle.
A curve is slower than a slider. Its movement direction is more up and down. It can look like it will sail over a hitter's head, and then end up dropping in at their knees. A curveball can look like a rainbow. Watch Clayton Kershaw's, and you might say it's even more beautiful.
Lastly, we come to the "offspeed" pitches. The changeup is the main type. Changeups are pitches that are supposed to look like a fastball … only they're slow, not fast. They fool the hitter into swinging too soon, expecting a harder pitch. Different pitchers throw their changeups at different speeds -- the key isn't the specific velocity, but the differential in speed between the pitcher's changeup and his fastball.
Changeups do have movement, too. They make the hitter swing not only too early, but also in the wrong spot. The kind of movement might best be described as "fade."
First of all, because a changeup is slower than a fastball, it tends to have some drop. Second, because of how a pitcher throws a changeup, it can also have some horizontal run, in the direction of his pitching arm side. That's because a pitcher will often let a changeup "tumble" out of his fingertips, leaving it to fade away from his body.
Watch someone like "King" Felix Hernandez throw his changeup, or go back and watch old highlights of a changeup legend like Johan Santana, and you'll have seen among the best.
There's one other key type of offspeed pitch, but you wouldn't be able to tell from its name. "Splitter" is short for "split-fingered fastball."
Which turns out to be ironic, because a splitter doesn't function as a fastball at all. It's really a complement to a pitcher's primary fastball. A splitter looks just like that fastball until the bottom drops out, and hoodwinks a hitter into flailing too early and over the top of the ball.
The splitter's defining characteristic, which gives it its name, is how the pitcher grips it: with pointer and middle finger spread wide around the baseball, in a "V" shape. That "split-fingered" grip allows the pitcher to throw the ball with the exact same arm motion as a fastball -- only the result will be a slower pitch that dives down, or down and away.
Need a visual demonstration? Here, just watch Masahiro Tanaka.
Now that's what a splitter was meant to look like.