Top hurlers bring All-Star pitches to Citi Field
Some of baseball's best to display skills that set them apart
The best pitchers in the big leagues will be featured in the 2013 MLB All-Star Game. Tigers starters Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner and Mariners ace Felix Hernandez have some of the best stuff in baseball. But what are the best pitches on the All-Star roster? These five pitches earn top marks, with honorable mentions to the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma's split-finger fastball and the Rangers' Yu Darvish's reverse slider. Despite being selected to the 2013 American League All-Star Team, neither is eligible to pitch on Tuesday; Iwakuma started for Seattle on Sunday and Darvish is out with an upper back strain.
Mariano Rivera's cut fastball
Rivera's cutter is arguably the single greatest -- or at least the most effective -- pitch baseball has ever seen. He allegedly learned it by accident while playing catch with Yankees teammate Ramiro Mendoza in 1997. Its velocity may have declined from the mid-90s to around 90 mph in recent years, but it doesn't matter; it's still one of the toughest pitches in baseball to hit. Unlike some other cutters, it doesn't drop at all and only moves laterally. And while it is slightly slower than Rivera's fastball, it looks the same coming out of his hand and down the pipe. Only when it breaks does a hitter know he's looking at a cutter.
The right-handed Rivera holds the ball with his index and middle finger tilted slightly inward, toward the 11:00 position, and uses pressure from those fingers to create the spin that causes the pitch to move away from righties and in on lefties. This keeps the ball away from the sweet spot of the bat, forcing lefties to hit off their hands and righties to hit off the end of the bat, virtually eliminating the possibility of good contact.
"It's something with the way his delivery comes through and the way his hand is positioned on the baseball that make that pitch work for him," said Rangers closer Joe Nathan, who is sharing the All-Star bullpen with Rivera for the fifth time. "Other guys have tried it and may have some success, but I don't think anyone will ever get the cutter down the way he throws it. It's just his own pitch."
Matt Harvey's slider
The Mets right-hander didn't even throw what is now one of the best out pitches in baseball until he was a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he first joined the Mets, they told him to shelve his slider while he refined his mechanics, fearing the extra forces generated by throwing it would cause an injury.
In the Minors, from when he started pitching in the Mets organization in 2011 through July 2012, Harvey relied on only his fastball, curveball and changeup. When Harvey joined the big club, pitching coach Dan Warthen changed his slider grip a bit, positioning the seams in a slightly different way. Harvey's slider is also a touch faster than most, clocking in around 90 mph, which sets hitters up nicely for his mid-80s curveball and changeup.
"He throws a 100-mph fastball and his slider is about 91, so his slider is harder than a lot of a lot of peoples' fastballs," said Mets teammate David Wright. "As a hitter, it's tough to look for a fastball that's that hard and then react to a slider that's that good. He gets a lot of swings and misses from it. When you get that kind of movement, you're always going to make some people look foolish."
Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright's curveballs
These two pitches are a little different, yet equally devastating. The left-handed Kershaw's breaking ball drops from 11-6, from the letters to below the knees, but what makes it particularly brutal is how identical his delivery is on each one of his pitches. The Dodgers ace winds up like he's throwing a fastball with everything he's got, and sends forth a knee-buckler instead, with absolutely no tip-off to hitters as to when it's coming. Like most curveballs, Kershaw holds his with his middle finger along the seam, and releases it as if he's "shaking somebody's hand."
"Kershaw seems to get better every time you face him," said Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "Everyone knows about his curveball, but it seems every time I see him there's a new pitch. He's working on a cutter and a harder slider. The more thoughts you can put in our heads as hitters and get us thinking, this might come, that might come, the better you're going to be as a pitcher, and Kershaw is awesome."
Wainwright's curveball is a nasty, old-school 12-6 bender that hovers around 75 mph and breaks nearly 10 inches on it's way to the plate. The Cardinals right-hander lines his middle finger up along the seam of the baseball, just like Kershaw, but applies so much pressure with the outside of his middle finger against the seam to create torque -- which creates spin -- that his index finger often lifts completely off the ball. Most pitchers simply lay their index finger down alongside their middle finger.
"My middle finger is quite a bit longer than my index finger and I think what happens is I have so much pressure on the outside of my middle finger that in that rolling process, my index finger just kind of rolls off the ball," Wainwright said.
To make the ball spin more and break bigger, Wainwright aggressively tucks his hand and arm in toward his stomach on his follow through, "as if I'm cutting myself in half."
His use of the curveball has evolved over the course of his career. "I've had great feel for it since I was a kid, but as I came up through the Minor League system, I learned how to use it in different counts, how to bounce it and throw it inside or outside," he said. "It's just a pitch I'm very comfortable with."
Aroldis Chapman's four-seam fastball
They don't call the Reds' lefty the "Cuban Missile" for no reason. His four-seamer has been clocked as high as 105.1 mph, a Major League record, and is consistently over 100 mph. The fact that Chapman mixes it with a considerably slower, high-80s slider serves to keep hitters even more off-balance. Chapman throws this laser with a typical grip, with his pointer and middle finger across the horseshoe seams, as close together as possible, and his thumb under the ball, directly below his pointer finger, in the open space of the horseshoe.
"It's the sheer speed of it that makes it so hard to hit," said Reds first baseman Joey Votto. "He just throws too hard. When we were in Atlanta, he hit 104 mph. We're just not wired to hit that way. He's left-handed and he's hit 106, so it's pretty special stuff."