You don’t have to explain the balance of risk vs. reward to Eddie Guardado. If he hadn’t asked Rick Aguilera how to throw a split-fingered fastball in 1996, if he hadn’t given it a what-the-heck try in 2001, he wouldn’t be in the Twins Hall of Fame today. He never would have become “Everyday Eddie,” he couldn’t have led the AL in saves, and he wouldn’t have earned close to $30 million in the major leagues.
Guardado raises his left elbow close to his face and nods. “I wouldn’t have this, either,” he said, displaying a red, U-shaped scar, a fading remnant of his 2006 Tommy John surgery.
The Twins’ bullpen coach is just one of the many pitchers who traces his blown-out elbow back to the split-finger, a pitch that, thrown well, is almost impossible to hit, yet is considered so dangerous to a pitcher’s health that many organizations prohibit minor league pitchers from throwing it. Two or three decades ago, the splitter was the most popular pitch in baseball, the weapon of choice for some of the best pitchers in the game: Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, Mike Scott. Closer Bruce Sutter earned his way into the Hall of Fame with it, and his success in the 1970s and ’80s had pitchers around the globe jamming baseballs between their forefinger and middle finger, a grip that produces an off-the-table drop as it reaches home plate.
But the grip also produces extra stress on the tendons of the fingers, tension on the muscles of the forearm, strain on the ligaments that hold the elbow together. As the major leagues filled up with split-finger specialists, operating rooms filled up with Tommy John patients, until teams grew alarmed at the salaries they were wasting on damaged arms. “Hardly anybody throws it anymore. It used to be almost everybody, but you can’t think of more than a couple guys now,” Guardado said. “Everybody moved on to cutters or sliders.”
Well, almost everybody. Guardado has a new pupil now, with an antique of a pitch that reminds him of his heyday. Pat Light, a 25-year-old righthander whom the Twins picked up in a trade, throws a split-finger fastball that he rates as “my best pitch, oh, easily,” despite the fact that he also possesses a 97-miles-per-hour fastball.
“I love throwing it. When I’ve had success with it, it’s hard to go away from it,” Light said. “It’s tough to lay off of, even when you know it’s coming.”
Light learned the pitch from his father when he was a teenager but considered it a novelty and never used it in a game. He was playing catch in a Monmouth University gym in 2011 when teammate Nick Meyers threw him a knuckleball that hit him in the stomach.
“I was pretty [mad], but I can’t throw a knuckler. So I threw that split-finger back and smoked him in the shin,” Light said. “My pitching coach was standing there and said, ‘Let’s see that one on the mound.’ ”
He used it to such effect — its 90-mph velocity makes it an effective changeup, too, even before it breaks — that Light was drafted by the Red Sox. When he signed and reported to their camp, he got a surprise. “The Red Sox wouldn’t let me throw the splitter,” Light said. “Too much stress for a starter, they said.”
That’s actually pretty standard these days; the Twins don’t allow lower-level pitchers to risk their elbows with that pitch, either. Light still moved up Boston’s system, relying on his fastball. But when he converted to a reliever two years ago, the Red Sox gave him permission to use the splitter again. Now he’s in the major leagues, and while his command has produced disappointing results — 10 walks in eight innings, with 10 runs allowed, too — his pitch has impressed his bullpen coach.
“It’s a good one. I told him I haven’t seen a splitter like that in a long time,” Guardado said. “But I also told him, you’ve got to be careful. If you don’t do your work, if you don’t keep your arm strong, if you throw it too much, you’re asking for trouble. It’s a good out pitch — but be smart with it, too.”
There aren’t any serious MVP candidates in the Central division, but there are some solid cases for Least Valuable. Here’s each team’s award winner (loser?):
Tigers: They signed Jordan Zimmermann and developed terrific rookie Michael Fulmer, so Detroit’s rotation is in great shape, right? Well, it might have been, but Anibal Sanchez’s decline has become a huge issue. He lost his starting job by midseason and entered the All-Star break without a quality start. His ERA has risen each of the past three seasons and now stands at 5.69.
White Sox: One season after bringing in awful Jeff Samardzija to be Chris Sale’s sidekick, Chicago tried it again with James Shields, and the results have been even worse.
“Big Game” James has posted a 7.50 ERA in 13 starts with the Sox, leading them out of playoff contention. Hey, at least he’s only owed $44 million for the next two years.
Royals: Chris Young gave the Twins 123 innings of 3.06 pitching in 2015, critical for a rotation without a dominant starter. But the 37-year-old righthander has acted his age this year: His ERA has doubled to 6.04, and by midseason, with the Royals fading out of the postseason picture, Kansas City couldn’t afford to give him any more starts.
Indians: Juan Uribe was a free-agent flop at third base, and catcher Yan Gomes batted .165 before going down with a shoulder injury. But Marlon Byrd, signed to shore up outfield depth, was just heating up when he failed a drug test, triggering an 80-game suspension and likely ending his career.
Brian Dozier’s home run rampage has come at the expense of his AL Central rivals, to a historic degree. The Twins have three more games with the Royals in Kansas City on Sept. 27-29, and he could break the franchise record for home runs against one opponent in a single season. The leaderboard:
Most HRs vs. Single Opponent, 1 season
11: Dozier vs. KCR, 2016
11: Killebrew vs. Oak, 1969
11: Killebrew vs. KCA, 1961
9: Killebrew vs. Cle, 1962
9: Killebrew vs. Bos, 1964
8: Dozier vs. CWS, 2016
8: Cuddyer vs. KCR, 2009
8: Morneau vs. CWS, 2007
8: Killebrew vs. KCA, 1968
8: Allison vs. CWS, 1964
8: Killebrew vs. Bos, 1963
8: Killebrew vs. Was, 1962
With 22 doubles (entering Friday) and three weeks to play, Joe Mauer is within reach of the Twins’ record for most seasons with 25 or more doubles:
Seasons with 25 doubles
11: Kirby Puckett
10: Joe Mauer
8: Gary Gaetti
7: Justin Morneau
7: Rod Carew
7: Tony Oliva
Whether Mauer makes it or not, he’s got a long way to go to reach the MLB record for being a doubles machine.
Seasons with 25 doubles
18: Paul Molitor
18: Pete Rose
17: Adrian Beltre (active)
17: Cal Ripken
17: George Brett