Big league baseball will soon have a new flamethrower. While a blazing fastball isn't necessarily the most important pitch in the game, it certainly gets a lot of attention.
With the first pick of baseball's draft this week, the Washington Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg, a pitcher from San Diego State University. Strasburg's best pitch is a 102-mph fastball! Most big league pitchers have fastballs in the low 90s. The hardest throwers reach 98 or 99. Very, very rarely does a pitcher throw harder than 100 mph!
Even with a hard fastball, Strasburg isn't guaranteed to have success when he reaches the big leagues. Major League hitters are the best in the world and can hit pitches thrown that fast. What makes big league pitchers good is the ability to throw several different pitches. If hitters know a fastball is coming, they can eventually hit it, no matter how fast it is. Pitchers need to be able to mix it up with some different pitches:
Curveball: A curveball doesn't necessarily curve as much as it drops. The best curveballs are known as "12-6 curves," comparing a pitch to the numbers on the face of a clock. A 12-6 curve will start at the top of the strike zone and drop to the bottom. It is hard to hit because hitters swing at the pitch at the top of the strike zone, but are surprised when it drops to the bottom. Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants and Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros both have great curveballs.
Changeup: For a pitcher like Strasburg who throws hard, a changeup can be a very effective pitch. It is simply a few miles per hour slower than a fastball. It is hard to hit because if a hitter is expecting a fastball, they will be fooled by a changeup because it looks like a fastball, yet it is slower. They key to throwing a good changeup is using the same windup and pitching motion when throwing a fastball and a changeup. Johan Santana of the Mets has one of the best changeups in baseball.
Split-fingered fastball: The purpose of a split-finger fastball is to combine the speed of a fastball with the drop of a curveball. A good splitter will come in fast, but then suddenly drop out of the strike zone. It is a more extreme drop than a curve and very, very difficult to throw. Only a handful of pitchers can master the splitter. Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs has one of the best in the game. Curt Schilling, who won World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox, was known for his excellent splitter.
Knuckleball: Only a few pitchers in the big leagues throw effective knuckleballs. When thrown correctly, a knuckleball doesn't have any spin, so it kind of floats toward the plate. Because it doesn't have any spin, the wind and the air make it move in different directions. Nobody - including the pitcher, catcher or the hitter - knows exactly where it's going to go! That's why it can be so hard to hit. One minute the knuckleball is coming straight toward the plate, and the next it's moving up and down. Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox is one of the top knuckleballers around.
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