Zach Putnam came to the White Sox this offseason as one of the many sinkerballer candidates for the bullpen. He did well in spring training, but lost the fight for the last bullpen spots. I mentioned he'd probably be back soon, and he was. The big difference was that the sinker was set aside for another pitch -- the split-finger fastball.
Although it was once the pitch that all the top pitchers threw in the 1980s and '90s, the split finger has lately been maligned as a pitch that injures pitchers.
"I always thought that if thrown properly with the fingers really split like a forkball, that’s when you can get hurt because there’s no resistance against the ball being thrown and it really put a lot of pressure on the elbow," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said.
Maddon added something amazing though.
"But it’s not just about them getting hurt. They’ll never develop their other pitches because they’ll always get guys out with that pitch."
Hold on a second. The split-finger isn't bad because it injures pitchers. It's bad because it turns pitchers into one-pitch pitchers that do nothing but get outs. That's sounding like a great pitch for a reliever then, but does Don Cooper think about it?
Not every team in the league is shying away from the splitter. The Chicago White Sox and the pitching coach Don Cooper say it is all about throwing it with the proper technique.
"I’m a believer that it’s not pitches that hurt people, it’s poor deliveries," Cooper said. "You got a bad delivery, you’re going to get hurt. It’s not necessarily the pitch." He added, "I’m for anything that’s going to make a guy successful and give him a chance to play in the big leagues."
While we have focused on Don Cooper's work with sliders, cutters, and sinkers, he's done a lot of work with a few White Sox pitchers split-fingers too. Jose Contreras and J.J. Putz are the two big split-finger guys of the Don Cooper era, with Putz basically resurrecting his career with the Sox in 2010.
Now, Don Cooper does seem like he is working on his dissertation to disprove the theory of the split-finger causing injuries. So far in the regular season, Putnam has thrown his splitter 58.9 percent of the time. To compare, J.J. Putz has thrown his splitter less than 40 percent of the time this season.
So far, switching to being a mostly splitter/cutter pitcher has been working for Putnam. After a men-among-boys type of performance to start the season in Charlotte (4 G, 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K), he's been able to continue that success with the Sox. In 21 games with the Sox, he's got a 2.03 ERA, 3.25 FIP, and 3.59 xFIP. His walk rate crept over 10 percent after walking two yesterday, and he is also buoyed a bit by a .246 BABIP. He's also inducing ground balls at a 62.9 percent rate, has an RE24 over 10 (second only to Chris Sale on the pitching staff), and is second on the team with nine shutdowns, with only two meltdowns.
The splitter has been making a bit of a comeback in the Sox minor league bullpens, too. MATC-Madison's Cody Winiarski has been working on developing a splitter as a third pitch. Taylor Thompson, who struggled after a promotion to Charlotte last season, has pulled a splitter off the shelf also as a third pitch and has dropped his ERA and FIP this season in Charlotte.
The Sox also have a good tutor in Britt Burns in Birmingham. In an excellent interview with Marc Hill, he talked about Burns adding the pitch in 1983 while with the Sox.
What helped Britt was he developed a split finger pitch that he'd throw 30-40 times a game. It looked like a fastball and then just dropped off the table the last few feet. He was always around the plate.
While the Don Cooper and Sox haven't been necessarily against the splitter, the success the Sox are having with Putnam and Taylor Thompson at Charlotte might give the Sox another idea for pitchers who seem to be running into trouble at Double-A or Triple-A.