I’ve always been a fan of rare pitches. It’s made sense to me that a pitch batters see less often will be harder for them to recognize, and a pitch they get fewer swings against will be harder to barrel up. In today’s game, the cut fastball is the latest pitch to go from rarity to trend, and it’s recently gotten to the point where batters are crushing the mediocre ones.
Not so with our old friend the split-finger fastball. The big pitch of the 1980s is now thrown by very few MLB pitchers, and every time a guy from Japan comes over and features a good one, it seems to produce great results. Akinori Otsuka? Hideki Okajima? These guys weren’t studs in Japan, but their out-pitches sure translated to MLB. Was it because their splitters were particularly great? Or was it because MLB hitters didn’t have any to practice on? In 2006 Salomon Torres led MLB in appearances and was the Astros’ and Brewers’ kryptonite, throwing a fastball whose velocity was embarrassing for a late-inning short reliever. He didn’t throw it too much, though; his go-to pitch was his splitter.
The Mets aren’t primed to throw out huge dollars or give away huge talent for a sure-thing reliever. But bargain-hunting doesn’t seem appropriate for a team with a lot of “win now” to it either. So how about a mixed-bag guy with a great out pitch? How about betting on the splitter?
First up is Koji Uehara, a strike-thrower with the best K/BB rate in MLB history. He’s a free agent who’s willing to pitch in a variety of roles and shouldn’t break the bank. His fastball is deceptive and made more so by his sharp, diving splitter, which he throws a ton. The risks: he’s 41, can be homerun prone, and had his worst year as an MLB reliever last season.
Next up is Zach Putnam. Putnam throws his splitter almost exclusively in some outings. When it’s at its best, he doesn’t need anything else. Putnam pitches for the team which just traded away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, so I have a feeling he’s not off-limits. I’d guess that the Mets should be able to part with a palatable amount of minor league upside for him. The risks: health. Putnam’s arm is extremely late in his delivery, and he’s already had shoulder and elbow problems in his short career.
Finally, we have former elite closer Greg Holland, more of a guy who happens to throw a splitter than a “splitter guy” like Putnam and Uehara. At his best, Holland’s fastball, slider and splitter were all elite. He’s coming off Tommy John surgery and looking to re-establish himself, so this is as cheap as he’s going to get. Unfortunately, the place where he’s looking to re-establish himself is in the 9th inning, where the Mets’ incumbent just saved 51 games.
I don’t know which of these options is the best bet, and which is the most doable for the Mets. But I do think they’d be well-served to pick the best option and go for it. I’d love to see the swings the NL East would get against the splitters thrown by these guys they’ve never (or at least rarely) faced before. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy may not have ever seen anything like it!
Which of these three pitchers would you prefer? Got any better ideas for relief help? Let us know in the comments!