Baseball Pitches Today vs. Yesterday
Ah, it’s fun to think of one’s Glory days, but facing these guys did not produce any of those. It’s time to take a walk down memory lane and think back about the best baseball pitches I encountered in my big league baseball career.
The current major league baseball talk is often about how many hard throwers exist in major league baseball in today’s game. There is no debate with that, but I believe guys I faced like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens (see stories below) were right up there with today’s flamethrowers. The number of them in today’s game though is higher, which is the good and bad news for hitters. Before getting to the toughest pitch, pitcher, and types of balls from the early ’80s, I want to ponder if I could hit today’s pitchers.
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I often wonder if I could hit these guys throwing the “heat,” upwards of 95 miles per hour, along with the different baseball pitches of the day, like the cutter, split-finger fastball, and crazy-sharp sliders. Those types of pitches existed back in the day but to a lesser degree, and for the most part were not as sharp as they appear to be now. Being a contact hitter, I believe I would be able to adjust to today’s game. One thing I had going for me was having no power what so ever. Yes, that helps because pitchers often will throw mostly fastballs to those with little power knowing the ball will not leave the park. Back in the day, they would challenge me with high fastballs to get the flyballs which usually would not go far enough to go out of the park or over the outfielder’s heads.
Another thing that I believe and something I often tell my hitting students, “They didn’t design the game to where the pitcher could throw the ball by you.” I believe I could have adjusted to today’s high-velocity pitchers with my compact swing. Great hitting fundamentals and eye-sight, along with above average hand-eye coordination always make contact on all baseball pitches possible. Many of today’s hitters swing and miss so much more because they have the all or nothing approach and accept striking out for the chance to hit home runs. Times are different from when I played when contact was “a thing.”
Also, hitters learn to adjust to speed, as it is relative. Seeing the fast stuff every day makes it easier to adapt to it. One reason facing a Nolan Ryan was complicated was because very few threw close to his speed, so it was challenging catching up when no one else threw as he did. Facing 82 to 91 miles per hour most games, and then having to catch up to his 100-mph made it almost impossible. In today’s’ game, hitters see those speeds every game, so it is not a drastic change, even though it’s not easy when one’s reaction time is minimal with speeds above 90 miles an hour, not to mention a 100mph pitch.
Additionally, when facing the fastest pitches, sometimes one only thinks of being quick to the ball and not overthinking anything else. However, it goes without saying, when pitchers have control of their secondary pitches, things get exponentially more difficult. Batters can only look and hope they get a fastball with the hardest throwers or that the off-speed pitches are not around the strike zone. That is the reason you will see a hitter look so bad when chasing a ball nowhere near the strike zone. They “sat” on the fastball and started early to catch up to it, except it was not the heat.
Facing Nolan Ryan
I’ve written of the time I faced Nolan Ryan before and that it was the game he threw his 5th no-hitter in the Astrodome against my Los Angeles Dodgers team. I could easily say that his fastball, and his unhittable breaking ball, were the toughest pitches I ever faced. However, having batting against him once, that is not enough of a sample size to say that. I remember I didn’t expect his fastball to have the movement it did. I had a pretty good cut on the second one he threw while fouling it off. Because of that swing, I felt like I could have hit the next one if it was not up and in, but never had the chance to see another. He struck me out with a 56-foot curveball that I had no chance of hitting. (Remember the “looking bad” part above?) In my defense that I could hit today’s pitchers, I doubled off a Roger Clemens fastball, and he threw hard and would fit into the game of today with his speed, I’m sure.
A mentioned, what makes facing flamethrowers so hard is when they have secondary baseball pitches that look to be hittable. Which gets me to the pitcher I feel was the toughest one I ever faced in the major leagues. I am glad he just went into the Hall of Fame this year as it validates how tough I thought he was – Jack Morris. Individually, his pitches were not the very best I ever saw, but in combination and his ability to throw them all for strikes made him such a great pitcher. His fastball was hard, his slider was outstanding, and then to top it off, he had a split-finger fastball. Put it all together – nasty. Because of that, I developed my game plan against him – bunting – which worked quite well, as you can read about here.
Nastiest Baseball Pitches I Saw
Ok – here goes.
Fastball. For the best fastball I ever faced, I will give the nod to another Hall of Fame pitcher, Goose Gossage. A few guys may have thrown harder, but his delivery was so ferocious that he intimidated with the motion. Picking up the ball was not easy, and it seemed to explode on the batter. I only batted against him a time or two but had enough of him to name him number one here. Honorable mention for the best fastball goes to Eric Plunk and Tom Seaver.
As a side note, there was one fastball I never saw. You may recall a friend and former teammate of mine Tom Brennan. We hailed from the same area growing up, and Tom was a legend for having an unbelievable fastball in college. Anyway, years later he reinvented himself as a sidearm-style finesse pitcher, which was unusual in itself and he still made it to the big leagues. Facing him one night in a triple-A game, Tom had two strikes on me with his crafty new style. I guess he wanted to remind me of what once was, and he reared back and brought the old heat. The pitch was right down the middle, and I virtually never saw it. The good news is the umpire did not either and called it a ball. Ha.
Sinker – There were so many of those, the type pitchers that one would go 0 for 4 against and come back to the bench each time and say, “The guy has nothing.” Ha. The first ones who come to mind are Tommy John and Frank Tanana, who both reinvented themselves from their hard-throwing days, along with Dan Quisenberry, the late, great Kansas City Royals closer.
Curve Ball – Mark Clear had as sharp a breaking ball as I ever saw. You just had to guess where it was going if you even picked it up soon enough. When I see one of those ridiculous breaking balls like the late Jose Fernandez threw or the more recent breaking pitches by Nathan Eovaldi, I think of Mark Clear. Honorable mention goes to the great Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, whose curveball may have been better, but he rarely wasted it on me by getting me out with his other pitches. Ugh!
Slider – This one is a no-brainer as I was a left-handed batter – the slider of the one and only New York Yankee great – Ron Guidry. I had little chance with his nasty late-breaking pitch as evidenced by one of the few times I had a hat trick in a game. As with all the above pitchers mentioned, it was an honor to have faced him. Honorable mention goes to many others with Toronto Ace, Dave Steib, the first to come to mind.
Changeup. Toronto Blue Jays reliever Mark Eichorn had one of those baseball pitches that the bottom fell out. I looked for it and knew it was coming but still could not hit it and I will remind you, contact was one of my only real significant major league assets. Oh well. If we call the split-finger fastball a changeup, many more pitchers fall into this best changeup category, especially the whole Detroit Tiger pitching staff in the early eighties.
Knuckle Ball – Anyone who threw it is the obvious answer, most notably Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro.
Screwball – The one and only Fernando Valenzuela – I faced him in the Mexican Winter Leagues before he developed the remarkable pitch, but I saw it firsthand as a teammate with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Finally, it’s important to note that all baseball pitches one sees in the Major Leagues are good. People look at guys that throw 90 miles per hour and think that is nothing, beleive me, those are still tough to hit.
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