In Spring training 1974, an unheralded pitcher named Bruce Sutter, who had been signed by the Chicago Cubs as an undrafted free agent three years earlier, felt his professional baseball career slipping away. A year removed from blowing out his elbow and undergoing ulnar nerve surgery after 2 games in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie Ball), Sutter had sputtered through a 4.13 ERA season in single A, featuring a pedestrian curveball and a fastball that barely reached 88 miles per hour.
The Cubs were on the verge of releasing Sutter, but minor league pitching instructor Fred Martin suggested the club stick with him through the summer. He had taught Sutter and fellow minor leaguer Mike Krukow a grip spreading the fingers, closely related to forkballs thrown by Pittsburgh’s Roy Face in the ’50s and Lindy McDaniel of the Yankees in the ’60s and early ’70s, but it differed in that the ball was set deeper in the palm. Krukow never felt comfortable with the pitch, but Sutter, who had large hands and very long fingers, was taking to it well. The modern split-fingered fastball was born, and Sutter soon became its master. Krukow said “He threw that thing all the time. As soon as I saw him throw it, I knew he was going to the big leagues”.
Sutter ‘split’ his time in 1974 between A and AA ball, pitching to a combined 1.38 ERA. He followed that with a 2.15 AA mark in 1975, and then spent a dominant month in AAA (1.50 ERA) in 1976 before earning a call-up to the big club in May. Sutter pitched well over 52 games, going 6-3 with 10 saves and a 2.70 ERA. What set Sutter apart from forkballers, and before that, spitballers, was how the ball came out of his hand with a spinning action indistinguishable from a fastball. At 55 feet the ball dropped clear out of the strike zone.
By July 1977 Sutter had an ERA of 0.77, and bumper stickers around Chicago read “Only The Lord Saves More Than Sutter”. Teammate Bill Buckner said “In that first half of ’77 Bruce was the most dominating pitcher I’ve ever seen. His ball broke straight down and it felt like a six inning game for us”. In the ninth inning of one game against Montreal, he struck out Expos’ All-Stars Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter, and Larry Parrish on 9 pitches. Sutter made his first of six career All-Star appearances, and ended the year at 7-3 with a 1.34 ERA, 31 saves, and 129 strikeouts against just 23 walks. He was used so frequently that he had to be shut down with arm stiffness toward the end of the season, destroying the Cubs’ pennant hopes.
The overuse from a year before possibly caused Sutter a slight down year in 1978, but in ’79 the club utilized Willie Hernandez and Dick Tidrow more as set-up men, and Sutter became dominant once again. In 1979 Sutter became only the 3rd relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. He had 110 strikeouts in 101 innings with a 2.22 ERA, and tied the National League record with 37 saves, his first of four straight years leading the National League. His 2.33 ERA during the 1970s was the lowest for any pitcher.
After the 1980 season Sutter was dealt to St. Louis, where he would eventually help the Cardinals win a World Series in 1982. He retired in 1988 with 300 saves and a career ERA of 2.83.
Few pitchers in major league history have ever had better command of the bottom of the strike zone. Sutter rarely threw his splitter for a strike, but it was difficult for hitters to lay off. And he’d throw the fastball just enough to keep them guessing. His dominance, and Hall of Fame career, can be directly traced back to learning the split-fingered fastball. No one has ever thrown that pitch better.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: