Moments after Larry Herndon sprinted in to grab the final out of the 1984 World Series in left field at Tiger Stadium, the team was squeezed into the cramped clubhouse beneath the old ballpark. The clubhouse was a chaotic mass of people whooping and hollering, and hugging each other to celebrate a championship season.
25-year year old Dan Petry was searching for one particular man to hug. The man who changed the course of his professional career, the man who altered his approach to pitching and taught him a pitch that made Petry one of the toughest pitchers in the game. That man was pitching coach Roger Craig.
Craig called it simply “the pitch.” And ultimately, “the pitch,” as taught by Craig, was thrown by at least one man on every staff in the major leagues. Some pitchers completely transformed themselves after learning it. One of them was Mike Scott, who approached Craig a month after the 1984 World Series and begged him to teach him his pitch. Scott’s big hands were perfect for it, and he went from five wins in ’84 for the Astros to 18 in 1985. In 1986 he won the NL Cy Young Award and nearly pitched Houston past the Mets in the playoffs. Scott threw “the pitch” so well that Gary Carter and others on the Mets were sure it was illegal. They couldn’t believe what it could do.
Craig’s “creation” wasn’t new, it was a fresh take on a pitch that he’d learned as a young player in the Dodger organization in the 1950s. Once he eventually earned his place in the big leagues, Craig observed the pitch being used effectively by Elroy Face, Lindy McDaniel, and others in the National League. They called it the fork ball. When Craig resurrected it in the late 1970s as manager of the Padres, he called it the “the pitch.”
The pitch is thrown by placing the baseball between the index finger and middle finger. The seems are open on the front and the fingers are toward the top third of the ball. The pitcher throws it with the same arm action as his fastball. Because of the extreme spread of the fingers, the pitch Craig was teaching became known as the “split-finger fastball.”
It helped to have long fingers, which is one of the reasons Scott was so good with the pitch. Craig himself was a large man, an imposing physical specimen with broad shoulders, a thick chest, and long arms and hands. His strong, lengthy fingers were perfect for the pitch. But Craig was certain any pitcher could learn it with proper technique and mechanics.
All pitchers who threw the pitch were delighted by two things: how easy it was to learn, and how it tumbled as it reached the plate.
“The [split-finger fastball] looks like a regular fastball for 55 feet,” perennial batting champ Rod Carew said, “then it dives into the dirt.”
If a batter as skilled as Carew had trouble with “the pitch,” what chance did mere mortals have?
After his success teaching the pitch to a few pitchers, many others learned the pitch and by the late 1980s, the split-finger fastball was the trendy weapon in baseball. Everyone wanted to throw the pitch. It was called “the pitch of the 1980s.”
Notable practitioners of the pitch were Scott, Morris, and Petry. But also Bruce Sutter, a relief pitcher who learned the pitch from Fred Martin, a roving pitching instructor in the Cubs’ organization in the 1970s. Sutter won a Cy Young, led the NL in saves five times, led the Cardinals to a World Series title, and earned a Hall of Fame plaque.
“Without the splitter I never could have stayed in the major leagues,” Sutter said.
In his first full season as Detroit manager, Sparky Anderson hired Craig as his pitching coach after the Padres foolishly fired him. Petry was a 21-year old on the 1980 Tigers when he first met Craig in Lakeland at spring training. Almost immediately, the young righthander was being taught “the pitch.” Petry got good enough with it that he won 19 games and 18 games for the Tigers, earning a trip to the All-Star Game. He started and won a playoff game in 1984. Teammate Jack Morris learned the pitch too, and he used it the rest of his career. In the first week of the 1984 season in a game against the White Sox in Chicago, Morris threw a split-finger pitch to strike out Ron Kittle for the final out in his no-hitter.
Craig was a critical part of the Tigers’ success. In 1981 the team improved from 10th to 5th in the AL in pitching. The next season they were first and they were first again in 1984, primarily due to the influence of their pitching coach. He worked extensively with a young pitcher named Juan Berenguar, a righthander with a blazing fastball. Craig taught Berenguar to take some heat off his fastball to locate it better, and of cours ehe also taught him the proper way to throw “the pitch.” Berenguar made 27 starts for Detroit in 1984.
In ’84, the two prominent Craig disciples (Morris and Petry), won 37 games and four more in the postseason. Both pitchers owed a lot to the greatest pitching coach in baseball.