Jack Morris: Ty Cobb couldn’t have hit the split-finger fastball

It’s become fashionable in baseball circles to question the credentials of Jack Morris, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and one of the voices on Detroit Tigers baseball television broadcasts.

But make no mistake: Morris had filthy stuff in a career that spanned 18 seasons and saw the Minnesota-native win 254 games.

“When he throws his split-fingered fastball in the high 80s, along with a 95 mile-an-hour fastball, it’s a mismatch,” said noted pitching coach Marcel Lachemann.

No pitcher won more games in the 1980s than Morris, who started more games, completed more games, and pitched more innings than any pitcher in baseball from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The man with the thick mustache and lean body won twenty games three times, and proved his workhorse ability several times over. In 1983, the righthander logged 293 2/3 innings.

It takes starting pitchers two years today to pitch 293 2/3 innings. And since Morris retired, no pitcher has come within 108 complete games of his 175 total. Morris was the last of a breed: the ace pitcher who took the ball, toed the rubber, and finished what he started. He’s also one of the most accomplished pitchers, having won a World Series title with four teams.

The secret sauce in Morris’ success was a special pitch that he learned from a special pitching coach. Jack’s career changed when he met Roger Craig and was introduced to a new pitch.

In the early 1980s, a new pitch was all the rage in baseball, a pitch that Bruce Sutter was using with phenomenal success out of the bullpen in the National League. They called it the forkball because the index and middle fingers surrounded the baseball on either side, like the tines of a fork. That pitch, which is completely responsible for Sutter being in the Hall of Fame, also helped Morris get to the same place.

Before he learned the forkball (sometimes also called a split-finger) from Craig and teammate Milt Wilcox in 1982, Morris relied on a fastball, slider, and a pretty mediocre changeup. With the forkball, Morris had a pitch that complemented his fastball and made him difficult to hit against because he was able to use the same arm slot for the pitch as he did his breaking ball.  

“A forkball actually comes out of your hand with the rotation of a curveball,” Morris explained. “Because of the pressure on your fingers, there’s no way you’re going to have the same velocity you do with your fastball, therefore it’s kind of like an off-speed curveball. Once I learned how to keep it down, and literally bounce it at times, a hitter couldn’t sit on both. He couldn’t sit on a fastball and a forkball. It’s a devastating pitch.”

Less than two years after learning the forkball, Morris had the pitch going very well in his second start of the 1984 season in Chicago. It was a Saturday afternoon and the game between the Tigers and White Sox was on national television. Morris had his forkball dropping so much that day that he walked six batters, even walking the bases loaded early in the game. The pitch was bouncing in front of catcher Lance Parrish, but Morris had such movement on it that he escaped trouble. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh, eighth, and finally the ninth inning. The White Sox barely got the ball past the mound, bounced grounders to first or back to Morris. He struck out a few guys and got his no-hitter, the first by a Detroit pitcher in more than two decades. Morris later estimated that he threw 40 percent forkballs.

“I’m not sure [Babe] Ruth could have hit the split-finger,” Morris said. “I’ve seen pictures of Ty Cobb swing, and I know he couldn’t.”

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