The 10 Best Signature Pitches in MLB History

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2021

The 10 Best Signature Pitches in MLB History

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    As if hitting a ball with a round bat isn't difficult enough, making contact is just about impossible when the pitcher has perfected what he's about to throw.

    Dozens of hurlers have become synonymous with a specialty pitch and staked their claim to boasting the most untouchable delivery in MLB history. Mariano Rivera's cutter, for example, is one of the most recognizable and would generate the least amount of debate.

    And we're highlighting the best of the best.

    The listwhich is organized alphabetically and not a rankingis subjective but considers the player's career performance and the legend of his signature pitch.

Bruce Sutter's Splitter

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    One of nine relievers in MLB history to win a Cy Young, Bruce Sutter weaponized the split-finger fastball from 1976 to 1988.

    "After he threw it, his fastball looked like it was coming 100 mph," longtime outfielder Gary Matthews said of Sutter's splitter, per ESPN's Tim Kurkjian. "He could throw it for a ball, he could throw it for a strike. It was such a devastating pitch. If you stayed off of it, he'd get a called strike. If you swung, you would miss. He perfected something, [it was] something new on the scene."

    Sutter used the splitter/fastball mix to become an elite closer for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves. At his retirement, Sutter ranked third all-time with 300 saves.

    Along with his Cy Young in 1979, Sutter made six All-Star teams and five top-eight finishes in MVP voting.

Carl Hubbell's Screwball

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    Christy Mathewson introduced the "fadeaway" in the 1900s, and Carl Hubbell ended up riffing on the pitch a few decades later. Hubbell ultimately found the screwball while practicing a sinker, noticing his arm movement could affect the ball's flight.

    "I found out that the more I turned it over, the more I come up and over [overhand] I could get a much better break on it," he said, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

    The screwball messed with hitters because it broke the opposite way of a curveball. During his 16-year career, Hubbell earned two MVPs and nine All-Star nods. He won 253 games and posted a 2.98 ERA.

Gaylord Perry's Forkball

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    Forkball? Spitter? Both? No matter the truth, Gaylord Perry's off-speed pitch famously toed the line of baseball law. It would drop sharply and baffle hitters.

    "I had a great forkball that acted a lot like an illegal pitch," the Hall of Famer contended years later, per Keith Jarrett of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

    Perry racked up 314 victories over a 22-year career, throwing most successfully for the San Francisco Giants, Cleveland and San Diego Padres. Perry, who made five All-Star teams, became the first pitcher to win a Cy Young in both leagues.

    Perry is eighth in MLB history with 3,534 strikeouts.

Greg Maddux's 2-Seam Fastball

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    Beloved for his incredible control, Greg Maddux had a not-so-secret weapon in his two-seam fastball.

    Fastballs aren't supposed to move like this. The two-seamer snapped to his right, allowing Maddux to freeze right-handed hitters with outside pitches. And against lefties, it locked them up on inside pitches or sent them flailing across the plate.

    Maddux won four straight Cy Young Awards in the 1990s, including a dominant two-year stretch for the Atlanta Braves. He posted a 16-6 record and 1.56 ERA in 1994 and followed that with a 19-2, 1.63-ERA season when Atlanta won the World Series.

    As if that weren't enough, the 2014 Hall of Fame inductee earned 18 Gold Gloves and appeared on eight All-Star teams.

Mariano Rivera's Cutter

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    Mariano Rivera is a perfect example of what a single pitch can do. He threw a cutter 85.6 percent of the time, according to a 2011 report from Marc Carig of the Newark Star-Ledger.

    Hitters knew it was coming. And they had no answer for the late-breaking pitch from the all-time saves leader.

    Developed by accident in 1997his third seasonRivera rode the cutter to 652 saves and the Hall of Fame. The 2019 inductee won five World Series with the New York Yankees, highlighted by an MVP in the 1999 Fall Classic. Rivera made 13 All-Star teams and earned four top-three finishes in Cy Young voting.

    "This pitch made my whole career," Rivera said.

Nolan Ryan's 4-Seam Fastball

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    While legend has it that Nolan Ryan topped out at 108 miles per hour, the actual velocity isn't all that important. He's the greatest power pitcher in the history of the game.

    "He's throwing the ball harder than any man I ever saw in my life," All-Star first baseman John Mayberry said, per David Schoenfield of ESPN.

    Ryan played an absurd 27 years in the majors with one goal: Strike out every batter possible. He led the league in strikeouts 11 timesincluding four straight seasons when he was 40-plus years oldand ranks No. 1 all-time with 5,714.

    The flamethrower made eight All-Star teams, won a World Series in 1969 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1999.

Pedro Martinez's Changeup

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    Despite his relatively small stature, Pedro Martinez had a powerful fastball. What really made him a Hall of Famer, though, was a changeup that kept batters guessing.

    Martinez could pump a heater past anyone, but that changeup made hitters look silly because it played off the fastball so well. The drop flummoxed right-handers, and lefties regularly could not reach the changeup as it tailed low and away.

    From the late 1990s to mid 2000s, Martinez was dominant. He won three Cy Youngs, a World Series in 2004, led the league in ERA five times and posted the lowest WHIP six times.

    Martinez ended his 18-year career with 3,154 strikeoutsthe 13th-most everand a 2.93 ERA in 2,827.1 innings.

Phil Niekro's Knuckleball

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    In a perfectly baseball story, Phil Niekro learned the knuckleball in blissful ignorance as a child.

    "I didn't know there were knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues," Niekro recalled, per Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "I didn't even know what a knuckleball was. It was just something that I had fun with, playing catch with my dad."

    Hitters certainly had zero fun with the knuckle, however.

    During a 24-year career spent primarily in Atlanta, Niekro won 318 games and recorded a 3.35 ERA. His 3,342 strikeouts rank 11th in league history. Niekro collected five Gold Gloves, five All-Star nods and headed to the Hall of Fame in 1997.

    "Trying to hit him is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks," All-Star outfielder Bobby Murcer once said, per Craig Muder of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's official website.

Randy Johnson's Slider

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    Standing an imposing 6'10" and 225 pounds, Randy Johnson leveraged that size into a missile of a fastball. The left-hander could top 100 miles per hour on the radar gun.

    However, a wipeout slider defined the Big Unit in his 22-year career.

    In particular, Johnson could freeze left-handed hitters with a front-door slider or induce some terribly ugly swings at outside pitches. "It breaks so much and it's so sharp, you just basically have to hope he throws you a bad one," Johnson's former teammate Tino Martinez said, per Kepner. "If he doesn't, you're in trouble."

    Johnson won a Cy Young with the Seattle Mariners in 1995 and four straight while on the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1999 through 2002. Most notably, he secured the pitching Triple Crown in 2002 with 24 wins, 334 strikeouts and a 2.32 ERA.

    Along with a World Series MVP in 2001, the Hall of Famer amassed the second-most strikeouts (4,875) in MLB history.

Sandy Koufax's Curveball

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    Severe arthritis led to an earlier-than-expected retirement, but Sandy Koufax put together a legendary career with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. The left-hander had a wicked 12-to-6 curveball, which served as a devastating complement to his fastball.

    "Hitting against Sandy Koufax is like drinking coffee with a fork," Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell said, per Thomas Lawrence of the Hall of Fame's official website.

    After making his debut in 1955, Koufax reached his peak from 1962 to '66the last five seasons of his career. He notched a 111-34 record with a 1.95 ERA and 0.93 WHIP, averaging 289 strikeouts while earning three Cy Youngs and the 1963 NL MVP in that span.

    Koufax, a 1972 Hall of Fame inductee, secured three pitching Triple Crowns, three World Series titles and seven All-Star nods.


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