Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were in their conference room, in Rockefeller Center, talking baseball, continuing a conversation that has gone on for about fifty years. The subject was Mariano Rivera, the Yankees’ great closer, who owes his success to a single pitch, the cut fastball.
“One pitch,” Wilpon said.
“I don’t get that,” Katz replied.
“What do you mean?” Wilpon answered. “You can’t hit that pitch.”
“But they know it’s coming.”
“Still can’t hit it.”
“I don’t get it.”
Wilpon took out a baseball—there is often one within reach—and demonstrated how Rivera grips the ball. (“I don’t claim to know everything about baseball,” Wilpon said to me at one point. “But I do know pitching.”) Wilpon demonstrated how the ball rolled off Rivera’s fingers. “It can break either way,” he said.
“Still don’t get it,” Katz replied.
The beauty part is that it doesn’t make any practical sense. It’s a beautiful mystery, another reminder that sports are closer to art than science.
Thanks to RI Yank, we were hipped to a piece of analysis by David Pinto the other day:
Mariano uses one pitch, a cut fastball thrown between 90 and 94 miles per hour. There’s nothing soft, no off speed pitch to fool the batters. The cutter does it well all by itself.
Rivera induces swings. Batters swung at 49.4 percent of his pitches, which puts him in the 94th percentile among all pitchers in the majors in that time. Look at what they are swinging at, however. Batters swing at 38% of the pitches that should be called balls. That is the 100th percentile, the best in the majors. Rivera gets batters to see balls as strikes, and swing at them. In general, batters tend to get worse results when they swing at balls.
That’s not the only effect of the cutter, however. Of the pitches batters take, 36.1% of them are strikes. That may not seem like much, but the major league average is 31.8%, and Rivera’s number ranks in the 95th percentile. Not only is Mariano great at getting batters to swing at balls, he’s almost as good at getting them to take strikes.
And he does it all with one pitch.
Rivera’s one pitch is a daydream fantasy about sustained pleasure. There will never be another one like him. Not only because of the results but because how he gets them.