When the Yankees signed Freddy Garcia last season they did so knowing that he was past his prime and no longer had the good stuff that made him a successful major league pitcher. It didn’t matter though because in his advanced age Garcia had pitch-ability and was able to get hitters out anyway, they said.
Well it turns out he has a pretty nasty splitter that nobody else throws as well.
Zach Schonbrun of the NY Times recently wrote a piece on Garcia’s splitter, which unlike most splitters that drop down and slight in on righties this one drops down and sharply away. Schonbrun’s story started when reknown baseball writer Mike Fast noticed the pitch. He asked his friend Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois to examine it.
Over the next months, Nathan analyzed frame-by-frame replays of the pitch to record its spin and looked at PitchF/X data to gather any clues about its movement.
The conflict was this: A split-finger is usually gripped to reduce backspin on the ball because backspin prevents the ball from dropping. The typical Magnus effect on the ball will tilt it slightly in toward a hitter.
“But the particular pitch that was unusual broke away from a right-handed hitter,” Nathan said.
Nathan then asked physicist Rod Cross at the University of Sydney to take a look.
What he theorized is termed the smooth patch effect. When air travels over a spinning baseball, its flow is disrupted by the raised and rough seams. That turbulence applies a force on the ball, causing it to break. Wherever the ball is smooth, however, or not covered by the seams, will cause it to go away from that direction.
The key for Garcia’s pitch, Cross said, is enabling the ball’s spinning axis to pass through this smooth patch for as long as possible. Garcia manages to take enough spin off his splitter and spin it in a way different from that of any other pitcher.
“I discovered last year that a baseball can have a rough and a smooth side if the pitcher holds the ball in a special way, and if the spin axis passes through a smooth patch rather than through the stitching,” Cross wrote in an e-mail, “the end result is that the ball curves in the opposite direction to that expected.”
When asked about it Garcia, who learned the splitter five years ago from then teammate Jose Contreras simply said, “Honestly, I just throw the pitch.”
“Sometimes it’ll go straight down; sometimes it’ll go left; sometimes it’ll go right,” Stewart said. “It’s a weird pitch.”
“(It’s a) mix between a sinker and a knuckleball,” Martin said. “It’s tough to catch sometimes. Sometimes, it just darts to the right, especially when you’re getting ready to block it. You get down in your block, and the next thing you know, the ball is a foot to your right.”
So it turns out that Garcia’s resurrection in recent years may have more to do with a pitch that nobody else in baseball throws and less to do with pitch-ability. Although there is a good chance it has a little to do with both.