Once a struggling minor league pitcher, a pioneering pitch changed his career and made him become one of the game’s best relief pitchers of all-time.
Originally selected in the 21st round by the Washington Senators in the 1970 draft, Bruce Sutter opted to attend Old Dominion University in Virginia instead. He then spent the summer of 1971 playing semi-pro ball in the Lebanon Valley League. It was there where a scout for the Chicago Cubs, who was impressed with the right-hander’s blazing fastball, discovered Sutter and prompted the team to sign the 18-year-old.
That September, Sutter signed as a free agent to play for the Chicago Cubs.
He began his professional career quite auspiciously. After just two games in the minor leagues, Sutter suffered a pinched nerve in his throwing arm, which required surgery.
After recovering from his injury, it quickly became apparent to Sutter that he had lost the fastball that granted him the opportunity to pitch professionally. To troubleshoot the issue, Sutter worked with Fred Martin, the Cubs minor league pitching instructor. Martin introduced him to the pitch that would come to define Sutter’s career.
Sutter learned to throw the split-fingered fastball, a derivation of a forkball. To an opposing batter, the ball would look like a regular run-of-the-mill fastball at first but suddenly spin downwards towards the dirt, deceiving the fooled hitters if thrown correctly.
He took some time to develop and master his new weapon but, once he did, he quickly rose through the ranks of Chicago’s minor league system. He baffled hitters and warranted a call-up to the Show in 1976.
Upon being called up to the Cubs, Sutter was primarily used in mop-up roles for the lowly North Siders. Nonetheless, he showcased his dominance in his first 18 games, recording a microscopic 1.13 ERA.
By July, he became virtually unhittable and took over the club’s closing duties indefinitely.