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Mound Olympus: The 10 Best Pitches I Have Ever Seen

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Wait a minute, before you click away!!!! It's not a polemic on the Montrealization of A's baseball... didn't I do that about 14 times already this season? How many polemics do we really need, anyway? Especially Canadian ones, right? The road from polemic to nuisance is paved with the best of intentions, as we know all too well.

No, this is an accounting of the most devastating and distinctive pitches I have ever seen thrown in my baseball lifetime, and by whom.  I did it on the basis of 10 different, mostly commonly-thrown pitches; this way it's not all weighted towards the more obvious ones and it doesn't end up playing like a Top 10 Fastballs Since Joshy Started Watching Games list. Forgive my imprecise, hyperbolic title... who knew I could be both imprecise and hyperbolic in the same headline?  That is talent, my friends.  Perhaps "10 Pitches and the Best Ones I've Ever Seen" or "10 Different Pitches and the Best Ones of Each of Them I've Had the Profound Pleasure & Privilege of Seeing" might've said it better, but then I thought those were too long and let's just stick with the imprecise hyperbole you've come to expect from me.

So please enjoy and try not to have your knees buckle at these dazzling displays of brilliance on the bump... they come to you listed in no particular order cuz I'm of the mind that when humans attempt order we mostly just end up with hierarchy and its resultant heinous hegemonies. Forgive also the somewhat fluffy nature of this post and idea, but we were talking about this in the game thread yesterday and I thought it deserved expanding upon in some way -- if only as an excuse to put up priceless pictures of some marvelous moundsmen making their magical mark while mentioning each for their most meaningful, memorably unique feats and (sometimes fleeting) peaks of mystique.  



Nolan Ryan

HERE COMES THE EXPRESS: He threw 7 no-hitters and now he has the Rangers actually pitching worth a damn... which is more unlikely? I saw him as a kid and into my twenties and no one ever popped a glove like this guy -- except maybe Bob Feller, who was before my time. You watch film of him and it seems like it goes from 24 to about 42 frames-per-second when he releases that beastly heater.  Nope, no one was ever more devastating with the cheese than the Ryan Express... nuff said, Captain Obvious.  Runners-up include Mets stalwarts of my youth and early adulthood, George Thomas Seaver and Dwight "Dr. K" Gooden before the CO-cayne.


split-fingered fastball

Mike Scott

86'd: His 1986 season was insane and generated tons of controversy... I remember it well.  The (eventual champion) Mets were sure he was cutting up the ball, that's how filthtastic his split was.  The pitch and grip concept were new back then so you couldn't blame 'em if they thought they were seeing the impossible.  Of course dude's elbow came to resemble the surface of the Moon from throwing it, but although he had a short career and is largely forgotten today he remains the only pitcher ever to clinch a division by throwing a no-hitter.



Pedro Martinez

FOR PETE'S SAKE: He may have weighed 160 pounds soaking wet in his heyday, but no one ever threw their weight (or Don Zimmer) around on the bump more than Pedro, who boasted a ridiculous 6-pitch arsenal -- any of which he'd throw at any time in the count or game.  His best pitch made many a heavy hitter look like they were trying out for the Joffrey ballet... he'd have them so far out in front they could swing twice and still not make contact.  I saw him face Tim Hudson once in a dollar Wednesday marquee matchup at the Coli-Maus and he made the A's twist themselves into pretzels chasing his change -- the velocity of which it seemed he could tune down to the quarter-MPH at his mere whim -- in getting the CG W that ended up 2-0, as I recall.  I'd like to give a most honorable mention to Trevor Hoffman here, but IMO Pedro edges him by a nose as far as pitchers I have personally seen ply their craft.


Randy Johnson

GLOBAL UNITY: I'd characterize his slider -- delivered as the coup de gras to so many of his second-all-time 4,875 K victims -- as the most unhittable pitch I've ever personally seen... when he was on (read: almost always) you could see the hitters walking away wondering why they even bothered to show up.  As frightening a mound presence as ever was and ever will be, he may be the first unanimous Cooperstown inductee someday soon, and he'd deserve it.  There will never be as fearsome a Unit as this model... would YOU wanna hit against him?


Barry Zito

YACKERS, YAIRIS AND YOGA: We may chuckle at him now with his millstone contract with the reviled Halloweenies across the Bay, but there was a time when he was no laughing matter.  The 2002 AL CY Young winner, when he wasn't strumming a sensitive ballad or doing the downward-dog asana in CF before a start, was possessed of perhaps the most elegant and knee-jellifying deuce I have ever personally witnessed.  How many times did he get jacked on a call, simply because he'd frozen the hitter, the catcher, the umpire and most of the people sitting at Diamond Level with his majestic Uncle Charlie? We'll never know, but it's always a sign of something special when they know what's coming and they still can't beat you, and for the bulk of the time he was in the white cleats Barry was that kind of special indeed. Of course, I saw Steve Carlton pitch as a boy and certainly he belongs front-and-center when comparing curves -- as does newly-minted Cooperstown inductee Bert Blyleven -- but I give the nod in terms of pure aesthetic beauty to Zito's vintage '02 12-to-6 knee buckler.


Mariano Rivera

FEAR THE REAPER: Sure, we almost beat him yesterday, and there was that famous Marco moment with a walkoff shocker off the foul pole, but come on.  He's another one where you know it's coming and you still have less than no chance 99% of the time.  If you had a dollar for every bat Big Mo has ever broken, you could buy Yankee Stadium (yes, the new one) and still have enough left over to build a museum to house his many ninth-inning achievements. I hate the Yankees as much as anyone but there's no getting around the excellence and classiness of this particular Pinstriper, who'll be on one of those Yankee monuments someday and is as certain a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there could possibly be.



Orel Hershiser

HEY, BULLDOG: Sure, he was probably cheating with something going on with all that water on his hat (I swear I once heard him euphemistically admit as much in a postgame press conference!), but still.  He owns the scoreless-innings-streak record and I know you all remember him from that Fall of 1988, dare I mention it.  No one ever made them flail in the dirt like Orel did, or roll over to produce the rally-killing grounder of batterly frustration he needed to wiggle out of a jam.  I don't always agree with his analysis in his commentaries when you see him now, and he always struck me as trying somewhat too hard in some strange way to be likable, but I'd take O.H. as my pitching coach any day. He might even be the one human being currently alive who might be able to get Cahill through more than 3 innings vs. the NYY, who knows?



Fernando Valenzuela

THERE WAS SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NIGHT: I saw him dominate the Mets once at Shea in the early 1980s, when the Mets were just getting good again and Fernando was packing houses from coast to coast.  Similar to Pedro Martinez in that he'd throw you anything in any count and not care whatsoever, his screwball is still the stuff of legend even though it probably didn't do his arm all that much good throwing the twisty pitch... one reason no one throws it anymore is that it is Hell on the elbow and shoulder.  Anyway I'll never forget that electric performance (a 2-hit shutout)... by the end of the complete game masterpiece he even had the Met fans cheering him on, which happens in NY about as often as the Pope smokes dope through a telescope roped to a cantaloupe kinescope from Zoetrope.



Phil Niekro

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY: OK, I am surely dating myself here but I saw Niekro pitch many times as a kid growing up when he'd come to town with the Braves or the Astros with their rainbow unis.  He pitched until he was, what, 92? Him and his brother both were evil with the knuckler but Phil was The Master... he could pitch a whole doubleheader and not break a sweat.  You don't win 318 games (and lose 274!!!) throwing that pitch unless you can make it dance like no one else, and that's what he did in a Hall of Fame career that spanned 23 years and 5 teams.

circle change

Cliff Lee

LEE MORE CAN: These days, as pitchers and hitters get deeper into the molecular struggle of adjustment and subsequent readjustment to those adjustments, the game is as always an ever-evolving Search for the New Land. That said, there's been no more devastating and unusually filthy pitch than the alternatively-gripped circle changeup employed by this dominator of lineups large and small.  You don't routinely make the Yankees look like chumps in the postseason unless you know what you're doing, and Lee is just a surgeon out there, routinely finishing hitters with this wrinkly offspeed offering that moves so much in the last third of its trajectory you wanna search him for the remote control he's using to make it do that.  Add to it the most impeccable command this side of Jean-Luc Picard, and you think about Cooperstown and this guy's ability --- barring the catastrophic injury from which he can sometimes seem but a pitch away, of course -- to someday Make It So.


Of course there's always other pitchers and other pitches deserving of mention.... Mike Mussina's knuckle-curve comes to mind and there's plenty of HoF-caliber hurlers to choose from when having this discussion.  Feel free to chime in with your own selections in the comments and I'll be by with the A's-Rays game thread at about 6:30PM for you all =D

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Monday, Jul 25, 2011, 7:05 PM PDT Coliseum

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