- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Over and over, Edward Mujica throws an off-speed pitch that darts downward, under the bats of opposing hitters, and if you look at the movement and trajectory of the pitch -- you can see it here -- this would seem to be something passed down through generations from another St. Louis closer. Bruce Sutter popularized the split-fingered fastball, and depending on where you look, you'll see Mujica's dominant pitch is listed as a split-finger.
Mujica chuckled about this over the phone Wednesday. "It's not a split-finger," he said. "The grip is different than a splitter."
But everybody seems to make the diagnostic mistake, including his All-Star catcher. After Mujica joined the Cardinals last season in a midseason deal with the Miami Marlins, Yadier Molina asked him what he threw, and Mujica listed his pitches: fastball, slider and changeup.
After his first appearance, Molina complimented Mujica, "Hey, that split-finger was pretty good."
So Mujica had to explain to Molina, too, that what he throws is actually a changeup -- the ball buried deep under the three smallest fingers of his hand -- rather than in a split-finger grip between the middle and index fingers. He started throwing the pitch when he was with the Padres in 2009, and pitching coach Darren Balsley told him that he needed to increase the disparity of velocity between the fastball and changeup to make the latter more effective. Mujica then tucked the ball even more deeply toward his palm.
It's the movement that makes it look like a splitter and fools everybody, including hitters, which Molina has recognized. In the first seasons of his career, about 72 percent of Mujica's pitches were fastballs, but Molina has been calling the changeup a whopping 55 to 60 percent of the time in 2013. Since joining the Cardinals, Mujica has issued just four walks in 37 1/3 innings while striking out 32 and compiling a 1.21 ERA. He has taken over as the St. Louis closer, for now.
Mujica thinks hitters tend to misidentify his changeup for his two-seam fastball, and he's gotten so adept with the pitch and can control it so well that he can make it run back over the outside corner to right-handed hitters or inside to left-handed hitters -- in the way that a two-seamer does, but at 8 to 10 mph slower. "I've got a lot of confidence in that pitch," said Mujica, who picked up another save Wednesday as the Cardinals won a series over the Reds.
• The Padres' ownership has given the go-ahead to Josh Byrnes to negotiate a long-term deal with Chase Headley. This will be a fascinating contract, because Headley will want to be paid based on the type of player he was in 2012 -- an MVP candidate -- and the Padres might not be wholly comfortable paying him at an MVP-candidate level. We'll see.
• The game is changing dramatically. From Elias: There were 5,992 strikeouts in April, the highest April strikeout total in any season in major league history. And it's not just the total number of strikeouts that was noteworthy; the average of 15.29 strikeouts per major league game during April was the second-highest average in a full month in major league history. (This does not include the fragmentary baseball months, usually March or October, in which fewer than 60 games were played.) The record was just set in September, when there was an average of 15.47 strikeouts per game.
And that brings us to the larger point: Over the 138-year history of Major League Baseball, the top eight months on that list -- that is, the months with the highest average number of strikeouts per game -- are the last eight months. You read that correctly. Not eight of the last 12 or eight of the last 10, but eight of the last eight. There were 14.91 strikeouts in September 2011, 14.63 in April 2012, 14.93 in May, 15.01 in June, 15.07 in July, 14.68 in August, the record 15.47 in September and now 15.29 in April 2013. Those are the eight highest monthly strikeout averages in baseball history.
Check out the top dozen seasons in terms of strikeouts per game, league-wide, since 1969:
Tim Kurkjian and I are going to talk about this on the podcast today.
• Jordan Zimmermann was brilliant in his start against the Braves -- nothing less -- changing the hitters' eye levels, working inside and outside and mixing his pitches. I've seen Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey and Justin Verlander have dominant starts this season, but I can't remember any start better than what Zimmermann threw out there. He has put himself into the discussion of whether he belongs with the game's elite pitchers, as Amanda Comak writes.
From ESPN Stats & Information, how Zimmermann won:
A) Four of his 8 K's came off fastballs. His average fastball velocity of 93.7 was his highest since 2009.
B) Dominant slider: He hasn't allowed a hit versus his slider over his last three starts. Opposing hitters are 0-for-15 in that span.
C) Tough with two strikes: Opposing batters went 0-for-15 with two strikes, and he allowed just 28 percent of two-strike pitches to be put in play.
• All was not good for the Nationals, though; Bryce Harper got hurt, as James Wagner writes. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg had a clean bullpen session. Ryan Zimmerman will come off the disabled list Friday.
Elias: The Tigers are the first team in American League history to have a streak of at least six games with 10 or more strikeouts. Some more tidbits:
• Yankees are 5-0 in one-run games this season and are the only team without a one-run loss.
• Giants have six game-tying or go-ahead home runs in the eighth inning or later this season -- most in MLB.
• Lance Lynn has won 10 straight decisions dating back to last season (longest active streak in MLB).
• C.J. Wilson is 3-0 this season while the rest of the Angels starting staff is a combined 3-11.
• Jordany Valdespin hit his sixth pinch-hit home run since 2012 (no one else in MLB has more than three). Six of Valdespin's 10 major league HRs have come as a pinch-hitter.
• Mike Morse is the first Mariner with nine home runs in his team's first 30 games since Mike Cameron in 2002.
• After the Tigers game, Rondon was returned to the minors. The Tigers need more consistency from him. It was noted that he pitched well when there was no pressure but struggled when the score was closer. He's young and has more development to get through.
• Yankees first-base coach Mick Kelleher had a difference-making observation that helped New York win, as Anthony McCarron writes.
• Mike Napoli's two home runs were ridiculous.
According to a source, Floyd is seeking multiple opinions.
The biggest fear is that further diagnosis could reveal an ulnar collateral ligament tear that may require lengthy rest, or surgery that would end his year and his association with the Sox after seven seasons.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Pirates' rotation is about to get crowded, Michael Sanserino writes.
4. Blake Beavan lost his spot in the Seattle rotation.
Dings and dents
5. The Athletics put a couple of guys on the DL.
7. Another Angels player is hurt.
2. The Pirates have won 15 of their last 22 after beating the Brewers.
4. The Reds lost in the final game of their series.
5. Houston's road trip ended with a loss.
7. The Arizona bullpen gave it up again. From Tyler Emerick's story:
David Hernandez threw two perfectly located fastballs on the outer third of the plate to jump ahead in the count, but the third fastball missed its mark and Belt hit it on the nose.
Needing one more strike to escape the inning after walking two batters, Hernandez sent a heater over the middle of the plate and Belt crushed it for a three-run homer, leaving the D-backs searching for answers as the Giants completed the three-game sweep, 9-6, at Chase Field.
"I threw the first two exactly where I wanted to and threw the third one exactly where he wanted me to," Hernandez said. "Seems like everything is going bad, but that's the way a season goes sometimes."
The Arizona bullpen has now blown 10 saves in 28 games this season and in the Giants series alone, D-backs relievers allowed a combined nine runs in the seventh inning or later.