There was only one put-away pitch Félix Bautista would throw in that critical late-game situation Thursday, having entered in the eighth inning with two runners in scoring position and a one-run Orioles lead. Against Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, Bautista got ahead 0-2 with his four-seam fastball and his slider.
So the Orioles right-hander toed the rubber and fiddled in his glove for the grip of the pitch that has made him such an imposing reliever — the one that fills up Twitter highlight videos and has caused an opposing batting average of .082 and a 52.9% whiff rate.
The splitter, which Bautista first learned in the Dominican Republic about five years ago, dove out of the reach of Arozarena’s bat for a three-pitch strikeout. It left the former American League Rookie of the Year bemused, a slight shake of the head as he walked back toward the dugout. And it was just another entry in what has become an overwhelmingly effective weapon for Bautista.
“That’s my lethal pitch,” Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “That’s what I’m going to call it from now on: my lethal pitch.”
Those outcomes have become somewhat commonplace this season, even from hitters of Arozarena’s caliber. While the radar gun draws ample eyes when it flashes 102 mph for Bautista’s four-seam fastball, the splitter has emerged as his almost-unhittable secondary pitch.
The way it plays off his fastball is critical. Bautista’s heater drops an average of 8.5 inches, the least of any qualified four-seam fastball in Major League Baseball — the next closest drops an average of 9.8 inches. His splitter comes out of the same arm slot, and in the split second hitters have to decide whether to swing, the sudden movement throws them off.
With a save Thursday, Bautista has retired 25 of the past 26 batters he’s faced while striking out 14 of them. The 52.9% whiff rate on his splitter is the highest in the majors, with Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani coming second. The 22.2% hard-hit rate is the third-lowest mark in the league. The .082 batting average on that pitch is also the lowest, and his weighted on-base average — a measure of how a batter reaches base — of 103 on the splitter leads the majors.
In short, Bautista has the best splitter in baseball. And baseball has begun to notice.
“When he’s throwing strikes with his fastball, getting ahead, that’s when the splitter becomes that much nastier,” New York Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa said. “And when he’s landing the splitter for a strike, it just takes him to a whole new level.”
In his early 20s, playing in the Dominican Summer League as a new member of Baltimore’s organization, Ramón Martínez noticed the issues Bautista had trying to command his changeup. The former All-Star pitcher, who then served as a senior advisor in Latin America for the Orioles, proposed a solution.
Bautista’s size is hard to miss. At 6 feet 8, Martínez figured the young right-hander could grip the split-finger fastball well. And when Bautista began to throw it, Martínez’s suspicions were affirmed. As Martínez and his brother, Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martínez, watched Bautista develop in their hometown of Santo Domingo, the belief grew in that pitch.
Bautista’s development quickened in 2020, however, when he remained in the Dominican Republic during the coronavirus pandemic. Martínez said he threw what equated to a full season, and Bautista sent videos to Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt to document his progress. By the end, Martínez felt a path to the big leagues was inevitable.
“I see the way he threw and the way he pitched, I say, ‘Whoa, you should be [in the majors],’” Martínez said. “He can throw his fastball right by anybody. He was untouched. No one could hit it. Throwing the splitter, throwing the fastball for strikes, locate it.”
Those pitches pair together well. Coming out of the same arm angle, the only difference when he throws the splitter is “it just drops off,” Bautista said. It’s the kind of combination that could make Bautista a closer, Martínez said, and he used it to that effect Thursday when he struck out three of the four Tampa Bay Rays batters he faced.
Earlier this week, in another big spot against a strong hitter, Bautista used that fastball-splitter combination to leave one more hitter hopeless. As soon as Bautista saw Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton grab a bat and stand in to pinch hit, the Orioles right-hander knew he wanted to establish the inner part of the plate with his 101 mph fastball.
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Then, once ahead, Bautista’s splitter swirled out of his hand and left Stanton frozen, rung up for a strikeout looking on three pitches. As Bautista stepped off the mound, he raised both hands — one in a fist and one in a glove — and allowed the excitement of the moment to escape.
His splitter — his “lethal pitch” — had worked its magic again.
“When you’re trying to time up 100 [mph], and then that thing comes in at upper-80s or low-90s, it’s gotta be a nightmare for hitters. It’s just gotta be,” Holt said. “The reactions you see don’t lie.”
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