DiFelice’s single, slow and unhittable pitch
Pitchers do not survive throwing 82 mph. There are exceptions, the wizened and gray-templed Jamie Moyer(notes) and Tom Glavine(notes) and Livan Hernandez(notes), who throw an array of junk, their arms undone by tens of thousands of pitches. DiFelice isn’t old, there’s no sign of salt in his hair, he throws one pitch and he’s working on reaching his 50th major league inning.
So DiFelice doesn’t have an excuse for who or what he is, and by putting up numbers for the Milwaukee Brewers almost unparalleled among relief pitchers this season, he doesn’t bother searching for one.
The formula is rather simple: DiFelice throws a cut fastball almost all the time. It doesn’t sizzle across the plate, like Mariano Rivera’s.(notes) It doesn’t even whoosh toward hitters, like Joakim Soria’s.(notes) If there’s an appropriate onomatopoeia for DiFelice’s cutter, that 82-mph cotton ball that no one can solve, it’s more like the air seeping from a balloon: Pfffffft, it goes, landing in the catcher’s mitt not with a pop so much as a plop.
“There’s something to say for how slow I throw,” DiFelice said. “Guys hate hitting against me, because they wonder if I’m going to throw anything else, if I’ve got something up my sleeve. Nope. Sorry.
“Guys tell me it’s a nasty pitch, but still. I mean, it’s 82.”
Even the 32-year-old DiFelice has trouble comprehending how he got here, not just to the major leagues but to a 3-0 record with a 0.98 ERA and opponents batting .169 against him. For more than 10 years, DiFelice toiled in the minor leagues. He bounced around. He spent two seasons in independent ball, generally a death sentence for major league aspirations.
It was there, in hopeless Camden, N.J., that DiFelice found hope. Before that 2006 season, he played for the Obregon Yaquis in Mexico during the winter and met a pitching coach named Adolfo Navarro, who offered to teach him the cutter. DiFelice’s fastball sat around 92 mph before rotator-cuff surgery earlier in the decade, and he never found that velocity again, so Navarro urged him to try something new.
DiFelice grips the ball across the seams, like a four-seam fastball, and tilts it so his middle finger rests along the red stitching. He squeezes the ball with his middle finger, raises his index finger and throws it as he would a fastball. The result is confounding: The ball spins like a fastball and moves like a slider, and the optical illusion it plays on hitters allows him to get away with throwing an 82-mph pitch the batter knows is coming.
In Camden, DiFelice tested out the cutter to great success. Still, it didn’t translate into another shot with an affiliated team. During the day, DiFelice worked a warehouse job from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., then went to the ballpark at 3 p.m. He planned on giving himself one more year in independent baseball before quitting.
Back in Mexico that offseason, DiFelice pitched well enough to draw interest from multiple teams. Stan Kyles, a pitching coach in the Milwaukee organization, sold the Brewers on DiFelice, and they sent him to the Double-A Southern League, the same place he had been seven years earlier.
No matter. If DiFelice was ever going to make the major leagues, this was a better spot than Camden. He blew through hitters there and spent a year in Triple-A before finally debuting May 18 at Fenway Park, where Dustin Pedroia(notes) greeted him with a single off the Green Monster and David Ortiz(notes) followed with a home run.
He settled down. He weathered another trip to the minor leagues. And he kept throwing that cutter, like Rivera Lite.
“I know Mariano Rivera has 10 more miles on his, but he’s made a living out throwing one cutter after another,” Brewers manager Ken Macha said. “Mark’s got more movement than Mariano does.”
It’s one thing to see that number flash – 82 mph, as almost all of DiFelice’s pitches do – and posit that the gun must be having a bad day. It’s another to realize that this isn’t just DiFelice’s bread and butter; it’s his steak, potato, asparagus and pinot noir, too. And still, to flail at it and strike out, as 18 hitters have done in his 18 1/3 innings, or to loft an easy fly ball, as Albert Pujols(notes) did Saturday. That just seems wrong.
With the novelty of DiFelice worn off, hitters are bound to change their tack. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened,” he said, and he plans on mixing in a few more changeups and curveballs, though perhaps he’s selling himself short. Maybe they have tried something different, and he’s got such tremendous command (a career 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) that there’s simply nothing they can do about this miracle pitch.
And that’s what it is. These are major league hitters. They turn on 95-mph fastballs. They pick up curveballs that drop two feet. They weed out sliders tilting like they belong in Pisa. A ball going 82 mph is not supposed to be a Rubik’s Cube.
Earlier this month in Cincinnati, DiFelice met Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez(notes), whose 94-mph fastball is the envy of many. The two share an agent, Lenny Strelitz, and word of DiFelice’s repertoire seems to have moved virally through the game.
“I really love your cutter,” Volquez said.
“I really love your fastball,” DiFelice replied. “Wanna trade?”
They laughed. DiFelice would love a golden arm, of course, though he’s content with his golden pitch. Every time he throws it and the radar gun talks to him, DiFelice invokes Newton’s Third Law, the one of an equal and opposite reaction.
He should be here. He absolutely should be here.