The Players’ Tribune asked me to name the five toughest pitchers I’ve ever faced. I don’t want this to be boring, so I’m going to mix it up a little bit and give you three legendary guys who are retired and two younger guys who have really impressed me recently.
I’m even gonna give some respect to a couple of Yankees. But let’s start with my bro …
Pedro had the best stuff I’ve ever seen from a pitcher. Period. At best, most pitchers will have three great pitches. Pedro had four. He had a nasty cutter, a devastating changeup, a 12-6 breaking ball and a fastball that he could make look like a two-seamer or a four-seamer.
I faced young Pedro in probably only 30 at-bats when I was with Minnesota. But it felt like all 30 times, I walked back to the dugout shaking my head in disbelief. I mean, seriously, whenever we would come to play Boston, guys would look up on the board in the clubhouse and pray to God they didn’t see his name as the starting pitcher. You’d see he was scheduled to pitch the third game in the series, and you’d look at your teammate like, “Okay, we better get our hits in off these first two guys, because it’s gonna be a long day with Pedro.”
Pedro’s changeup was the best I’ve ever seen. It was so good that he could have walked right up to the plate and told you, “Hey bro, I’m about to throw you the changeup.” And you still wouldn’t be able to hit it. It would start right on the plate, then it would fade out. Most changeups have some movement, but Pedro’s would move about 10 inches away from you. Now he winds up for the next pitch and it’s the exact same motion, same delivery, same release. Oh okay, I’m about to hit this changeup into the cheap seats. Nah! It’s a 95 mph fastball.
He would make you look silly out there.
He threw one pitch, man. He threw one pitch. And it was so damn good that it didn’t matter. That’s why, to me, he’s the most amazing pitcher in the history of the game. You knew the cutter was coming. The ball would come out of Mariano’s hand and you were sure it was going right over the plate. All of a sudden, you were hitting it with your finger. Jam sandwich.
I actually had a pretty decent average against him, but it was blooper, strikeout, walk, blooper. For all the times I went up against him over the years, I only had two home runs. You know why? Because Mariano was so smart as a pitcher. In tie games, or when the Yankees were up by a run, he would force you to swing at pitches off the strike zone. You don’t want to swing? Okay, fine. Go to first base. He did that with me in so many situations. He always made you do it the hard way.
It didn’t matter what adjustments you tried to make — move back, crowd the plate, whatever — he was already a step ahead of you. Mariano had the command of a starting pitcher. His cutter was the single best pitch I’ve ever seen, but the really amazing thing is how he was able to do it for so many years. Are there guys now who have stuff as nasty as Mariano? Maybe for one year, two years. But nobody could maintain it like he did. I mean, 652 saves? That’s stupid.
My first 20 at-bats against Mussina, I didn’t have a single hit. The thing that made him so tough is he had variations on all his pitches. He really had two types of fastballs, two changeups and three different breaking balls. His breaking ball would come from different angles, so you had no idea where the ball was going to go. Mussina wouldn’t overpower you, but he was totally unpredictable. You never knew what pitch he was going to throw.
I remember one game when I still didn’t have a hit off this guy and I worked him late into the count. The fastball comes in and I got pretty good wood on it, and I’m watching it go into the outfield gap. I’m thinking, Yeah! It’s my birthday party! Finally! And the f****** Orioles outfielder makes a crazy diving catch.
I couldn’t believe it. It took me hours and hours of studying Mussina on tape to finally figure out how to attack him. He was just nasty.
The last few seasons, the toughest guy I’ve faced is Sonny Gray from Oakland. This kid’s stuff is legit. Normally, I don’t really look at the pitcher on the mound. I mean, I see him standing there, but what I’m paying attention to is his delivery and the way the ball comes out of his hand. The reason is because you want to look at everybody the same. If you see these big guys and you’re thinking about how nasty they are, you’re already out before you take a swing.
But the first time I see this Gray kid on the mound, I can’t help but notice he’s 5’10” and skinny. He looks like the guy who fixes my computer at the Apple Store. I’m thinking, Here we go. This is gonna be fun. Then he took me for a ride, man. Fastball. Sinker. Slider. Curve … Whap. Whap. Whap. You have no idea what this kid is going to throw. He drives me crazy.
I go back to what I said about Pedro: As a hitter, you always want to simplify things. When a guy only has two good pitches, your job is pretty easy. Okay, I’m going to sit back and wait for this breaking ball. When a guy like Gray has three or four pitches, hitting ain’t simple. I’ve seen him about 15 times, and I haven’t been able to figure out what pitch is coming. And I’ve seen a lot of shit. That’s a sign that he’s going to be something special in this game.
I’m including this kid because we played Miami this season and I have never seen anyone pitch like him before. Capps has this funky release where he kind of jumps from the mound and holds the ball behind him until the last second, so you can’t see the release point.
I’m telling you, I had no idea where the ball was going until it was on me. Every pitcher tries to hide his release point now, but this was a whole different level. I’m standing there watching the pitches come in and I don’t even know what to do.
Luckily, he walked me. I walked to first base like, What the hell just happened?
The reason why pitching is so good now isn’t because everyone can throw 97. It’s because the pitchers are getting so good at hiding the ball coming out of their hands. These kids out here are trying all kinds of stuff to fool me. Or like my wife says, maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old man.
Don’t even bring up “pace of play” rules unless you want to hear me yell for an hour.