Breaking balls sometimes get short shrift these days. Perhaps because of their strong platoon splits and weak (but probably real) correlation with injury, it’s the change up that teams are insisting their pitchers learn. Brett Anderson is a product of a baseball family and one such organization, and yet he continues to ply his trade mostly by throwing a strong breaking ball or two, when he’s healthy.
Is it one pitch, is it two pitches, does it lead to platoon splits, does it lead to injury? His slurve knows all. Or at least a bit.
Okay, it’s not all one pitch. Anderson calls them two, just like our classification systems, even if he admits they “morph” into one at times. But there’s only one grip for his curve and slider. “It’s weird, I have huge palms and tiny fingers so I spiked my curve ball and what I call a slider since I started throwing them,” said the pitcher. “Trying to throw conventional breaking balls shot up my hand, and I didn’t have a good feel for it, so I tried to isolate that one finger.”
The curve ball is a little less frequent. “I kind of keep my wrist stationary and try to throw over the top of it,” Anderson said of his curve. He talked of a different arm slot, but also hand placement and follow through. With the same grip, but a different release point and wrist usage, he gets a more traditional curveball.
Different movement means different usage, too. With the 12-6 movement, he uses the curve more “in change up counts, just because my change up is not that good,” laughed Anderson. His curve usage more than doubles in 0-0 counts, from around 8% over his career to around 18%. He’s just trying to “steal a strike” as a “get-me-over.”
The slider? What “other people call a slurve”? The pitcher estimates he’s gotten 95% of his strikeouts on that pitch. That’s his true bread and butter. With only an alteration of the seams, he uses that same spike grip, but makes sure to “stay behind it and throw through it” for the slider.
Why hasn’t the pitch led to the platoon problems normally associate with a slider? For his career, righties have hit for a lower wOBA (.303) than lefties (.326) despite the fact Anderson throws a breaker nearly 30% of the time with his left hand.
For one, Anderson feels he has exceptional control of the pitch. “I’ve been able to spin stuff since an early age and feel comfortable doing that,” Anderson said. “Almost feel more comfortable throwing breaking balls for strikes than heaters sometimes — it’s natural.” According to Brooks Baseball, Anderson’s slider has the lowest ball rate of any of his pitches.
Some of his magic has to do with what he can see when each type of batter is at the plate. “I can see the catcher, I can see the hitter, and I can see that space between his foot and the catcher,” Anderson says of his sight lines from the mound. “But for lefties sometimes, there’s so much open space, it’s tough to have a guideline of where to get that first strike.” Look how he (admittedly) loves to hit the back foot versus righties:
Is he worried about the breaking balls in Colorado, where the pitch notoriously flattens out, and other pitchers have ditched the curve? “It’s all I have, I have no choice,” said Anderson. He said it was an adjustment — the first time he threw his curves to a catcher in Coors Field, his catcher stood up to receive them and they laughed — but “it’s not the drastic difference that comes with the Coors Field stigma,” as the Rockie pitcher put it. “There with the altitude and the thin air, you have to make sure you stay through it or you’re going to hang it.” In other words, its an adjustment but not a big one. “There’s no get-me-over in Coors Field,” he added.
For what it’s worth, his whiff rate on the slider is way down in Coors (6% at home, 23% on the road), and the movement is down, too. According to Matt Murphy, “The horizontal break on his slider has been 30% lower at coors. While there’s normally an 8-inch gap in horizontal movement between his fourseamer and his slider, that gap is down to 5.5 inches at Coors.” Take a look at the pitch this year in Coors:
In the end, Anderson felt he doesn’t have much of a choice about his pitching mix, as you can tell. When he throws a change up, it “comes out and then it turns into a BP fastball at 85, no movement,” Anderson said, shrugging. Even added sinker usage hasn’t translated to a better change up. Maybe it’s just the length of his fingers, but it just hasn’t happened for him despite trying many different grips.
For a guy that was once the poster child for a discussion on whether or not breaking balls lead to more injuries, maybe it’s surprising that Anderson doesn’t blame the breaking balls for his Tommy John surgery. For him, it was all mechanical. “My arm wasn’t quite in the right position when my foot landed,” Anderson explained. And so his elbow had to “create the torque.”
In response, Anderson has tried to create a pause in his delivery this year to slow his lower body down. Not quite Johnny Cueto or Roy Halladay, but like them, he hopes this will give his upper body a chance to catch up. “After throwing thousands of pitches, it’s going to be hard to change your arm speed, so it’s easier to manipulate your body,” Anderson said of the tweak.
The other injuries? The ankle thing in 2013? That was “notorious in sprinters and basketball players, but that’s about as far from my capabilities as you could get — I’m slow and I can’t jump high, so why the hell did I get this,” wondered Anderson. This year, he broke his finger… hitting a rollover ground ball to short off the end of the bat.”Guys hit one off the end of their bat and it stings for a second, but me, I break a finger.”
Anderson hasn’t had the easiest career, and those fluke injuries (and short fingers) are just something he’ll have to deal with. He probably won’t add a changeup at this point. And yes, some people call his breaking ball a slurve.
But that’s not a dirty word to him. He’s got great command of two breaking pitches and a good sense of how to use them to get batters out. He thinks the pitches will survive the thin air, so he’ll keep spinning them out there.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.