Pitchers learn and develop different pitches, and they do so at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, or a changeup in A-ball. Sometimes the addition or refinement is a natural progression — graduating from Pitching 101 to advanced course work — and often it’s a matter of necessity. In order to get hitters out as the quality of competition improves, a pitcher needs to optimize his repertoire.
Chris Archer, Pittsburgh Pirates
“In [high school], I was dating this girl whose brother played in the minor leagues with the Red Sox. His name is David Penny. He had some shoulder issues and didn’t make it beyond Low-A, but he was a prominent figure, baseball-wise, in my hometown [Clayton, North Carolina]. He thought that I had the right arm slot for a slider — at the time I was only throwing a curveball — and taught it to me.
“When I got drafted, the Indians scrapped it. I didn’t throw one slider in 2006, ’07, or ’08. What happened was … it was interesting. First day, I was with the rookie-ball pitching coach, and he saw all four of my pitches. He was like, ‘OK, we need to develop your fastball command and your changeup.’ He said the only way to do that would be by eliminating one of my pitches, which would force me to throw the other ones. That particular bullpen, my curveball appeared to be better than my slider, so he said, ‘Curveball, fastball, changeup — that’s it.’ So for those three seasons, I was curveball-fastball-changeup.
“My slider was really sharp. One of the reasons I got drafted was my ability to spin both breaking balls. But you get to rookie-ball, and the coaches tell you what the priorities are… I listened to the orders of my organization. I wasn’t frustrated or mad. I just knew that when I got to a certain point, I was going to start throwing a slider again. When I went to the Cubs, that’s what I did.
“It was easy to bring back, but it has evolved. If you go back and look, you’ll see that in 2013-2014 it was a different pitch than it’s been since 2015. I realized that I wanted to throw it a little bit harder, with a little more depth.
“What I did was add finger pressure on my index. For a lot of people holding a breaking ball, it’s predominantly the middle finger, with the index finger kind of resting there, or spiking. That will give it a little more bend, because it’s going to come out of your hand… when you release it without anything on top, it’s going to come out a little before it comes down. But if the index is the last thing that comes off the ball, then it’s going to come in, in a straight line, and then down. It’s a little tougher to recognize.
“Doing that also forces you to… I’m not saying this actually happens, because I don’t know what happens, but it forces you to almost have your fingers in front of the ball on the release, as opposed to the side of the ball. So, if you want more depth, you have to spin it like four-seam spin, as opposed coming out like two-seam spin. That might be too complicated to really articulate, but basically, having a little more finger pressure on the index allows me to stay on top of the ball a little bit longer, and pull down just a little bit more. That gets me more depth.”
Kyle Crick, Pittsburgh Pirates
“I remember throwing one for the first time in high school, just messing around on flat ground. My coach called it a frisbee. We didn’t work on it from there. I didn’t even throw it in high school. It was more of a discovery in pro ball.
“My first full season — this was Low-A — I threw it quite a bit. I had success with it, but I was throwing it so much that the Giants actually wanted me to stop. It was kind of, ‘Hey, we don’t want to have this slider as a crutch.’ So the next year, they had me go predominantly fastball-changeup. I didn’t throw it at all. As a result, I kind of lost the feel for it. It took me a good year, year-and-half, to get the feel back.
“Last year, I wasn’t ripping down on it, early on. As the year progressed, I started throwing it harder and harder. What I mean by ‘harder and harder’ is the rip down at the end. That’s the harder and harder, whereas it used to be, ‘Hey, let’s throw this for a strike.’ Kind of a finesse-type pitch. It escalated from a finesse-type pitch to a rip-type pitch. I’m throwing it with a lot of intensity.
“It’s kind of like a slurve. I have a curveball grip, and I throw it like a slider. About three years ago is when I started throwing more of a frisbee again. I turned it from a normal curveball, with a normal downward angle, to a pitch that goes side-to-side. Instead of trying to get on top of the ball, per se, I started to just throw it from my normal arm slot, which is three-quarters.
“I’d always though you had to get on top of a breaking ball, so I would come over the top with it. Then I thought, ‘That’s not my natural arm slot; people are going to notice if I’m doing something different with my curveball. They’ll catch on.’ I was like, ‘All right, my fastball comes out over here — from three-quarters — so I should start throwing the same pitch from that slot. I did, and it took off. It wasn’t something where I was actively trying to make it go side to side, that’s just my arm angle.
“It’s kind of like when you’re skipping rocks when you’re a kid. You kind of develop how to use your wrist; how to snap it. I skipped a lot of rocks growing up. That may have something to do with my slider doing what it does.”
Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates
“I had two bad starts last year, and at that point I felt like I was a two-pitch pitcher. I was fastball-curveball. I was pretty much asking my curveball to be a strike pitch, a swing-and-miss pitch, an out pitch, a weak-contact pitch. It had to take on a lot of different traits. I figured slider-cutter — some version of that — would be the play. So I started throwing it in catch, and then in a bullpen or two. After about a week, I broke it out in a game.
“When I started playing catch with it, it was something different every day. I was messing around, trying to see what I liked. My thing is… I have a big, slower curveball, so I wanted something that was harder and tighter, and easy to throw for a strike — something to get a groundball when I’m behind in the count. I rarely throw my curveball 2-0. So, my main emphasis was finding something I could command, and sequence and tunnel off my fastball.
“The hitters will tell you a lot. I threw my first slider against either the Giants or the Reds — this was earlier in May — and it was slower. It was 83-84. I got the feedback I needed, which was, ‘OK, it’s too close to my curveball. That’s not what I want. Plus, they might blend together and become one pitch.’ So I knew that I had to start manipulating it differently — change the grip up a little bit — and make it harder. I had to go back to the lab, and then break it out again when it was ready.
“The way the whole pitch-development thing worked was… I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for, and I throw my pens pretty hard. I’d rather throw shorter pens, and throw them harder, as opposed to throwing long pens at 75 mph. I throw my heater pretty hard in pens.
“With higher intensity, I can get real feedback from the equipment we’re using. With my slider, I’d throw a really good one and say, ‘Bookmark that.’ I’d say that to the guy with the iPad, Aaron [Razum], who was kind of doing the pitch development with me and [pitching coach] Ray Searage. I’d kind of turn and be like, ‘Let’s remember that one. Pitch 17 of my pen today. That’s the slider I want.’
“Again, I wanted something I could easily throw for a strike, something with tilt, but a pitch that wouldn’t look anything like my curveball. So at first it was pretty close to a cutter — it was around 90-92 — and we worked on it from there. I wanted it to spin it pretty hard and not be crazy depth-y, so if I could do that, and it felt clean coming out of my hand, and was repeatable … that’s what I was looking for. That’s what I found.”
The 2018 installments of this series can be found here.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.