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.
David Cone, Former Cy Young Winner and Five-Time All Star
“I grew up gripping the baseball the same way. Right along the seams, on top of the baseball, was a two-seam fastball. I threw my slider the same way. All I would do was bring both fingers inside the seams a little bit, just to get some friction. I basically threw a two-seam slider my whole career. I’ve seen a few other pitchers who do it that way. Not many.
“I was probably around 11 or 12 years old, so I was one of those kids who learned to throw breaking balls when I was young. There are a lot of people who don’t feel that’s a good thing, for kids to throw curveballs or sliders too early. My contention is that if you wait until you’re 17 or 18 to learn how to throw a curveball, you’re probably not going to learn to throw one very well. There has to be a balance there. Nonetheless, for me, the grip was the grip.
“I feel that it gave me kind of an unusual break on my pitches. The key for me… a lot of guys do spiked curveballs, where they want all of the pressure on their middle finger. I put a lot of pressure on my index finger when I threw my breaking ball. Most coaches teach just the opposite. To them, the index finger — the pointer finger — is more of a guide, or just in the way.
“My index finger was on a seam, and that was important to me. I could sweep it a little more that way — I could get a little more side-to-side break — and then, if I wanted to get on top of it, I could make it break down a little more. I also felt that I could control the pitch better that way.”
J.A. Happ, Yankees
“I always threw a slider, although I said ‘cutter’ to myself, even though the play on it, the size of it, was actually more of a slider. I said ‘cutter’ to keep it short. Every time I thought ‘slider’ I’d get around the ball.
“I’ve thrown variations of the grip and changed sizes of it. I still try to change the size a little bit. I manipulate it, depending on whether I’m facing a righty or a lefty. It’s also a matter of what feels comfortable. The grips have always been pretty standard, though. No knuckle or a crazy one-seam or anything like that.
“Sometimes grips feel stale. The ball isn’t moving the way you want it to, so you try to find another one, and hopefully you get there. How you lose the feel for a pitch is one of those weird things. You pick up a baseball and all of a sudden a pitch you’ve been throwing for months, or even years, feels awkward or uncomfortable. Or maybe it just isn’t moving right. And sometimes the ball feels different, but I don’t think that’s because the ball is any different. Something just happens to feel different.”
Jake Petricka, Blue Jays
“It’s a pitch that’s been working for me this year, so we’ve kind of just kept going with it. I can rely on it more now. In the past, my [primary secondary pitch] always had to be a changeup, because the slider was inconsistent. It was more of a ‘here it is,’ just for show. Basically, it’s gone from a work-in-progress to something I can use on more of a regular basis.
“One problem is that I was always changing the grip. Any time my slider would finally get decent, it would become, ‘Well, let’s make it better,’ and I’d change the grip again. I’d kind of hit reset. Now I just stuck with a grip long enough to make it work. Most people might say it’s more of a curveball-type grip, but to me it’s just a normal breaking-ball grip. Each arm slot will dictate if it’s more curve or slider.
“If anything, I’m trusting it more and not trying to force it. Before, I would always try to force it and would end up wrapping it, and making it bad. Now it’s, ‘All right, you’ve got the grip. Throw the grip and here we go.’
“I used to throw a bunch of sliders on the side, thinking that, if it worked good there, it would carry over into the game. What I found is that good on the side is completely different than good on the mound. On the mound, you’re throwing downhill, while on flat ground everything is level. So, as long as the spin is good on flat ground, I’m happy. I’m not trying to make it break.”
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.