From Stacked To Spiked, Paul Blackburn’s Curveball Is Suddenly Plus

© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Learning and Developing a Pitch series is back for another season, and we’re once again hearing from pitchers on a notable weapon in their arsenal. Today’s installment features Oakland Athletics right-hander Paul Blackburn on his curveball, a revamped pitch playing a key role in what has been a career-best season.

On track to represent Oakland in next month’s All-Star game, Blackburn has won six of eight decisions — this for the team with baseball’s worst record — while logging a 2.26 ERA and a 3.09 FIP over 13 starts comprising 71-and-two-thirds innings. He’s thrown his curveball, a pitch he no longer grips in atypical fashion, 18.5% of the time.


Paul Blackburn: “I started throwing a curveball right around my sophomore year of high school. I learned it from watching Barry Zito. I grew up in Northern California — I’m a Northern California guy — so I saw a lot of Barry Zito and his big curveball.

“I used to have kind of a weird grip. I’d stack my index finger on top of my middle finger. And because Zito threw his curveball big, I always tried to make mine big. That’s what mattered to me. But my old grip… for some reason, I can’t throw a curveball with two fingers on the ball. A normal curveball just doesn’t work for me, so I stacked my fingers. I honestly can’t remember who showed the grip to me. It just kind of happened.

Paul Blackburn’s old curveball grip.

“No one ever said I should change how I threw it. I always had good feel for it, and in high school ball I was getting funky swings. Of course, I was facing high school hitters. Once I got into pro ball, I wasn’t getting as much swing-and-miss. I also wasn’t getting the same swings I’d been used to seeing. Now they were good swings. I’d talk to my catcher and it would be, ‘It pops, it pops, it pops.’ That made me lose a little bit of confidence in it. Eventually, I revamped the grip.

“In 2017, I switched to a spike, which is what I throw now. It took awhile to get down. I’d stacked my fingers for what, eight to nine years? That was all the muscle memory I had. At first, I’d be trying to throw it so it wouldn’t pop, and I’d throw it 45 feet. It was a matter of figuring out the amount of tensity to have with it, and not make it pop. It took me years to figure that out.

Paul Blackburn’s current curveball grip.

“I’m throwing it well now, and it’s a big factor in the year I’m having. Finding the right mindset has been the key. The success I’ve had with it has given me more confidence, which helps as well. Now I don’t even think about it. It’s basically, ‘Curveball. OK. Let’s just rip it.’

“I honestly haven’t tinkered with it much this year — the grip, or anything like that. Again, it’s more of a mindset thing that’s helped me take that next step. I kind of took a step back over this past offseason, thinking about how I needed to keep my arm speed when I threw my curveball. That’s really the only change I made. Everything else is pretty much the same. I just grip it and rip it now.

“The movement profile hasn’t changed that much. It might have gotten a little more vertical, but it’s not as though it went from an eight vertical to a 15 vertical. Nothing crazy like that. It’s just that the old one would pop. Now, from having that mindset of just ripping it, of pretty much throwing it like a fastball, I’ve reduced the amount of pop. It has more of a fastball look to hitters, which makes a big difference. So really, my curveball isn’t all that different. It maybe just looks different.”

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.

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5 months ago

What does “pop” mean in this context? I’m imagining something of a rainbow motion that makes it easier for the batter to identify.

5 months ago
Reply to  JonSamuelson

I don’t know, not being a baseball insider, but I suspect that it means that the pitch starts out on an upward trajectory so that it is recognizable coming out of the pitcher’s hand.