Gerrit Cole and Austin Davis Discuss Curves and Sliders

The Learning and Developing a Pitch series returned this summer after being on hiatus last year due to the pandemic. Each week, we’re hearing from pitchers on a notable weapon in their arsenal. Today’s installment features Gerrit Cole on his curveball and Austin Davis on his slider.

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Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

A.J. Burnett taught Charlie Morton and me the grip when we were in Pittsburgh. He would take me in the cage and do drills with me that his dad would do with him when he was a kid. The curveball is something he’s basically had since the first time he started playing catch, which is different than me, but similar to Jameson [Taillon]. So I had to learn it. He showed me the grip, showed me the drills, and kind of described what he was feeling and what he was looking for. This was in 2012, in spring training. Then in 2013, in the big leagues, we worked on it a lot.

“I’d been pretty much slider only. I had tried a bigger curveball. I’d tried to make the slider bigger. I’d tried to throw a shorter cutter. But I never really had a true downer breaking ball. At first, I incorporated it in Pittsburgh [and] a lot was changing speeds. It’s kind of developed a little bit beyond just that.

“One of [the drills] was with an L screen. We played catch in the cage a few times. He’d back me up to 50-55 [feet] — just in front of the mound — and I would play catch with the curveball. Then he would slide the L screen over. The objective was to throw the curveball and make it go right over the shorter portion of the L screen. It would get to the correct height at the finish. We practiced that a lot.

Gerrit Cole’s curveball grip.

“We practiced just getting over the ball. We discussed the grip in terms of where you put your pressure in order to be able to hold it. Charlie’s is extremely in the fingertips. I don’t have quite as big a hand, so I just kind of set it loosely in there. A.J. would take his nail and drive it into the seam. He would harden his nail up, and use the nail to flick it. I’m not sure how Charlie uses the nail. I just kind of set the finger away.

“I first loved Adam Wainwright’s curveball, and that’s when I first started to try to throw a curveball with the finger up. This is when I was 11 or 12 years old. But I noticed that the ball would wobble as it hit my [index] finger out of my hand. Even though it was loose, and it was away, it always affected the spin — it decelerated the spin on the way to the plate. Getting the knuckle out when the ball comes out, it just kind of avoids the index finger. I guess I maybe use the index finger to also create good spin on it, too. Right? Like, I’m going to get a slight pressure point. But it doesn’t drag off the finger like the way it did with the finger up.

“I learned in Houston that it made no difference to throw it 78-79 [mph]. I got no extra break out of that, so throwing it slightly harder, like in the 82-84 range, was much more effective. It still provided enough change of speed from a deception standpoint, and at the same time it had enough velocity to where it made you make a decision just that much quicker. It was roughly the same break as the 78-79, and since I’ve gotten more comfortable [with 82-84], that’s been a much better speed for me to comfortably throw the pitch. I can also manipulate the break a little more now that I’ve thrown it for seven or eight years.

“Early on, I was trying to throw it, more so, to control the speed. And I don’t think that’s… I guess I haven’t quite figured out how to throw it slower and make it better. I can throw harder and make it shorter and more depthy and more nasty. I can throw it 80 and get the perfect blend of all of them. But the slower I throw it… it’s like diminishing returns to a certain extent. It just gives the hitter a longer time to adapt. So the mentality is … I guess I’d say you shouldn’t sacrifice any crispness or bite on the pitch for velocity. It has to bite every time or it doesn’t serve a purpose.

“There are always outliers — there are multiple ways to get it done — but generally, I find that if you can get tight spin to where it spins like a white ball… and you want the direction of the spin to somewhat mimic the fastball. If you’re spinning a fastball at two o’clock, spinning the curveball at two o’clock — obviously in the other direction — provides really good deception. It also gives you a good split, relative to your break chart. The maximum discrepancy.”

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Austin Davis, Boston Red Sox

“I started throwing a slider when I was a kid — around 12, 13, 14 years old — but the grip I’m throwing with now is something I started to develop in 2018. The slider I’d been using was kind of hit-or-miss, so I began messing with this slider that people say is… like, you’re trying to get that laminar flow, the seam-shifted wake. All of those terms. I don’t really know what they mean, but I know you want it — you want it to move more — so I started messing around with grips that had that possibility. That’s kind of created what I have now.

“Eric Jagers, who is with the Reds now, was with the Phillies at that time. He’s a Driveline guy, and we had some connections at X2 Athletic Performance, where I work out in the offseason. I got to know him a little bit. I told him, ‘Hey, my slider is okay — it’s serviceable — but I want something that’s going to be better against lefties.’ Eric started talking to me about those things a little bit, although in somewhat different terms. There’s way more data out there now, and people have terms like ‘seam-shifted wake.’

“X2 is in Scottsdale, and in 2015 we started using Driveline products and doing overload/underload throwing. From then on, I’ve learned a little bit more every single year about pitching and pitch design. So, my slider came about in 2018 — kind of with all of those connections — and over the years it’s kind of changed a lot. Now, coming over here and having Adam Ottavino to work with has been awesome. He’s obviously had one of the best sliders in the game for the last 10 years, so getting to talk to him about all of these small adjustments has been huge. It’s made lefty at-bats a lot easier for me.

“As you’re working on things, you’re wondering in the back of your mind, ‘How legitimate is this adjustment?’ When you have a guy like Otto, you can say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to feel a little more on top of the ball and drive it down like this,’ and he can say, ‘Yes, that’s a correct adjustment to make.’ Or he might say, ‘That can work, but it also may cause you to get around the ball and have it be too loopy.’ So, some of it is small adjustments, like where your finger goes on the horseshoe, but a lot of it is, ‘Hey, have confidence in it — this is what the pitch is supposed to do; rip it and stick with that.’ It kind of lets you cut away the other things you’re thinking about, so you can get more dialed in on two or three little adjustments, and figure out which one works.

Austin Davis’ slider grip.

“The changes I’ve made have been finger placement and seam orientation. Before, I kind of creeped up into the side of the horseshoe. Now, I’m straight up on the side, like Ottavino and Chris Sale. Once I dialed into that being the type of slider I wanted to throw, there were small adjustments like where to put the pressure and how to accelerate through the ball. Part of it is just being more on time, too. I’m more on time this year than I’d been in the past — with my mechanics — so I can actually be on top of the slider and drive it to where I want it to go.

“What I primarily want my slider to do is present itself as a hittable pitch, and then have it just not be there. Whether it’s from more depth, or from more sweep, or a combination of both… what you see with Otto and Sale is that it presents as, ‘Oh, this is a very hittable pitch,’ and then it’s not there anymore. That’s where you get missed swings, that’s where you get bad contact. And sometimes pitches that are really nasty don’t get swings, because the hitters just freeze; it doesn’t register as a hittable pitch.

“The spin… it’s like a sideways curveball spin, right? I want it to spin on a two-seam axis, and ideally it gets halfway there and catches — seam shifted wake is what I think would be happening — and then it takes off. Like I said, I don’t know the terms extremely well, but that’s the general thought I have in my head. I want to have it spin like this, look like a strike, and then catch to where it takes off and is no longer a hittable pitch.”

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The 2021 installments of the series can be found here.

The 2019 installments of the 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.

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tmcgowan
9 months ago

This is always interesting that young pitchers like Cole learning grips from old vets vs the pitching coaches. Are we actually UNDER appreciating veteranosity ???