“Have you ever heard of a submariner throwing a riseball?”
Athletics Media Relations and Broadcasting Coordinator Zak Basch almost had a crazy look in his eye as he asked. But as soon as I understood what he was asking, there were two intense people in that Oakland dugout, contemplating insane things. Because it’s almost an impossible idea, the riseball released from a submarine angle. They physics of releasing the ball down under makes it almost impossible to get backspin on the ball, and backspin is what gives fastballs “rise” — backspin helps the ball drop less than you’d expect, given gravity.
That’s why, when you ask current submariners, they mostly just shake their head. “I’ve heard stories of this myth before,” laughed Javier Lopez of the Giants. He struggled to name any active low-slot pitchers that have ever thrown a riseball on purpose.
But it’s not impossible. Basch, a former pitcher for the University of Nevada (Reno) himself once threw one in game action, and it only took a couple dozen failed attempts to get there. Just to get an idea of how difficult it is to get backspin on the ball from that angle, Basch modeled the delivery and spin for a traditional submarine fastball and then how you might throw a rising fastball.
“You really have to get under the ball, and your release point is huge, you can’t let it get too far out in front,” Basch said, and you can see that, especially for a submariner, the release means all sorts of things for the spin and angle of the pitch.
In fact, take a close look at the grip that Basch models for the riser. It’s akin to a slider grip. Take a look at the different spins on the ball from up top and down under for each grip, thanks to this excellent article by Matt Lenztner on The Hardball Times.
Look for the submarine pitch that looks the most like the three-quarter arm slot “fastball.” Looks like it’s the slider. By basically throwing a slider from down under, you can get the backspin to give the pitch rise. Lopez agreed. “The slider has a tendency when you’re throwing it down here, to pop out of your hand up,” the Giants’ lefty said. “So it’ll come up, and ideally you want the up-down, but this one just goes up.”
But Lopez has only thrown a rising fastball on accident. “I know if I’m up in the zone, something’s wrong,” Lopez said. “I couldn’t replicate that riser,” he admitted. But Byung-Hyun Kim? “He’s the only guy that could call it a riser. When he was throwing bullpens, he called it a riser.”
Kim does, indeed, show up as an outlier when you graph height-adjusted release point data against average vertical movement for the fastball. (“Release point minus pitcher height” and “fastball rise” are significantly related with a .3677 r-squared.)
He’s just barely above the line there, if you hover over you can see the names. But this is a sum of all their pitches. And, probably, Kim didn’t throw the rise ball every time out. If you plot all of the fastballs thrown by pitchers who release the ball 30 inches below their head or lower, Kim does stand out: Nobody else in the PITCHf/x era has thrown a pitch from that arm with ten inches of rise and 95 mph velocity.
Mike Myers once threw a 93.7 mph pitch with that much rise. Javier Lopez once got 9.5 inches of rise on a 92.1 mph fastball. And then you’re done with with the nice fastballs with 10-inch rise. And Kim did that five times at the end of his career.
Of course, those could still be glitches. We don’t have a lot of video in the vault for Kim, and this certainly doesn’t look like a big old rise ball:
“Lot of sidearmers have trouble elevating fastballs, but I elevate a four-seam fastball up and in on lefties. It kind of keeps them off balance so that I can get them out down and away.
“I get a lot of swinging strikes. So I pitch up in the zone. Traditionally, sidearmers are sinkerballers, they get a lot of groundball outs. If you look at my results, you see more popups and flyouts because I do pitch up so much.”
O’Day said his teammates even have a name for that elevated fastball he throws.
“My teammates have affectionately named that pitch the Jennie Finch. You know, the fast-pitch softball player, very famous,” O’Day said. “Actually, I think she may throw harder than me. So they’ve named it that, they just call it the Finch.”
O’Day actually threw a fastball with eight inches of rise this year. The average four-seam has nine inches of rise, and the 20 pitchers that threw from the lowest arm slots averaged ten and half inches less rise. O’Day threw his sidearm riseball in exactly the situation he describes here. And, well, you better take a look at it.
What? Now maybe you understand why Basch is borderline obsessed with this pitch. Why the two of us have talked about it often since he brought it up. Why he’s still not convinced we’re talking about a true riseball, thrown anything like a forehand frisbee, with anything like the same rise as a Sean Doolittle four-seam.
And this is also why Javier Lopez said, of the submarine riseball, “It’s gotta defy the laws of phsyics, a ball like that. I mean you’re going down a ramp with your arm down there and being able to elevate the ball like that.”
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.