Joe Barlow, Bailey Ober, and Alex Young Talk Curveballs and Sliders

The Learning and Developing a Pitch series returned this summer after being on a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic. Each week, we’ll hear from three pitchers on a notable weapon in their arsenal. Today’s installment features a pair of right-handers, Joe Barlow and Bailey Ober, and a southpaw, Alex Young, on one of their breaking balls.

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Joe Barlow, Texas Rangers

“I was a fastball-curveball guy until last year. The pandemic happened, then I went to Driveline to see if there was an opening for a better pitch… not even a better pitch, just any pitch in general to add to the repertoire. That way, if my curveball wasn’t on, I wouldn’t just be throwing fastballs.

“I played with changeups, two-seamers, sliders, and cutters. The pitch that I could seemingly best repeat was the slider. Even though it wasn’t good, it seemed like there was an opportunity to grow on that and get it to be a pitch that I could use. So, I went into the offseason and started throwing it. It was meant to be a third pitch — behind the curveball, behind the fastball — but I ended up getting a good feel for it and now it’s almost 50-50 with the fastball.

Joe Barlow’s slider grip.

“Talking with some coaches, the way I was throwing it… it would work for a little bit, and then it wouldn’t, because I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just holding it like a curveball and throwing the side of it. I’d only been at Driveline for about two weeks, and by the time we settled on the slider, I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it there. Like any pitch, it’s impossible to master in just a few weeks.

“I initially struggled with it at the alt site, but eventually I got a better understanding of how to throw it. A lot of guys throw sliders, just trying to throw the side of the ball. I have to think ‘spinning it’ — almost spinning it like a curveball — yet throwing it on the side. When I consciously try to throw on the side of it, it’s hard for me to not get my fingers behind it.

“Sliders can have a mind of their own. Some days they have a little bit more depth. Some days they have a little more run. Sometimes they stay up and you get a backup slider, but that can play as well. But it’s been an effective pitch for me. It’s a pitch that I kind of fall back on, because it’s easier to command than a curveball. I feel comfortable throwing it in any count.

“Going back to when I was first learning it, the data wasn’t shocking. It wasn’t, ‘Wow, this could be a good pitch.’ It was more, ‘OK, this could be something to throw off your fastball,’ and maybe that was going to be 10% of the time.’ But like I said, I developed a feel for it and it started playing better. Rapsodo will tell you only so much. The batters will tell you more. The metrics on a pitch don’t necessarily tell the whole story; sometimes a pitch just plays.”

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Bailey Ober, Minnesota Twins

“I started throwing a new slider [in early-to-mid-August]. I wanted something a little bit harder. It had been around 78-80 [mph] and I wanted to give hitters something different. It was kind of blending with my curveball, too. Basically, the idea was something with a bigger speed difference between my curveball and my slider.

“Before, I had it a little deeper in my hand and it had a lot more horizontal movement on it. It wasn’t as depth-y as my new one. My new one is harder [82-84] and has a little more depth, and it’s also not as horizontal anymore.

Bailey Ober’s slider grip.

“It was something where we kind of talk in between starts, ‘Hey, make sure you’re working on stuff. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Try to improve your weapons.’ Getting more depth is something that just happened. We weren’t really trying to create any type of movement; we were trying to get more velo. The movement on my previous slider was good — it was what I wanted — but I just wasn’t getting as much sharpness on the break. It was just kind of looping in there.

“The grip change was mainly just loosing it — putting it more in my fingers — and [getting more depth and less horizontal] is mostly from the spin orientation. I’m not getting, say, eight o’clock axis on it, it’s maybe more gyro. I’m not sure of the precise movement-change, but I want to say that right now I’m getting around three or four [inches] horizontal, and probably negative-three vertical break. Before, I think I was positive-two or positive-three vertical break, and horizontal was around 10.

“Basically, I was messing around with it in catch-play. I went up to [pitching coach] Wes [Johnson] the first day I had it and was like, ‘Hey, tomorrow I’ve got a bullpen, and I’m going to start throwing this thing.’ And it was pretty good. That same week, I threw it in a game [against the White Sox on August 11] and had okay success with it. From there, I’ve just kept going with it. It’s been a good pitch for me.”

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Alex Young, Cleveland Guardians

“I learned a curveball back in seventh grade. One of my buddies taught it to me. I’d tried to grip the ball every which way, and he was like, ‘Try this way.’ It was basically a knuckle curve. I started throwing it like that, and I’ve thrown it ever since.

‘Most guys spike it with their [pointer] finger. I actually tuck it. I put my nail, like my actual fingernail, into it. I’m curling it on top where the seams are really thin, where I guess most people would hold a two-seam. I basically hold it there on top, because if I get too far down it doesn’t really move. So I try to stay on top of the baseball, like where the laces are closer together.

Alex Young’s curveball grip.

“[The movement] is a little different now than it was, because the baseballs differ. In travel ball, high school, and college, the laces are higher up, so it’s a lot easier to get more of a loopy movement, whereas now it’s more of a slurve. It’s almost like… I wouldn’t say a slider, but it’s more slurvy than a curveball. My last year of college, they took the seams down to make it more like a minor-league or major-league baseball.

“I’ve tried to keep the pitch consistent, like I’ve always thrown it. Every ball is a little different for the most part, so I’m just trying to feel where the best spot is. For me, the main thing is… sometimes I get on the side of it and it’s spinning this way, versus the angle I want; I guess 11-to-5 would be the shape. If I get on the side of it. sometimes it backs up and is kind of a cement-mixer. But when I really pull down on… a lot of times, I’m trying to aim below the zone. Obviously, early on in the count I’m trying to throw it for a strike.

“I trust that pitch a lot, and I love throwing it. If I had to rank my offspeed, that would probably be my No. 1. But I’ve changed the grip on my two-seam, so overall, I’d actually go fastball and then curveball. I know most people would probably say my curveball is better than my fastball, but I like to use my fastball a lot. If I use it the right way, it makes my curveball better.”

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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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Love this series. Always interesting to hear pitchers talking shop.