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.
JT Chargois, Los Angeles Dodgers
“I was having trouble getting one to spin — to turn over — so my high school coach showed me a spike. Over the years I’ve manipulated where I hold my [pointer finger] on the ball, but it’s still a spiked-curveball grip. I just throw it like a heater. Instead of getting out front and pulling it like a curveball, I stay true on it as though it was a heater.
“When I get in trouble — maybe it’s backing up on me — and I need to make an adjustment, I tend to change my mindset to more of a curveball, to more of a downer-pitch. I want it to have two planes, as opposed to just moving horizontally.
“It was actually taught to me as a curveball. Then I started throwing harder as I got older. I got stronger and was literally trying to throw the crap out of it. That’s kind of how it migrated into a slider. As opposed to having more of a wrist-turn to get a bigger break, [a slider] is more about the manipulation of your hand position at release point.
“Throughout college I developed a better feel for it, and started throwing it more. The only really hands-on I had with the pitch was from my college coach. I remember that whenever I would hang a slider and give up a base hit, or a homer, he would always call it a ‘whirlybird.’ So I never wanted to throw whirlybirds. Whatever I was doing, I was trying to make it a good one, as opposed to letting it be a good one.
“What I look for [on Edgertronic] is more my mechanics. If my release point is the same as on my heater, then it’s fine as long as the pitch has two planes. I just really care about where my release point is and if it’s coming out of the same window. From my perspective, I can see the shape of it and how it’s coming out. If it looks the same early on, it’s going to be effective.”
Brad Keller, Kansas City Royals
“I first learned a slider in high school, but the first time I really threw it was in A-ball. My pitching coach in Low-A, Doug Bochtler — he’s now the bullpen coach for the Padres — taught me both my sinker and my slider. He showed me how he threw his slider — how he gripped it, and his thought process when throwing it.
“My slider is kind of different than others. I feel like mine has more downward action to it, and it’s kind of hard, too. But yeah, he kind of taught me his grip and I manipulated it from there, trying to find what best worked for me.
“I’d been taught more of a cutter-ish grip in high school. It was kind of like a four-seam, putting my fingers together and trying to get on top of it that way. The movement was more horizontal. Now I have more of a curveball-ish grip. I just get on top of it; instead of a curveball where you kind of get like that, I get like this. I have more tumbling action — curveball-ish action — but it’s a slider.
“Honestly, I’m still fine-tuning it. This is the first year I’ve felt comfortable throwing it a lot more, and more consistently as far as the break goes. That and knowing where it’s going to be — knowing how to place it, and whether it should be below the zone, or in the zone.
“[Edgertronic cameras] have been helpful, for sure. Especially tunneling pitches. Knowing, ‘Okay, I’m going to throw my fastball here, and then throw a slider off that.’ You can put the pitches on top of each other and really see what they look like to a hitter. And you can slow it down all the way to release point; you can see if you’re really on top of it, or if you’re kind of getting on the side of it.
“One thing I’ve seen is my arm slot, how sometimes I’ll kind of lose it. My arm will drop just a little bit. We just try to make sure that I’m getting on top of the baseball, like on a heater. When I do that, you can really see me pulling it down and getting that good tumbling action.”
Adam Ottavino, New York Yankees
“I always threw this big curveball. Growing up as a kid, I was obsessed with curveballs. Breaking balls in general. When I got to Double-A, my curveball wasn’t as effective anymore. Some of the hitters said it was because it had a hump on it — it was popping out a lot — and if I could eliminate that hump, that would help me.
“I’d never had an idea of how to throw anything but a curveball-type pitch. What I basically developed was that kind of horizontal-breaking slider. The good thing about it is that it doesn’t hump up, because it starts kind of neutral. That was the genesis of the pitch. Over time, I’ve definitely tinkered with it a lot.
“When I was younger I didn’t understand the concept of gyro spin, or anything like that. I just knew my curveball was top-spinning, and I thought that if I wanted it to break left — be horizontal; in to a lefty — I needed to sidespin it. So I tried to get completely on the side of the ball. As a kid, I would just mess around with it, even dropping down sidearm to see what it did. I was basically trying to figure out where my hand position was on the ball, ranging from top to side, and what kind of break it had.
“I don’t know that what I throw it’s really even a slider. I think it’s more like a sideways curveball. A slurve maybe? The pitch that everybody says ‘slider,’ I just call a breaking ball, because it’s bigger than a normal slider. That said, sometimes I want it to break down, and sometimes I want it to break across.
“Once I got in front of an Edgertronic, I learned how to generate gyro spin and throw this cutter pitch I have now. It’s a much harder cutter-slider, with different spin. What we were going for was as close to zero spin efficiency as possible. But what I ended up finding was that it wasn’t very effective. I needed to have closer to 20%, so that it would still bite a little bit, and maintain velocity. I didn’t want it to bite a ton, just bite a little bit. When it was right around zero, it basically did nothing, which sometimes can be fine, but in my case I gave up some home runs on it. I feel a more movement is better for me.”
The 2018 installments of this 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.