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.
Kevin Gausman, Atlanta Braves
“I want to say I started throwing it my sophomore year of high school. I had a coach at the time who had pitched — his name is Chris Baum — and he had been trying to teach me a circle changeup. I couldn’t really figure it out, so he showed me this fosh, this split-change, that I throw now.
“It was a pretty frustrating pitch at first, because it’s tough to gain consistency with. He kind of told me from Day One, ‘Hey, if you keep throwing it, you’ll eventually have a feel for it.’ I trusted him, and he was right. It’s a big weapon for me.
“The only thing I’ve really changed is where my thumb is on the ball. I’ll kind of mess around with it when I want to throw a strike, or when I don’t want to throw a strike. Moving the thumb affects the speed, and how much break, and tilt, you get on the pitch. If my thumb is under it, it’s going to be a little bit straighter. When my thumb is on the side of it, it might be a little bigger, with more fading action.
“I’ve always thrown it on the two-seam, and I’m a majority four-seam pitcher, so I’ve messed around with throwing the pitch four-seam. But in the end, I’ve always gone back to the true, natural grip that coach Baum taught me.”
Bob Scanlan, San Diego Padres [broadcaster]
“When I first signed [with the Phillies], I was a fastball-curveball guy. That was as a 17-year-old, and I did that all the way up until Double-A, at which point I started getting a changeup. In Triple-A, I started having to throw a slider because I couldn’t land my curveball. Then — this is still Triple-A — I started throwing a split-finger. George Culver was my pitching coach. He’d been in the organization for many years, and he showed it to me.
“Hugh Alexander, a well-respected scout for the Phillies, went over to the Cubs around that time. He knew that I had started throwing a split-finger, so when the Phillies and Cubs were talking about a trade for Mitch Williams [in April 1991] — the Phillies were making a playoff run and were trying to get him to lock down their bullpen — Hugh recommended me to the Cubs. He probably said something like, ‘You know, this kid has a big arm and he’s got this new weapon. He might be a guy we want to take a chance on.’
“That was a year when everyone seemed to be using the pitch. It was getting really popular. The splitty was sort of the pitch de jour, you might say. I have big, long fingers, so they thought, ‘Hey, this might be a good match for you.’
“At the time, a big question was, ‘How wide are your fingers? Is it adaptable to your hand?’ It was kind of, ‘Hey, if in doubt, try the splitty; everybody else is.’ A lot of guys were having success with it, so I think it was only a matter of time until someone recommended it to me. Maybe it’s strange that it wasn’t recommended to me earlier? Regardless, it was the pitch that got me traded to the Cubs, and ultimately got me to the big leagues.“
Matt Shoemaker, Toronto Blue Jays
“I started throwing it when I was 14. My dad was one of our assistant travel coaches, and we were messing with changeups. I never really threw a good changeup. My dad and another coach said, ‘Hey, maybe just move your fingers a little bit wider on a fastball.’ That’s initially how it started.
“My hands were actually pretty good size when I was 14. They were close to the same size they are now. My height is similar, too. Between 12 and 15 is when I kind of hit 6-foot-one, six-foot-two.
“As I got older — maybe into high school, and then into college — my fingers may have gotten a little bit longer, because the grip became more comfortable. When I was really young, it was kind of a modified split fastball, and then, over the years you kind of toy with the grips and find what works better.
“The grip is no seams. I’m just kind of gripping the leather, and go as far back in my hand as I can. And I still kind of toy with it. Sometimes I’ll try to throw a harder one, or a softer one, by changing the grip. That being said, it’s just my natural… I have big hands, but not giant hands, and it’s kind of that natural split grip which adds its own natural pressure. I’m not trying to add any more, or less, pressure. I just kind of grip it and let my fingers do the work.
“When I’m not throwing it well, I’m probably not finishing it out front. That’s the case with any pitch. If you finish a fastball out front, if you finish a slider out front, it’s probably going to be a good, moving pitch. It’s a matter of making sure you get out front, and have a good release point.
“When I talk to guys about how to throw one… everybody is personal. Everybody is different. So while I grip mine and throw it like a fastball, some guys I’ve talked to who throw splits don’t necessarily think fastball. They have to think maybe more of a changeup, or let their wrist be either stiff or loose. For them it’s a whole different process. But for me, I just think fastball.”
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.