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.
Kyle Barraclough, Miami Marlins
“I’ve thrown it since my sophomore year of high school. One day my coach grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, you want to throw a slider?’ He showed me a grip and was like, ‘Throw it like a fastball, and at the very end kind of just focus on staying down through your middle finger.’
“I couldn’t really throw a curveball, to be honest with you. I didn’t know much about pitching at that point — I played multiple sports until my senior year — and it just never came naturally to me. The slider kind of popped up out of nowhere. It was basically, ‘Let the grip do what it’s going to do,’ and that worked for me.
“When I got to college — I don’t know if it was from trying to be too fine with it, or from not being as aggressive through the ball — but it kind of got a little loopier. Then I got to pro ball and it kind of stayed that way.
“My split-finger was always my best pitch coming through college, and for a while in pro ball I still considered my slider to be my third-best pitch. But I threw it more and more, and in spring training of 2015 someone was like, ‘Hey, you have better control of your slider and it’s tight. It’s looking really good. Maybe you should be fastball-slider?’
“It wasn’t necessarily anything I did. Again, I was just throwing it like a fastball, but off my middle finger at the end, and the more I got used to throwing it, the better it got. It was mostly just getting a grip that felt comfortable and repetition, repetition, repetition.”
Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians
“The boring story behind my slider… part of why it’s boring is that it came naturally to me — as opposed to, say, a changeup or throwing a curveball with my arm slot. Those would be more challenging, whereas the slider just fit me. That doesn’t mean I haven’t spent time trying to fine-tune it — it’s certainly evolved — but part of the reason it’s my best pitch is that, early on, it showed itself as the one that came easiest for me.
“When you’re a kid, you can’t wait to throw a breaking ball. You see them on TV, and the coolest thing would be to make a ball spin sideways. I’d say I started throwing my slider competitively at around 12 or 13 — that’s probably too early given what the research shows us — and by the time I was 14 or 15, it was a pitch I was throwing regularly. I think I was pretty smart about it, though, and I developed it throughout high school.
“Who taught it to me? That’s a good question. I didn’t have a particular lesson, nor is there a specific coach who stands out. That said, I’d be remiss to not give a lot of credit to my high-school coach. He helped me develop what my mechanics were, and he’d have shown me various grips for different pitches. But even since I’ve been in professional baseball, I’ve made a couple of switches in grips.
“I’ve thrown on two different parts of the horseshoe, so it’s not something where I’ve had the same grip since I was 14 years old. When I was playing in Boston, [pitching coach] Juan Nieves was always on me about the label of the baseball. He’d tell me, ‘Don’t let the hitter see the label on the baseball.’ From that point on, I started always gripping it on the same spot — I fine-tuned it so that’s how I was holding the ball — and I haven’t changed since.”
Dan Straily, Miami Marlins
“The story of my slider isn’t as cool as you might expect. I went to college with a guy named Shane Farrell. His father is John Farrell, so he had a little bit of a pitching background behind him. He threw this cutter-slider kind of pitch, and I was looking for something, so he showed me the grip one day.
“I was working on it in my first full season of professional baseball, and in this one game, I got a guy 0-2 and my catcher put down a three. I figured, ‘Well, I’ve been working on a slider,’ so I threw it. It didn’t make it to home plate — I bounced it — but I struck out the hitter. I was like, ‘Oh, the guy swung.’ Next hitter, two strikes and my catcher calls for a slider. I throw it, and it doesn’t make it to home plate. Another strikeout. I’m like, ‘Huh. Maybe I’m on to something here.’
“That’s how it began. I had this grip, but I didn’t really have… this was before analytics, back in 2010, so there was a lot of guess work. It was a lot more results-based with everything. If you throw it and guys don’t hit it, you must be doing something right. That kind of thing. It wasn’t ‘This pitch has this kind of spin, and this kind of that.’ The one thing I was told early on is that it didn’t have a dot like most sliders do, and that’s why it’s good.
“It’s been that one pitch for me that’s always there. Of all the 130 starts I’ve had in the big leagues, you can probably count on one hand the times it hasn’t been there for me. It’s kind of right there with the fastball. There are times I have more command of my slider than my fastball. It’s a pitch I can throw at any time and have faith that it’s going to get the results I’m looking for.
“It’s the same exact grip from 10 years ago when I first picked it up. I don’t try to do anything different. I’ve changed my fastball grips more than I’ve ever changed my slider grip. It’s who I am as a pitcher. And I actually only throw it on the days I pitch. I don’t throw it in sides. I don’t throw between starts. I did throw a few today after long toss, but we’re talking five or six. Normally, I just throw it once the game gets here every fifth day.”
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.