It’s been a while since we’ve had a new pitch. Zack Greinke wasn’t sure if that new hard change he learned from Felix Hernandez was a completely new pitch, so we may have to wait and see on that one. Before that, you’ll just have to wade into arguments about the cutter, the palmball, and the splitter. Someone invented them, but there is no consensus about who it was, exactly.
So let’s invent a pitch. It’ll be all ours if it catches on. We’ll get to name it. Or we won’t, as will become abundantly clear by the end of this endeavor.
The first step in inventing a pitch is looking for a movement and velocity that are not well represented in baseball right now. Whatever your definition of a pitch, it’ll include movement and velocity. So a new pitch has to be different there.
Here’s a great heat map that Sean Dolinar made in April of last year when I first started thinking about this post. It represents all of the x and y movements from non-submarine right-handers in 2014, aggregated. The color shows the velocity. The movement is all from the catcher’s perspective.
There’s already a big open blank spot in the bottom-left corner there. My eyes went right to it. Now click the other tab and you’ll see x and y movement with number of pitches as the color. Look for that white space, it’s even more obvious now.
So we’ve got it. Hardly any righties throw a pitch that both (a) moves significantly to the arm side and also (b) drops more than 14 inches off the average fastball (-5 inches PFx_z). Look at the glove side, and you see plenty of righties throw a big ole yellow hammer that drops as much as 20 inches more than their fastball.
We’re looking for a reverse curveball. Changeups, most screwballs, sinkers — these pitches drop a little, but they don’t drop like curveballs. Basically, we want a left-hander’s curve ball, but from a right-hander.
Just mimic the movement with your right hand. Just playing around with it hurts. “Don’t throw that pitch,” said Ryan Dempster when he heard of my plans.
But Collin McHugh — righty curveball master — has seen some of his curveballs meander over to his arm side. “Sometimes righties will do it by accident when they get too far inside the ball,” he told me last August. “Get the ball as high as you can and then get inside it as much as you can. I don’t know if it’s possible. It’s probably not good for you.”
Here’s a problem when you’re trying to invent a pitch. Who’s going to throw it? Certainly not McHugh; he’s not going to risk his arm on this. You’d need someone with less on the line, and for a while Wes Yee — former Junior College righty — was going to step to the rubber for us.
But then, while visiting Driveline Baseball to see how they approached the study of pitching mechanics, I discussed this crazy idea with the dudes as they trained. I got a text later that night from Kyle Boddy, who runs that data-driven pitching mechanics lab. “I just got a text from one of my guys,” the text read. “He just threw your pitch.”
Imagine my excitement the next day when we gathered around the mound. We had a ball with a dot on it to show the spin, we had our high-speed camera, and we didn’t need a catcher to call this sign. Oh, and we had our pitcher: Trevor Bauer.
Trevor Bauer throwing the reverse curveball at Driveline Baseball.
It’s worth sticking with the video until the end to get Bauer turn and say “That was it” in slow motion. Basically… “nailed it.”
Here’s the thing, though. The reason Bauer could throw the pitch was not from overcocking his wrist. “If you cock the ball a ton, the inertial effect pulls your hand to neutral position by the time you release,” Bauer pointed out. Try it with a ball, and you’ll see that it’s true, the ball pulls your wrist forward as you throw it.
Release point was a big deal, so when McHugh said to get it high, that was the ticket. “You want to manipulate your body so that your release point matches the lefty curve ball release point,” said Bauer. So he went to his old college delivery for this exhibition.
That was the real reason Bauer could throw our new pitch, which he called an overspin curve — he’d thrown it before. He threw it in college, when he was more over the top. He thought he got half his strikeouts on the pitch, even.
Still, it’s not a pitch we see in the big leagues much these days. Josh Collmenter had the least amount of glove-side movement on his curveball among curves thrown more than 50 times last year, and he seems ideal for our overspin curveball. His ball still moves toward the glove side, on average. Every once in a while, he’ll do this.
Watch Josh Collmenter’s curveball move toward his arm side.
Cancel the orders of the t-shirts and the grips posters, though. Let’s call our agents with the bad news.
There’s also more than one way to get this kind of movement. Dallas Braden used to throw a pitch like this — a “true screwball” that impressed even veteran pitching mechanics guru Tom House, who said he hadn’t seen one in years before Braden showed him what he had — and he got this kind of movement, even though there are a few guys throwing things they call screwballs right now. Braden got his movement by pronating the heck out of the ball. Watch him model the pitch.
Dallas Braden’s screwball delivery.
At the end of this video you’ll hear me make a sound of disbelief. That’s because he’s pronating more than I think I’ve ever seen a person pronate. That’s how he got three inches more fade and four-and-a-half more inches of drop on his screwball than his change — by pulling down hard on the inside of the ball like that at the end.
Maybe it was a sound of pain. It looks painful. “The doctor that did the surgery told me that what he’d seen in my shoulder he’d only seen in knees before,” agreed Braden. “I believe that is what started to cause problems, even if it was a defect to begin with. I never felt a pain, or said ‘I threw a lot of screwballs yesterday and ouch.’ Dr. Yocum said it was something that happened over time, not from an acute impact.”
But the pitch was good to Braden when it was going well. “I had shoulder surgery but I continued to throw the screwball,” laughed the lefty. He modeled the grip, and said the horseshoe was the key to getting all that horizontal movement. He also said the pitch created deception: “When you throw this, you get a little dot on the bottom, like a slider. They expect down and in back foot, and then they get fade instead.”
We tried to invent a pitch, and we failed.
But did we fail? We found a curveball approach for extreme over-the-top pitchers that might net them more arm-side movement. We modeled a true screwball that has more drop than today’s versions. One of our two new/old pitches might be more healthy than the other, but who knows.
We found a Reverse Curveball, and a True Screwball — two ways to get lefty curveball movement from a right-handed arm slot. If you’re willing to dedicate yourself to it, as Brent Honeywell might be doing in the Rays farm system right now with his dedication to throwing a “left-handed curveball from a right-handed arm slot,” then you might find yourself with an advantage. Because these pitches feature movement that you just don’t see very often in the league today.
Listen to Buster Posey, quoted in an excellent New York Times piece about the vanishing true screwball, and you’ll see how surprising it would be. “I don’t think it’s physically possible,” Giants catcher Buster Posey told the New York Times. “I just don’t believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don’t.” Oh really?
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.