Mat Latos throws a pitch that nobody in the big leagues throws. For good reason, too. He has no idea where it’s going.
“I was told in high school that it would never be a realistic pitch in the big leagues,” Latos said when I asked him about the pitch that he gripped like a knuckle curve but released like a changeup and was neither his breaking ball nor his changeup. Yeah, I said, sure, but what is this pitch?
Sometimes it goes straight down, Latos said. Like the time he struck out Bryce Harper with it and the ball just fell off the table.
Sometimes it acts like a normal changeup, the Marlins pitcher thought. Like the time he got Dan Uggla to whiff. That one looked almost conventional.
Other times it veers for the arm side like a reverse curveball. Like something that makes your bullpen catcher pop up out of his squat and nod like a bobblehead. Like something you’ve never seen before. Or something Seth Smith had never seen before, at least.
Then there are the worst times, when it just rolls and acts a bit like a hanging breaker. But even then, it’s so strange that you can get a Michael Taylor just to look it into the catcher’s glove for a called strike three, if you’re lucky.
Yes, I said, sure, but what is it? “What is this thing?” I asked as I mimicked the pronating knuckle-curve motion I’d seen in the clip that Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg “Giff” Gifford from STATS Inc had emailed me with the big question marks in the subject line.
Marlins reliever Mike Dunn looked up and saw what I was doing. His eyes lit up. “What are you doing? That’s the…” Marlins bullpen coach Reid Cornelius was walking by at that moment, and finished Dunn’s sentence: “The Critter. Don’t know where it’s going, don’t know where it’s been. The Critter.”
It probably shows up as a split finger in the Brooks Baseball system, in which case it’s an effective pitch despite strange movement. It averages almost no fade at all, but has five inches more drop than a regular changeup — and gets whiffs nearly a quarter of the time, about 50% better than average for a splitter. It has the drop of a curve and the horizontal movement of a slider, and the velocity of a changeup.
And we know that’s just what the pitch averages. It might do anything at any moment.
In some ways, Latos’s high-school coach was right. If you have no idea where a pitch is going and how it’s going to move, it’s hard to use it much. R.A. Dickey doesn’t really know how the knuckler is going to move, but at least he can hit the strike zone with it.
Latos admits it’s a two-strike pitch in most cases. He can’t command it, but it can give him a wrinkle hitters haven’t seen in a big moment, after a long at-bat or in a pinch with a great hitter. The swings and even the takes above show that it’s a unique pitch that can give hitters fits.
What’s maybe most impressive about the pitch is that it leaves his hand at a decent speed — around 80 mph on average. “I like it because I can throw it as hard as a fastball, but it’s much slower than a fastball,” Latos said. “Maybe because I flick the ball with my index finger at the end.”
If most people threw a knuckle-grip changeup in which they flicked the ball with their index finger as they threw it, it would bounce about twenty feet away and be a laugher. Maybe it would be an eephus. Latos throws a knuckle-change that he flicks with a finger, and sometimes it looks like the most ridiculous changeup you’ve ever seen. And other times it looks like a hanging breaking ball.
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.