Matt Wisler on Learning and Developing His Signature Slider

Matt Wisler has thrown his slider 89.2% of the time this year, the highest percentage of any pitcher in either league. He’s done so over 32-and-two-thirds innings, the last 12-and-a-third of them with the Tampa Bay Rays, who acquired the 28-year-old right-hander from the San Francisco Giants on June 11 in exchange for minor league southpaw Michael Plassmeyer. Since coming to his new club, Wisler has made a dozen appearances and allowed just one earned run.

Wisler told the story behind his signature pitch over the phone earlier this month.


Matt Wisler: “I’d say I learned [a slider] in high school. I’d always thrown a curveball growing up — from when I was 11 or 12 — and then around sophomore year I started throwing a slider. It was honestly more like a different variation of a curveball, though. It was just a little bit different spin.

“The slider I have now, I learned in Low-A way. My pitching coach was Willie Blair, and we were trying to get more separation between my curveball and my slider. We went through a bunch of different grips. Finally, the second time I tried his grip, it kind of clicked for me. That was in 2012. I’ve kept that one ever since, and have obviously started throwing it more and more over the last couple of years.

“My original slider was more like a slurve — it was probably high-70s, low-80s — and we were trying to find a pitch that I could get into the low- to mid-80s with a little bit different break. There are still times where it will get a little slurvy and be in the high-70s, and a little bigger and rounder.

“I think what makes mine successful, and allows me to throw it so much, is that it doesn’t always move the same. Most guys will have a pretty consistent break to their sliders, whereas mine has some different variations of break depending on how I grip it and release it. We changed the grip to get it tighter and later, but I’ve gotten to where I can manipulate it to make it bigger or smaller.

“I’m not [throwing it with a stiff wrist]. The freer my wrist is… that snap of the wrist is what I think gets it that late movement. It’s not something I need to think about. It feels like a fastball out of my hand and the grip dictates how I release it.

“Sometimes [varying the shape] is on purpose and sometimes it’s not. If I finish a little bit more side-to-side, or if I finish more straight down… my arm-finish slot will dictate if it’s more horizontal or more vertical movement. And obviously, on different sides of the plate it will move a little bit differently.

Matt Wisler’s slider grip.

“The grip… again, the old one was somewhat similar to a curveball, but the way I threw it was different than a curveball: I was more behind it instead of getting on top of it. Now it’s almost like an offset-fastball type of grip, with my thumb grabbing on a seam. My fingers are around the horseshoe, whereas a lot of guys nowadays kind of go across that two-seam thing. Mine is across the horseshoe. Think about a four-seam fastball with the seams to the outside. My fingers are gripping that horseshoe, and then my thumb grips the internal seam and rips off of that. Honestly, it feels like you have to spin it based on the grip. I try to get 10-plus horizontal, and my best ones are maybe three-plus vertical, so I’m getting that two-plane slider.

“Being on the third base side of the rubber and throwing the ball to the glove side, I’m naturally going to finish more towards first base, which will pull me a little bit more horizontal. The times that I go backdoor, it stays a little bit more vertical. And for some guys, I try to throw the ball straight over the plate and down, because certain hitters don’t chase off the plate, but they will chase down. That’s a time when I’ll get more ‘vert’ to it, because I’m consciously trying to finish it on the plate.”

“There’s also the aggressiveness of my slider. I think my hand speed is a big key to getting swings-and-misses. Some guys will kind of slow down on their slider. The biggest key is to have the same hand speed as a fastball so that it looks to the hitter like it’s coming out like a heater.

“The Rays actually want me to throw a few more fastballs. This year I’ve been around 90% sliders, and ideally I’d go to a mix of about 75-80% sliders and about 20-25% fastballs. That way I’d have a little more unpredictability where guys can’t just sit on sliders. That will buy me a little more room for error, so that my slider doesn’t have to be so perfect. Mixing in more heaters will put a little bit of doubt in hitters’ minds and not let them time me as much.

“My struggles early in the season were partly due to a mechanical issue: I was getting into my quad instead of getting into my glutes. [Giants pitching coach] Andrew Bailey helped me with that. I’ve also learned a lot more about how the body works in the last couple pf years, the biomechanics stuff. [Twins pitching coach] Wes Johnson was really good with it in Minnesota. I’ve learned about what they call ‘the hinge,’ which is a big key for me to use my legs properly.

“Last year I did a really good job of it; I was getting into my hamstrings and my glutes, and staying in the middle of my foot. With most sports you’re on the balls of your feet to be athletic, but with pitching you’ve got to stay in the middle of your feet and push with your whole foot for direction. At the beginning of this year, I was getting ‘toe-y’ — I was pushing off my toe a lot — and that breaks the chain. As a result, my slider break wasn’t very consistent. By keeping my heel on the mound as long as possible, I’m pushing with the full of my foot, which turns into pushing more with your hamstring and your glute, where more power comes from. Ever since I made that adjustment, my velocity has ticked up and my break has been bigger.”

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.

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