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.
Nick Kingham, Toronto Blue Jays
“I’ve been throwing a curveball since ninth grade, or maybe around 13 years old. I guess my dad originally taught it to me. But I never really had a good one. I threw a one-finger curveball for a little while. It was like a suitcase, you know? It kind of just spun and slowed down, and gravity would take it. Then someone told me to try spiking my finger. I’ve been throwing it that way ever since, probably for the last 15 years.
“It’s a standard spike. This is the horseshoe, the tracks go this way, and it’s right on there. Spike it up. There’s nothing… actually, I dig my nail into it. I set my index finger there and make sure that it has enough pressure. That’s comfortable to me. I like to have a secure grip on the ball.
“I’ve learned to manipulate it over the years. Nothing grip-wise, just the shape in my head of what I want it to do. I change what I do at release point — if I pull across, if I pull down — so it’s basically my hand position. Or maybe I’m doing something different than I think I am? But in my mind, I’m like, ‘OK, I want this to sweep away from a righty, so I’ll finish like this.’ Or if it’s lefty, and I want more up-and-down, I know to make sure I’m doing what makes it go down.
“Things are a little different here [with the Blue Jays], but not in the sense of how to throw it, or anything like that. When to throw it is different. But I think the game is kind of changing that way, too. People are throwing more off-speed, and fewer fastballs. I think they just said, ‘Hey, when in doubt, if you think it’s the right pitch, go ahead and throw something off-speed.’ It’s not, ‘This is a fastball count, so throw a fastball.’ It wasn’t necessarily that way [with the Pirates], but there’s maybe a little more freedom here. Certain counts don’t dictate a certain pitch.”
Mark Prior, Los Angeles Dodgers (Bullpen Coach)
“I started throwing a curveball around the age of 12. My brother is five years older, and I said to him, ‘Hey, how do you throw your curveball?’ He showed me, and that was kind of the grip I ran with throughout my career. I was wrapped around the horseshoe a little bit, and thought about trying to keep my middle finger and thumb kind of splitting the baseball, but with my thumb maybe just a slight bit over on the back seam.
“It always felt like it was coming down, even though it was obviously going over the fingers. I always felt I had more strength, and leverage, on it. But yeah, that was kind of it. Obviously, it got better as time went on. By trial and error, I learned how to manipulate the shape a little more by playing with where I was on the seam, and my wrist angle. Sometimes I’d want it more 12-6, and sometimes I’d want it more 2-7. I’d want it slower, or I’d want it harder.
“I began figuring that out somewhere between my sophomore year of college and my first year of pro ball. I began paying more attention to guys who had good curveballs, and seeing the effects of different shapes — how they played — and would mess around with how to throw them. I didn’t have a good changeup — I almost had a nonexistent changeup — so I had to change speeds another way. Being able to throw a slower, bigger curveball versus always the harder, slurvier one allowed me to mess with guys’ timing.
“Sometimes I would maybe choke the ball a little. Sometimes I would almost try to bring my finger to the left side, almost at 11 o’clock, to try to create a spin that would bring it that way. Not that it was screwball-ish, but I was trying to get more vertical depth on it. Where my wrist was at release point… if I was trying to throw a 12-6, I’d unravel and keep it as straight as possible to create that.
“When I pitched, we didn’t talk about spin, spin axis, and spin direction. We just talked about shape, like 12-6 and 1-7. It was broad terms, as opposed to, ‘This one is 2,900 rpm.’ Working with guys now, in the field setting — and you have to know your audience — guys still understand the simplicity of, ‘You want it more like this.’ That gives them a better visual when they’re actually in the moment.
“At the same time, a lot of the younger guys have been exposed to [pitching analytics] in high school, college, and throughout the minor leagues, so you can talk to them about spin efficiency, or about wanting to get more rpm. Again, it’s dependent on who you’re talking to. And does he have that aptitude, and the feel with his fingers, to make those corrections? Some guys really have that, while others, once they get a grip, they’re throwing it, and it is what it is.”
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
“My brother, Trey, taught it to me when I was 11 or 12 years old. That’s early, but I think it’s important to start early. Many people think you should start throwing a curveball later, but the problem with that, in my opinion, is that when you’re building your arm strength — you’re long tossing, you’re throwing the ball hard — now all of a sudden you’re going to start snapping a ball with extreme arm speed, when you’ve never really worked on that… it seems dangerous to me. I think you should learn the proper way to throw a curveball earlier on, and build it along with your arm strength, naturally.
“My brother is seven years older than me. He was a pitcher in high school, and contemplated playing in college — he had a chance to walk on at Georgia Tech — but he was a valedictorian and chose the academic route. But he studied pitching. He used to watch a lot of instructional videos, and read books on pitching. Back then there was a guy named Dick Mills who was teaching pitching; he had instructional videos, and books. We used to pull up videos of big league pitchers, and talk about their grips and their techniques. We went over all that stuff together.
“My grip is a little unique. I’m a little around the seam, but the main thing is that I have a double-jointed thumb. I can kind of turn my thumb over weird, and get a little more spin on the end of the pitch. I’ve also kind of changed my arm slot a little bit as I’ve gotten older. I’m a little lower than I used to be, so my curveball has a little more side-to-side in it. It used to be straight over the top and more 12-6. Now it has more of a 2-to-7 shape to it.
“Your curveball will mimic the shape of your arm action. Maybe it’s more side-to-side, maybe it’s not. So it’s on the arm swing. And I teach guys to throw it way out in front of their face, and on top of the ball. If they start throwing it from behind their head, then it starts popping up, and hitters see that.”
“Sometimes, when a pitch comes natural for you, the worst thing you can do is start thinking a lot about it. I can stand on the rubber and backdoor my curveball. I can throw it front-door. I can throw it in the dirt. I can throw it up in the zone. I can throw it for balls, or for strikes. But if I start thinking about it… it’s kind of like golf. You step up on a tee box and hit drives right down the middle, over and over and again, but then you start thinking about how you’re doing it, and start slicing balls in the woods. Other pitches, I’ll think about, but not my curveball. It’s a very natural pitch for me. It comes easy.”
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.