Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 1

Pitchers learn and develop different pitches at varying stages of their lives. It might be a curveball in high school, a cutter in college, a slider or split-finger fastball 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. As the quality of competition improves, a pitcher frequently needs to optimize his repertoire.

In the first installment of this series, we’ll hear from Jeff Hoffman, T.J. McFarland, and Drew Smyly on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Jeff Hoffman (Rockies) on His Slider

“The one pitch in my repertoire that I haven’t thrown my whole life is my slider. I picked that up in college. It actually started as a cutter, but I couldn’t really keep it small, like a cutter, so it turned into a slider. I’ve kind of just hung with it through the years, embracing it as a slider.

“Again, the original plan was a cutter. My curveball tends to be bigger, and we wanted something smaller that was just enough to miss a barrel. When I was in college, I tended to cut fastballs once in awhile, so it was one of those things where, if I do it by accident, I could probably do it on purpose. Dan Roszel was my pitching coach at East Carolina and he said, ‘Let’s try it.’

“When I got to pro ball, the Blue Jays weren’t a fan of cutters. When I told them that I was working on one, they kind of said, ‘Either it’s going to be a slider or it isn’t going to be anything at all.’ So I started throwing a slider.

“I didn’t actually change anything. Like I said, my cutter came out big, so I simply stopped calling it a cutter and started calling it a slider. It’s the same pitch.”

T.J. McFarland (Diamondbacks) on His Sinker

“It would be my sinker, which is the pitch I’ve relied on for my whole career, but there wasn’t a particular moment when I found it or someone taught it to me. I kind of just morphed into it from high school. Everything I’ve done has been mostly on my own. I’ve always messed around with different grips.

“When I got drafted, I threw harder. I topped at 94 and stayed around 93, but then I got in the minor leagues where the season was longer. My arm started taking a toll. I was only throwing 88-90, and because of that, I started to throw a two-seamer to try to make the ball move more. For whatever reason, it started to sink. I developed it myself.

“It was an unorthodox sinker. I actually threw a one-seam. Normal guys throw it with the two seams. I turned it so I’m across the seams, but then flipped it even more, so that I only have one seam. I used that one seam to pull down on. When I let go of it, I flipped it so it’s always out front. I’m pronating, kind of like it’s a screwball.

“But now I’ve changed it to a normal two-seam. I get more control and throw it a little harder. I started doing that a few years ago, in Triple-A. I wasn’t commanding the one-seam as well — I wasn’t as consistent with it — and while it had more movement, sometimes that’s not a good thing. A sinker can move too much.”

Drew Smyly (Cubs) on His Cutter

“I have a pretty crazy story about how I learned my cutter. In college, I had a pretty big blister on my pointer finger — it was very sensitive — so I couldn’t really push off with that finger. To stay in the game, I kind of had to — and this is probably not the best thing to do — throw on the side of the ball. I started putting more pressure on my middle finger to take away the pain and sensitivity from my pointer finger, and the ball naturally started cutting.

“I’ve never thought much about throwing pitches off pressure of my fingertips, but the cutter — I think most people will tell you they put more pressure on that finger when they’re releasing the ball. That’s how my cutter was born. I ended up dealing that game. I remember thinking, ‘This is a sweet pitch.’ This was in my junior year, and at that point my career kind of took off.

“I have [worked to refine it]. I talk to a lot of pitchers. I’ve already talked to Jon Lester about how he throws his. You’re always trying to make a pitch better. When I was in Detroit, Max Scherzer told me, ‘Every year, you either get better or you get worse.’ But originally, it was, ‘Either I throw the ball this way and see what happens or I take myself out of the game.’ Basically, I learned the pitch by default.”

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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6 years ago

That’s an interesting note from the Hoffman interview about how the Blue Jays actively discouraged him from developing a cutter. Any insight as to why that might have been the case?

6 years ago
Reply to  JRM21

Some clubs think cutters are bad for the arm. I can understand why, because when throwing something, pronation is the natural way how the arm rotates. Cutters (and sliders) do the exact opposite.

6 years ago
Reply to  JRM21

There was an article a while back about how the Orioles have an organizational philosophy against it. But then one of the takeaways from that article and its comments was that we don’t really have a cut and dried (no pun intended) definition of what a cutter is.