Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 10

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.

In the tenth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Zach Britton, Pedro Martinez, and Brandon McCarthy — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Zach Britton (Orioles) on His Sinker

“In 2007, I was in short-season Aberdeen and my pitching coach, Calvin Maduro, tried teaching me a cutter. It kind of developed from there. No crazy story, really. It’s just that, with my arm action, the ball never cut. It went straight down like a sinker. He said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and over the years I started throwing it more and more, and getting comfortable with it.

“A lot of guys throw cutters the way I grip my sinker, and others actually throw their curveball like that. Again, it’s arm action. I’ve shown it to guys and they haven’t been able to do it, so I can only assume it’s the way I throw.

“While I haven’t had much success teaching it, I remember showing the grip to Jake Arrieta, and he actually threw it for a little while when we were in the minors. I don’t think he’s using it anymore — I think he’s just using a traditional two-seam grip — but he was one of the only guys that threw it OK. He has a pretty short arm action, up top, like I do.

“I’ve worked on commanding it over the years, but I haven’t changed the grip or the way that I throw it. I don’t manipulate it. A lot of guys manipulate their sinkers, trying to make them move more, whereas I just throw it like a four-seam fastball and it naturally does what it does. I don’t move my wrist — turn over my wrist — or anything like that.

“One thing I’ve learned how to do is use it more to my advantage, rather than just trying to throw it down the middle or on the corners. When I get ahead, I kind of use it like a breaking ball. A lot of times when you’re 0-2 you’ll bounce a breaking ball to get a swing and miss, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can make a sinker look like a strike and bounce it. That’s kind of developed over the last three or four years.”

Pedro Martinez (Hall of Famer) on His Changeup

“My first changeup was a full wraparound, a full hand, and then Guy Conti, my pitching coach in A-ball, decided that I needed more movement. He came up with a circle changeup for me. He figured that I was flexible enough to throw a circle changeup.

“He taught me different things — movement on the fingers to create more movement, how to subtract velocity, more command by holding the ball more in the center. Stuff like that, where you have to go out there and put it into practice.

“I kept that grip my whole career. It never changed. But you make adjustments with your mechanics. As you mature, you learn to control your body better and that’s how you learn to actually bury one, locate one, and add or subtract velocity. You do that by balancing your body better, by understanding your body and your arm angle better.

“I’m also more flexible than your average pitcher. My fingers are double-jointed and that makes me a little more unique than most guys you find out there. That had a lot to do with the way I spun the ball.

“And a changeup is going to be good if you have a good fastball. If you don’t have a good fastball, your changeup… it doesn’t matter how much you rotate it, how much you can spin it. If you can’t bring a good fastball with it, it makes no difference. I was lucky enough to have both.”

Brandon McCarthy (Braves) on His Attempted Changeup

“I haven’t thrown a changeup in two years now. Early in my career, when I was straight over the top, it was my best pitch, but once I dropped down I couldn’t throw the old one anymore. Since then, everything I’ve tried has been a sloppy A-ball rendition of a changeup.

“A couple of years ago, I tried to make Zack Greinke’s changeup. The grip, what he was trying to do with it, how he would try to turn it over, what he would do with his body. I wanted it to follow his numbers. One thing I found is that he can keep the spin rate on it extraordinarily low. That’s why I think he gets so much vertical depth. Same with Felix Hernandez. We ran the numbers on Felix Hernandez and it’s like a 1,700 spin rate. I don’t know how they can throw a ball as hard as they can and not make it spin.

“I would try to throw the ball the exact same way [Greinke] does, except mine would come out at 2,400. Everything else would be the same. It was the same spin axis, everything. But it just wouldn’t go down. At the moment where you need it to go down so the hitter swings and misses, mine would just keep going on its plane.

“Not being able to figure out how to take that much spin off the baseball is when I truly realized there are fundamental differences in the way people throw the ball. Some can make a ball do something different than others can. I’ve tried to do it with other pitches too. The way Corey Kluber throws a breaking ball — there’s something he does differently that you can try to aim for, but you can’t all the way get there.

“Another thing that makes pitch development is difficult is that it takes so many throws. That’s why Trevor Bauer building pitches at the Driveline lab is… I mean, his arm health is incredible that he can throw as much as he does in the offseason to build a pitch that’s ready to go into the season. I feel there are limited bullets to actually build a pitch. Maybe if I had unlimited throws where I could throw it 10,000 more times, Greinke’s changeup would come — I’d be able to figure it out — but I probably have 50 bullets. That’s not nearly enough.”

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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Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

You just dropping Pedro in like a super spy. But McCarthy has great discussion there. And Britton. Is #10 the grand finale?

It’s charming that Britton is like sure, here’s my $30M devil pitch, try it out. I mean he knows it’s not easy to replicate and he’s got cameras on his every move anyway, but it’s still cool.

5 years ago
Reply to  David Laurila

Some Rays-specific suggestions, since that’s the team I follow …

He’s injured and probably nowhere near a big-league clubhouse, but I bet Brent Honeywell has some interesting things to say about the development of his screwball. Ryne Stanek added a splitter sometime last year. It’s pretty nasty. Anthony Banda started throwing a slider this year when he joined the Rays, and we’ve seen him incorporate it some in his last couple of outings. I’d be interested to know how Alex Cobb’s change-up has progressed since he left the Rays.

5 years ago
Reply to  David Laurila

A retired player, but I’d love to hear Rich Harden talk about his “spluckle.” That pitch was filthy and unique.

When Dan Haren was starting for the A’s he had a fantastic splitter. In fact, he was successful with just a two-pitch arsenal. Later in his career he went away from it.

It would be interesting to compare the different curveballs of Kazmir, Gio and Zito.