Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 13

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 thirteenth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Dennis Eckersley, Michael Fulmer, Miguel Gonzalez — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.

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Dennis Eckersley (Hall of Famer) on His Slider

“I couldn’t throw a curveball because of my angle. I couldn’t get on top of it. That’s all they’d ever tell me. Every time somebody would whistle at me, it would be, ‘Get your arm up! Get your elbow up!’ But a slider came pretty easy. It was just, ‘Turn your wrist a little bit.’

“I went straight from high school to pro ball [in 1972], and all of a sudden my fastball didn’t play. I was in the California League when I was 17, and they could hit. The next thing you know, I’m throwing a lot more breaking balls than I ever did in my life. I didn’t have any choice.

“I still relied a lot on my fastball when I got to the big leagues [in 1975] — I threw hard when I first came up — but then I developed a better slider. It got to where I could play with it later in my career.

“I had one that I threw real hard, and I had one where I kind of took a little off. But I didn’t always have the depth that I wanted. I tried to get on top, but on top for me… you still have to have some depth on your slider. You can’t have a flat one. I fought that flat slider my whole life.

“I actually had a third [slider]. My slider almost became a changeup when I threw the slower one and got underneath it with my middle finger. If you do that it’s going to back up and run out of gas. I would just spin the ball sometimes. I didn’t want it to break. Guys used to say, ‘What is that thing you’re throwing?’ I’d do it against a left-handed hitter, because he’d see spin — he’d think it was a slider — but it would stay there and he’d pull off. He’d better pull off.

“What happened is that they figured out I could get out right-handed hitters, so next thing you know they put all-left-handed lineups against me. I had to come up with something else. In another universe I would have had a good changeup, but I didn’t have one, so I used my slider, a little backup piece, as a changeup. I got good at it.”

Michael Fulmer (Tigers) on His Vulcan Change

“When I got drafted in 2011 and came to pro ball, the pitching coordinator for the Mets, Ron Romanick, told me I needed to develop a changeup. I’d had one in high school, but it wasn’t any good. I threw it just to show it.

“We went through probably seven or eight different grips, and still didn’t find one. None of them really worked. Then all of a sudden he recommended a vulcan change. It was kind of a last-ditch effort. I’d never thrown anything like it before, but it felt comfortable enough that I said, ‘Hey, let’s try it and see if we can stick with it; let’s see if we can stop tinkering.’ I spent time playing catch with it, and it stuck.

Fulmer’s vulcan grip.

“I’ve had that pitch since 2012, but I didn’t really start throwing it consistently until 2016. Whether or not it was the practice, or whatever, I decided to start throwing it in games more. At first it was kind of living and dying by the fire, but it’s turned out to be pretty good.

“It acts more like a split than a regular changeup — it’s got splitter action — but you can also manipulate it. You can add more fade to it, or you can add a little cut to it, or you can have it straight down. I’ve been trying to mess with it a little bit, playing with it here and there, throwing it to righties and lefties.”

Miguel Gonzalez (White Sox) on His Splitter

“I used to throw a forkball in high school. I started throwing it when I was 12 years old and in Little League. Just imagine, 12 years old and throwing a forkball. It put a lot of stress on my elbow, and I ended up having Tommy John in 2009 because of it.

The old forkball grip.

“I knew I had to switch up my grip. I got closer to the seams, so I wasn’t wide open as much. A guy back in California who played in the big leagues for 10 years told me to do that. His name is Chuck Crim. He said to get my fingers closer on the ball, because that way I’d have less stress.

The new forkball.

“The velocity difference between the two is about 4 mph. If I could throw this one 4 mph less, I think that would be ideal. If I could get it 82 like my forkball was, instead of 86, that would be awesome. No one has taught me that, though! But it’s been working. I can’t complain. I’ve been here a long time and have been able to accomplish things because of my split-finger fastball. It’s what kept me in the big leagues.”

We hoped you liked reading Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 13 by David Laurila!

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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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That old forkball grip is painful to look at

Matthew Schlichting
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Matthew Schlichting

I’ve wondered how often a pitcher would be able to throw one these days without endangering their health. It’s just such a nasty pitch when things are going well, especially if you can get it to release without any rotation.