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 slider 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 second installment of this series — Part 1 can be found here — we’ll hear from three pitchers — Kyle Freeland, Jim Johnson, and Kris Medlen — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.
Kyle Freeland (Rockies) on His Changeup
“I never really threw a changeup in college. When I got into pro ball, that was our main focus to help me develop throughout the minors and get to this point. We had to find a grip that I was comfortable enough with to throw it in any count.
“It took some time. I probably went through half a dozen different grips before I finally found one that fits me, that works with my arm slot and my arm speed. It wasn’t until the end of last season that I finally found what I think works best. I had one that was working well for awhile, but it kind of tapered off. I wasn’t really comfortable throwing it off my ring finger and my pinky finger.
“I’ve switched to more of a full-grip changeup, to where it’s all the way in my hand. I feel more comfortable throwing it like a fastball, and I’m also getting better action with it. I throw it just like my two-seam fastball and it’s coming out with about an 8-to-10 mph difference to it. At the start, my changeup velo was only about a 5 mph difference unless I slowed down my arm. With the new grip, I can keep the same arm speed.
“I have it deep in and most of the pressure is on my middle finger, on the inside of the seam, where I can really feel myself turn it over and get the rotation that I want. One of my focus points when I’m throwing that pitch is to make sure I get pronation over the seam.
“When I was messing with grips, I talked to different players. I talked to Jon Gray about his. I talked to Chad Bettis, who has a really good changeup. He showed me his grip, and where he puts some pressure, and that kind of helped me form my own sort of grip and what I was comfortable with.”
Jim Johnson (Angels) on His Sinker
“Everybody’s story is a little bit different, but when guys get to the big leagues they’re usually trying to get used to the ball. The ball is a little different than in the minor leagues, and pitching is a lot of feel, so pitchers are always messing around with grips. I didn’t really throw a sinker until I got to the big leagues, and it’s pretty much been my main pitch since I got here.
“I started throwing a sinker in 2008. I started throwing it because I needed something to get more contact outs, instead of having long at-bats and so on and so forth. Having a sinker that I can throw bottom of zone and get an early ground ball is kind of how it started. Then I kind of learned how to pitch off of that, moving the ball around, this that and the other.
“The sinker was a suggestion from Dave Schmidt, who’d pitched for the Rangers, Orioles and a few other teams. We were working together in the offseason. At the time, he was the Orioles’ minor-league pitching coordinator, but he lived in Sarasota and so did I. It wasn’t like we sat there and messed around with grips or anything. It was basically about how to use it, and I went from there. It’s just a traditional two-seam grip. There’s nothing crazy about it.
“With a two-seamer, you have to know that where it starts isn’t going to be where it finishes. And on certain days it might sink more, while on other days it might run more. It’s about knowing how to read it on a given day, and being able to move it around and locate whatever you’re working with on that single day. A lot of that is feel, and trial and error.”
Kris Medlen (Diamondbacks) on His Cutter
“Just in the last couple of years, I’ve thrown a cutter. I felt I needed something that was a little more unique for me, something hitters hadn’t seen. As the game evolves, you have to evolve with it. Everybody is either throwing 95-plus, or they’re throwing a cutter, and the first one is something I don’t do.
“The last time I pitched with Kansas City, I tried throwing a slider. It wasn’t bad, but I felt it kind of threw me off my arm angle and arm action, because I was more of a curveball guy. I felt like I was throwing through it a little bit differently. I also ended up having rotator cuff issues in 2016, and while I don’t necessarily think it was because of that, I could maybe attribute it a little bit to it.
“I talked to Wade Davis, who has one of the best cutters in the league. I was always trying to throw it over there [in Kansas City], but it would never really do what I wanted it to do. Over the course of a couple of years I kind of figured it out and I’ve been throwing it way more consistently now.
“[Davis’s] advice was pretty much to do less — just grip it and let the grip do what it’s supposed to do. Throw it as straight as you can. A cutter is supposed to be smaller and look more like a four-seamer, and if you start trying to manipulate it, it gets bigger, and because the spin changes, it might be more visible to the hitter.”
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.