Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 20

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 twentieth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Zach Duke, Kyle Gibson, and Trevor Hildenberger — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Zach Duke (Mariners) on His Two-Seamer

“I didn’t start throwing a two-seam fastball until I got to Triple-A. My pitching coach there was a guy named Darold Knowles, an old-time lefty who could manipulate a baseball as well as anyone I’ve met. He said, ‘You know, Zach, have you ever thought about throwing a two-seamer?’ I said, ‘Well yeah; I throw one.’ He goes, ‘No, a real two-seamer.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“He told me to move my thumb up a little bit on the ball, and put a little pressure sideways. He said, ‘Throw it. You’ll see.’ Sure enough, I throw it and the bottom drops out of the ball. All of sudden I had a true sinker. I thought to myself, ‘How did I get this far without knowing something like that?’

“There’s been an evolution over my career where I can manipulate the thumb, one way or another, turn the ball just a little bit, and get some different action. When I drop my arm, the movement is a little different because of the change of trajectory coming through, but the grip remains the same, the thumb pressure remains the same. And it still moves a lot. I still get depth with it. A lot of sidearm guys get run, lateral run on the ball, but I get a lot of vertical movement.

“It’s the pitch that’s kept me in the game for all these years. It’s one of those things where you could put a baseball in my hand, blindfolded, pitch black, and I could grip it. I could grip it the exact same way, every time. It was definitely a career saver, so thank you Darold Knowles.”

Kyle Gibson (Twins) on His Slider

“I was the closer in my freshman year at the University of Missouri. I was warming up for a game, and was like, ‘Man, my curveball is kind of slow.’ It wasn’t necessarily how you look at bullpen guys and it’s fastball-slider, but I’ll never forget. We were at Dallas Baptist University and I was talking with one of our coaches, Brian DeLunes, who is the the bullpen coach for the Mariners now. I said, ‘Hey, what do you think of this little cutter? I’ve been working on it.’ He said he kind of liked it.

“I basically just took my four-seamer, rotated it up a quarter turn, and then twisted the ball a little bit. It just naturally comes off my fingers that way. As I started throwing it more, I just played with it, turning it more or turning it less, and it turned into a slider. I’ve been throwing it ever since 2007. I’ll turn it every now and then to slow it down, or I’ll turn it to speed it up, but for the most part it’s stayed the same pitch.”

Trevor Hildenberger (Twins) on His Changeup

“When I first started throwing sidearm, I was fastball-slider only, and I threw my fastball the most. This was in 2012. I was in college, playing summer ball, and trying out a few different things — a few arm slots, seeing how low I could go, and stuff like that.

“I started messing around with a changeup because my slider was so inconsistent from a lower arm slot. I used to throw a circle change over the top, so I decided to use the same grip sidearm. It was reliable enough to where I could throw it for strikes, and use it. It didn’t have much depth, but it was slower than my fastball. My slider came around 12 months after that, and I ended up depending on that way more. My changeup was a third pitch until I got to pro ball.

“I got drafted in 2014, went to the GCL, and I don’t know if it was the humidity in Florida, or what it was — maybe it was the ball? — but my changeup just started dropping. It had more depth than ever before. Even if hitters were sitting offspeed, it dropped so much that they hit it on the ground. It became a real weapon for me, especially after I started throwing it to righties, too. I did that in 2015, when I got to low-A.

“I can’t step into the box against myself, but according to video it moves. It has a really low spin rate, around 1,400-1,500, so it’s going to drop a lot. I’m throwing it off my fastball — same height, same extension, and all that — but 10 MPH slower with much more depth.”

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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5 years ago

This series is awesome – thanks for keeping it going!