Players’ View: Learning and Developing a Pitch, Part 5

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 fifth installment of this series, we’ll hear from three pitchers — Max Fried, Tommy Kahnle, and John Smoltz — on how they learned and/or developed a specific pitch.


Max Fried (Braves) on His Curveball

“I learned my curveball when I was pretty young, maybe nine or 10. It started out as more of a knuckle curve, although I didn’t really spike it. I would kind of curl my pointer finger down on the ball.

“I thought of it as hitting with a hammer. If there was a wall right here, the hammer — the side of my hand — would hit the wall. There wouldn’t be any twisting.

“It evolved from there. I changed my grip when my hands got bigger — I’ve actually changed it a few times — although I’ve kept it in the same kind of realm. I still don’t turn my wrist. If I turn my wrist it gets more of a side spin, and what I want is topspin. I keep my hand on the side and use my middle finger to pull down on the seam as much as I can, and try to get as much rotation as I can.

“I stopped spiking it later on in high school. Along with my hands getting a little bigger, I noticed that I wasn’t able to throw it as hard as I wanted to. Once I changed to a more traditional grip, I was able to throw it a little harder and little sharper.”

Tommy Kahnle (Yankees) on His Changeup

“Growing up, in Little League and such, I never threw breaking balls. I always threw changeups. My dad didn’t want me to throw a curveball at a young age, so I’ve really thrown a changeup my entire life.

“I would say it’s gone through two or three iterations. I always threw like a circle change as a kid. Growing up into college, same thing. Then, one year in college, I decided to change the grip into more of a two-seam changeup. I don’t really know why, to be honest. Maybe I had better control when I changed the grip to a two-seam?

“In 2011, my pitching coach [at Low-A Charleston], Carlos Chantres, asked me why I throw my changeup with a two-seam grip when I throw four-seam fastballs. So I changed to a four-seam grip. I’ve been throwing it that way ever since.”

John Smoltz (Hall of Famer) on His Splitter

“I learned to throw the split. Early in my career, I was basically a two-pitch pitcher and left-handers were having a field day against me. I decided I needed something else.

“I could never learn a changeup. I tried it a million times. I had Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine show me their changeups, but it was something I just couldn’t do. I couldn’t throw a pitch slow enough with any grip they showed me.

“In 1991, I came up with the split right around close to playoff time. I utilized it against Barry Bonds, who I knew I would be facing, and the pitch was a difference-maker for me. It took me to the next level. I’d had two pitches going the same way to lefties, and now I had a pitch going the other way.

Nardi Contreras, a pitching coach in our farm system, showed it to me in spring training, and I just kind of kept bringing it along, bringing it along. Basically, he told me, ‘If you can hold this in your hand upside down, and turn it over, that’s the grip strength and the ball shouldn’t fall out of your hand.’ From there, I messed around with positioning my thumb, and the pressure points in my knuckles, to try to perfect it.

“It wasn’t a forkball. The forkball you dig, and this was no digging. This was just inner pressure amongst your knuckles. I could vary the speed by moving my thumb up on the ball, but I primarily kept it below the ball. I would throw my fastball around 93-94 on average, and my split would be 87-88 — and it would just disappear. It’s a big reason I won the Cy Young in 1996.”

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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Again, this is a great series, and I’m really enjoying reading each new entry. Hope we see more.