Hector Santiago reads FanGraphs and throws a screwball. The former puts the Chicago White Sox southpaw in the minority among big-league players. The latter makes him quite unique.
A handful of present-day hurlers pull the occasional screwball out of their back pocket, but none feature the pitch. Santiago doesn’t either, but if he wins a job in the starting rotation next season — a distinct possibility — there is a good chance it will become his signature offering.
The 24-year-old New Jersey native worked out of the bullpen in 42 of his 46 appearances this year, which impacted his repertoire. As he explained during a visit to Fenway Park, “It‘s tough to come in for one inning and throw screwballs. As a starter, you have more opportunities to throw it.”
Santiago wants to start, and knows what he needs to do to earn that role. Along with reintroducing more screwballs to his mix, he said he needs to “work on a two-seam fastball, something that is going to sink down out of the zone, so I can get more ground balls.” His GB-rate was 38.2, which he’s well aware of. He hasn’t yet established himself as a starter, but he’s already a stat-savvy screwball artist.
Santiago on his repertoire and approach: “I basically try to go after hitters and hit my spots. I’m a guy who is mostly on the inner half to right-handers and away to lefties. I try to get it down and in to righties and down and away to lefties, and let them basically get themselves out. How my ball moves is a big part of how I pitch.
“I watch at a lot of video, especially when I’m getting hit, or when I’m missing and think some of the pitches are balls or strikes. I go back and check the k-zone to see how the pitches were moving and where they finished up. That’s especially true on my off-speed. I feel that I can see pretty well on my fastball — where it’s going to go and where it lands — but with my off-speed, sometimes I think it’s a good pitch, just off the plate, and when I go back in, it’s more on the plate than I expected. When I get hurt is when I‘m missing over the middle of the plate. That‘s when they‘ll run into it.
“When I came into pro ball, I was a one-pitch guy. They helped me develop a changeup, and I started to be able to spin a slider in there. I can work in other pitches now. I can throw my changeup for a strike, or out of the zone, I have a cutter now. I can throw my slider early in the count or behind in the count, although it’s still a work in progress. And then there’s my screwball.”
On his screwball: “Last year, my screwball was the reason I had crazy success and got called up to the big leagues. It was like they fell in love with it. It’s a great pitch that can trick hitters. I can have hitters off-balance and sometimes I‘ll even fool umpires. It will be coming like a right-handed curveball with a mix of left-handed changeup in there. It will be 12-to-6 with a circle changeup dive, down and away.
“When I’m throwing it well, I’ll get swings and misses over the top, and ground balls. I’ve had guys asking after the pitch, ‘What was that?’ It’s something weird, something unique. I’m not sure, but I might be the only person in the big leagues right now who throws it.
“I started throwing it in winter ball, coming into the 2011 season. I figured I wasn’t in the big leagues with the stuff I had, so it wasn’t going to hurt me. It couldn’t push me back, it could only make me better and give me that little something extra in my arsenal to hopefully push me to the big leagues. It worked out.
“In 2008, my first year of winter ball, I played with a guy named Angel Miranda. He threw one. I used to play catch with him every day, and I learned my changeup there. One day in 2010, I decided to try some out in a game. I started throwing it in bullpens, then went into a game one day and the first five guys I faced, I was ahead either 1-2 or 0-2. I threw it every time I had two strikes and I had five strikeouts with it. I was like, ‘Wow, I guess this can be a really effective pitch.’ I kind of ran with it and took it into my season as a starter. It worked out great.
“When I came to spring training, I threw some in front of Buddy Bell and Cappy [Nick Capra] and a couple of other pitching coaches. Kirk Champion, Curt Hasler, and Coop [Don Cooper] were there. Once I was done with my bullpen, Buddy Bell came up to me. He said, ‘Hey, when anybody asks you, let them know I showed you how to throw it.’ It was pretty funny.
“I grip it like a two-seam changeup. I put my middle finger and my ring finger right on top of the seams to be able to pull them through. I’ll try to get over the top of it, just like you would a curveball, if you‘re throwing a curveball 12-to-6. It’s just the opposite way. It’s like a curveball reversed. I get on top of it, and try to be inside of it as much as I can. When I was tossing it to Miranda, he said I had a perfect arm slot. I’m high three-quarters, which gives me a good chance to get on top of the ball.
“It’s similar to a changeup and the only way I can see a hitter picking it up is if I slow my arm down. From the times I’ve thrown it, I’ve seen people kind of fall forward on it and not even see it coming. There’s a big difference in velocity. There’s almost a 20 mph difference between my fastball and my screwball.”
Tyler Flowers on Santiago‘s screwball: “I feel like I pull it out more in games than A.J. [Pierzynski] does, although that might be coincidence from getting more situations to use it. It’s kind of amazing to catch and amazing that someone can actually get a ball to spin that much, and that strong, in the direction that it does. He gets it to roll over like a right-handed slider, almost. He doesn’t throw it as hard, obviously, but the spin is virtually the same as a right-hander’s slider. I’ve never seen anybody do that, and I know there haven’t been too many guys that can actually throw that pitch and be effective with it. It’s a great pitch for him. It’s a kind of an equalizer.
“The majority of the time, the hitter is surprised. At the same time, if you hang that pitch and it’s elevated, belt and above, there’s not a lot behind it when it’s that high and slow. But when it’s down in the zone, it’s very deceptive. It almost appears to never get to the plate. It looks good out of the hand — ‘OK, it’s coming’ — and then kind of dives at the end. Guys will be completely fooled, swinging with one hand, trying to just touch the ball, because they’ve already committed. It’s very deceptive.”
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.