Scott Barlow, Aaron Nola, and Nick Sandlin on Crafting Their Curves and Sliders

The Learning and Developing a Pitch series returned last month after being on hiatus due to the pandemic. Each week, we’ll hear from three pitchers on a notable weapon in their arsenal. Today’s installment features three right-handers — Scott Barlow, Aaron Nola, and Nick Sandlin — talking about their curveballs and sliders.

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Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals

“I have both a slider and a curveball. I’ve started to integrate the curve a lot more, whereas in the past it was a lot of sliders. It still kind of is. But they kind of work hand-in-hand, and because I’ve thrown the slider so much in the past, my curveball is probably the better story. It’s been a big learning curve as far as when to throw it.

“I messed around with a curveball a lot when I was a starter, but then as a reliever… it was kind of weird, because a lot of relievers typically have two pitches, maybe three. Coming out of the bullpen it was kind of ‘When should I throw that third pitch?’ I think the more opportunities you get, and the more hitters you face, the more you understand when to throw that pitch.

“I threw a lot of sliders and curveballs in high school, but the breaks were a lot different because the arm speed was different. But with the curveball, I had an idea of the grip I liked and I stuck with it. It just really came down to committing to it, rather than having it being ‘poppy,’ having the same arm speed as the fastball, and then kind of adjusting. When you first learn to throw it hard, you tend to spike it a lot, throw in the dirt. You kind of understand how to adjust your sight lines — where to start that fastball arm action point — so you can get it in the right location.

“In my head, it’s hard to think about it in terms of, ‘Where in space do I really let it go?’ It’s more of a feel pitch, where it’s like, ‘OK, if I get my hand to my head, to this position, it’ll be for a strike.’ But if I hold it for another fraction of a second, and maybe put a little bit more wrist-tilt in it, my misses will be better. It will be a bounce. So it’s really more of a thought-process.

Scott Barlow’s curveball grip.

“The grip itself is pretty traditional — I don’t spike it — and I think the biggest thing is having a strong grip on it. With my fastball, I’m pretty moderate pressure-wise, whereas with the curveball I’ve got to clamp down on it pretty good. That way it doesn’t pop out of my hand.”

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Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies

“I think my dad taught me [a curveball] when I was 11 or 12. It was a little football curve. I threw it with my thumb and my middle finger, with my index finger up, and threw it like a football. I did that for a while, I guess all the way up until probably my first or second year of high school. Then I stuck that index finger down on the ball — I started choking it with both fingers down — and I did that all the way up until my second year of pro ball.

“It wasn’t biting as sharp, because the seams weren’t as big, so one day I started playing around with a little spiked curve on flat ground. I thought ‘OK,’ then ended up throwing it in one of the games. This was in 2015. I got a hitter to kind of buckle, and was like, ‘That’s kind of good.’ It was sharp, so I started practicing it and got it to be more consistent. I felt like I could command it better than I could with both fingers on the ball.

“I’d never really known guys who spiked their curveballs. I just knew that some guys put their finger all the way back — they put their knuckle back on it — and my curveball wasn’t biting hard. It was a pitch I could always throw, but I wanted to change it to something that was sharper. So I started doing that, and pretty quickly it became more consistent.

“The more I have pressure on my thumb, the better it is. Sometimes I lose the feel on it and will put too much pressure on just my middle finger. For me, it’s more about the tip of my middle finger and the tip of my thumb. So really, I’m kind of going back to throwing it like a football. It’s the most true and has the most bite when I do that.

Aaron Nola’s curveball grip.

“I have my thumb on that seam — the middle of the seam, right on the top edge of it. If I can throw it with my thumb almost… I guess on top of my middle finger, it’s got more bite, down. It’s got more true, in my eyes, 12-6. My curveball isn’t a 12-6, but it’s got more of that than it does sweep. It stays in the zone longer that way. Sometimes I’ll throw it harder than at other times, but beyond that it’s pretty much the thumb and the middle finger.”

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Nick Sandlin, Cleveland

“I started throwing sidearm in high school. I’d always throw a two-seam, and then a slider to go with it. I started to experiment with breaking balls from that slot, always trying to make the ball go as much right-to-left as I could. I’ve kind of kept a similar grip and similar arm action all along. I’ve thrown it a lot, and not much has changed in terms of what I try to make the ball do. It’s just a matter of executing it and putting it where I want.

“The goal was to be consistent with it and get at least 10 inches of cut-value. I think I’ve been doing that, so as long as there’s consistent movement that I can control, and pair off a two-seam that’s going in the other direction. I don’t know if anybody really throws a curve from my slot. It’s obviously more difficult to throw a breaking ball that moves down when you’re releasing it from so low. You’re getting around the ball a little more and making it sweep horizontally.

“There have definitely been times where I’ve experimented with [the movement], but it’s mostly just finding what’s comfortable for me. That and letting the hitters tell me what’s a good pitch. I think when I was trying to throw it harder — experimenting with it around 85 [mph] — it didn’t move enough to really create swings-and-misses. I want it more on the sweepier side, trying to create a good bit of movement.

Nick Sandlin’s slider grip.

“The grip is pretty much standard. The horseshoe is kind of like… the open end is facing down, so I just kind of get on that seam on the right with my middle finger and try to create the rotation off of that — just kind of twisting my hand to the left. That’s about it.

“A lot of people who throw harder sliders pretty much just grip it and throw it like a fastball — just kind of let the grip do the work — but that doesn’t work for me. I have a looser grip on the ball than most pitchers. I’m manipulating the ball more than a lot of guys, using my arm, my wrist, and hand orientation to kind of time it up. When I get out front, I kind of feel it click. That’s what creates more movement for me, not just strictly the grip.”





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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snood
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snood

“This was in 2015. I got a hitter to kind of buckle,”

oh, is this how Nola went from a moves-fast 3/4 pre-draft to TOR guy in the majors?