Searching for the Modern Screwball

Before I wrote for FanGraphs – in what might be considered the dark ages – I was in a small grocery store in my Oakland neighborhood. I was in line to pay, A’s hat perched forlornly on my head, when I struck up a conversation with a guy in line who looked to be in his 60s. We talked about baseball for five to ten minutes, and, toward the end of the conversation, he introduced himself as Mike Norris: a former screwballer who pitched for the A’s during the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a fluke meeting — a simple coincidence, if there ever was one — but looking back on it, the meeting was somewhat of a turning point for me in respect to writing about baseball.

I ended up putting together a few articles about him for The Hardball Times during the past couple of years, and the hours of interviews I’ve conducted with him form the basis of a large project about social issues in baseball and the state of the game in urban America. Every couple of weeks, I sit down with him and he tells me stories, like the time he almost killed/got killed by Dave Winfield. It’s strange how things work out.

This article is peripherally about Norris. He’s the historical basis for what we’re talking about today, because he threw what can only be described as a dying (or dead) pitch: the screwball. There’s a mythological lifeblood to baseball – it courses through every home run and every outfield assist to the plate, popping up to offer its comparisons to the longest, the fastest, the hardest, the immeasurable. The screwball lives in this mythology, somewhere among its fellow defunct and rare pitches: the Spitter, the Eephus, the Gyroball.

During the Billy Martin years in Oakland (1980-82), Norris threw a screwball in place of a spitball, which Art Fowler (Martin’s pitching coach) supposedly taught to certain members of every pitching staff he oversaw. Norris told me about his two-strike approach under Martin/Fowler:

“…Billy [Martin] would call two strikes, with the catcher looking in the dugout… Billy would always call for the Spitter, because he thought I was throwing it. But I never was throwing it – I was throwing the Screwball. Me and Jeff Newman never let him know the difference.”

Nowadays, the screwball is nearly unheard of. According to PITCHf/x and Baseball Savant, there’s only one pitcher who threw a screwball last year, and that was Hector Santiago. He threw five of them: two balls, one swinging strike, one called strike, and a foul ball. What may or may not be related: three of those at-bats ending in hits, including a ground-rule double and a homer. Last February, I detailed how Trevor Bauer – the man of 1,000 pitches – messed around with a sort of “power” screwball. If we turn to Brooks Baseball, we find that Bauer threw six screwballs between April, May and July of 2015. For his experimentation, Bauer received two called strikes and four balls.

From these samples, we could make the argument that the screwball is as good as dead. It’s a freak pitch, thrown so rarely and randomly that it might as well be considered kaput. And maybe that’s ok: pitching has changed since Norris’ era, and the game is more about power and less about guys who survive on weird pitches.

But Bauer got me thinking about the “power” screwball. What if the screwball is simply different now? What if it still lives, just altered to fit the new paradigm of the modern game? What if we now call it something else, but it still retains much of the properties of the original pitch? The question is at least worth a look, so here we are!

Let’s take a look at what a screwball used to look like. Here is an example from Mike Norris, during the 1981 ALDS between the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals:

We don’t have a radar gun reading here, but Norris claims he could throw his screwball three different speeds: at “about 87-88, 83, and 79 mph.” Velocity probably isn’t the most important part of what we’re looking at, but in real time, it looks like this pitch is toward the lower end/midpoint of that range. The movement is really what we want to focus on: there’s a bunch of two-plane movement here, with both vertical drop and horizontal break on the arm-side of the pitcher.

For a more modern example, most of the screwballs thrown during the PITCHf/x era were by Yoshinori Tateyama, whose scroogie looked like this:

Lots of funkiness and deception here, but the action has the trademark horizontal run and vertical drop of a screwball, like Norris’. Because of the lack of recent screwballers, if we wanted to compare these examples to a more “modern” pitch, it would be a nasty, tailing changeup. As it turns out, that comparison might have more to it than just surface-level similarities. First, let’s talk about grips. Hector Santiago showed his screwball grip to the author of a dedicated New York Times feature on the pitch (an article which has its moments), who described it like this:

“Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels was sitting at a restaurant table in Glendale, Ariz., in March, holding an orange in his left hand. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger, then spread his remaining fingers around the fruit with half an inch between each one.”

That sounds a whole lot like a circle changeup grip. It’s also a grip similar to what Norris was using — I had him show me the grip on his screwball this week (which actually turned out to be incrementally different grips depending on speed), and his base grip looked like this:

Norris_Grip_Back

Norris said he choked the ball (held it more in his palm vs. his fingertips) to decrease his screwball’s velocity, throwing it out of the same arm slot as his fastball. He was also adamant that getting the correct spin on the ball required using every finger during release, starting with the thumb and using the remaining index to pinky fingers to roll the ball in a fan-like motion as his arm rolled inward. His thumb is on the underside of the ball — not forming a circle — but the other elements are very similar to the most ubiquitous current form of the changeup.

As far as other screwball grips, Bauer also puts three fingers on his “power” scroogie (leaving only his pinky off), and I’ve read of a couple variants that feature only two fingers together on the inside seam of the ball — which some claim is the “traditional” way of holding a screwball. There is disagreement here. There’s always disagreement when it comes to pitches and the “proper” way to grip them. There’s always going to be differences in what particular guys are doing, and the important thing is that the shape and outcomes of the pitches are similar.

So let’s look further into the shapes and outcomes of screwballs and circle changeups. Unfortunately, we don’t have a ton of concrete data on screwballs — like exactly how many pitchers were throwing them during the past few decades and with what kind of movement — so we’re going to have to work with limited information. First, let’s look at the velocity and movement data we have. I’ve pulled all of the screwballs thrown by right-handers in the PITCHf/x era (2008 onward) from Baseball Savant, averaging their velocity and horizontal/vertical movement. Take a look at them compared to the changeups thrown by the 200 pitchers who threw the pitch most in 2015:

Average RHP Screwball (2008-15) vs. Changeup (2015) Velocity & Movement
Pitch Type Velocity Horiz. Mov Vert. Mov
Screwball 69.2 -4.6 -2.5
Changeup 83.7 -6.8 4.3
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There are a few problems here, of course: there are fewer than 100 screwballs in this sample, so we don’t exactly know that this is a perfect representation of the readings for the pitch, and all changeups — not just circle changeups — are included. I’m inclined to think the screwball sample might not actually be representative of a good screwball, as most were thrown by Tateyama and Alfredo Simon — pitchers who aren’t exactly scions of dominance (or were even known for their screwball). Still, let’s do the best we can with what we have. To start with, let’s whittle down our changeups to only those that have at least as much movement in the same direction as our screwball data. That takes our changeup sample from 48,022 pitches to just 474. Take a look at the new averages for our “screwy” changeups compared to the screwballs:

Average RHP Screwball (2008-15) vs. “Screwy” Changeup (2015) Velocity & Movement
Pitch Type Velocity Horiz. Mov Vert. Mov
Screwball 69.2 -4.6 -2.5
Screwy Changeup 85.1 -7.6 -3.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

These are harder pitches, and they also have more movement than the larger sample, especially on the vertical side. The smaller group also includes some pretty interesting names. A small look at some of the 74 pitchers who threw screwy changeups in 2015: Carlos Carrasco (he threw seven), Zack Greinke (nine), Carlos Martinez (five), and Fernando Rodney (nine).

Oh, and did I mention Felix Hernandez? In just the 2015 season, he threw 129 changeups with more movement than our screwball readings. The next-closest pitcher to that total was Jean Machi, with 29 screwy changes. Felix’ 129 screwy changeups accounted for 15.5% of the 833 changeups he threw last season. Here’s one of them on a 2-0 count to Shin-Soo Choo in April:

Choo thought this pitch might hit him, and instead it ended up a tenth of an inch from the center of the plate. It had almost nine inches of drop and seven and a half inches of run. In essence, it had the movement of a really, really good screwball — and it also traveled 89 mph. This is why Hernandez’ changeup is considered among the very best single pitches in baseball, and it’s why he uses it about 30% of the time in any count or situation: when he throws his circle change to the best of his ability, he might actually be throwing one of the hardest screwballs in history. Here’s another particularly filthy one to strike out Matt Joyce, again from last April:

If we run down the list of the other pitchers, we start to see a trend in what types of changeups these modern pitchers throw: Carrasco — vulcan changeup (a variation of the circle change). Zack Greinke — circle changeup. C. Martinez — circle changeup. Hernandez — circle changeup. The wrist action is perhaps a little different between a scroogie and circle change, with a screwball theoretically given more topspin (at the expense of velocity) to help the ball dive by flipping the wrist over near/at release. That motion is probably a big reason why the pitch has gotten the “bad for the arm” reputation it has. But there’s a lot of similarities between the two pitches, including the heavy pronation of the arm (like turning the page of a book) and a release that rolls the ball from the index to the outer fingers to give the ball its unique spin.

For fun, let’s look at a few more highlight pitches of our screwy changeups. We’ll start with Carrasco, striking out Ben Zobrist in late September:

Here’s Eric Sogard somehow managing to get wood on a ridiculous Carson Smith screwy change that had nine inches of drop and seven inches of run:

Here’s a little Jean Machi, for the inclined viewer:

Finally, here’s Roman Mendez, whose screwy change manages to elude both Robinson Cano’s bat and his battery mate Robinson Chirinos:

So how did these screwy changeups fare when they were thrown in 2015? Let’s compare them to our large sample of regular changeups. Among a few other stats, I’ve calculated ground-ball rate and swinging-strike rate for the screwy changes:

All Changeups vs. Screwy Changeups: 2015 Peripherals
Pitch Type GB% LD% FB% PU% SwSTR%
All Changeups 50.3% 25.1% 18.4% 6.2% 16.1%
Screwy Changeups 67.1% 17.9% 12.3% 2.7% 19.4%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There’s a disclaimer here, and it’s that a quarter of our screwy changeups are Felix Hernandez’ best changeups of 2015. That’s bound to skew the outcomes of the sample a little bit, and it’s no surprise that we see more or less what we might expect here: tons of ground balls, almost nothing in the air, and lots of swinging strikes. These are the shared objectives of the screwball and changeup; this is the best of King Felix.

It probably shouldn’t come as a shock that none of these pitchers consider what they’re throwing to be a screwball (or anything close to one), because screwballs are notorious in pitching circles for putting a lot of stress on the arm — a claim that research has found to be unsubstantiated. In the New York Times article referenced previously, the paper even had The Connecticut Center for Motion and Analysis run a test measuring the torque on the elbow resulting from throwing a screwball versus a fastball: they found almost the same reading for each pitch, with the screwball actually putting slightly less strain on the elbow than the test subject’s fastball (34 vs. 36 foot-pounds, respectively).

Everyone’s physiology is different, and pitching in general is a terrible idea if you want to avoid the DL — but there’s simply no credible evidence that throwing screwballs is any worse for a pitcher’s arm than throwing sliders, two-seam fastballs, or circle changeups. Because these hard, tailing changeups are thrown with more velocity than the “traditional” screwball, they theoretically even might put more stress on the arm than the classic version of the pitch. When we reach this point, there’s simply a lot of hot air and conjecture that tends to creep into the conversation. One thing is for sure: with the amount of arm rotation (pronation) and arm speed modern-day pitchers use on their circle changeups, there is little chance that the pitch is actually better for the arm than a screwball.

Still, the two pitches aren’t the same. Today’s pitchers are not throwing screwballs, but they are throwing pitches that act like, and aim for the same outcome as, screwballs: ground balls, weak contact, and swinging strikes. They get those results by the same vicious combination of two-plane, vertical and horizontal movement. Screwballs from decades past might have had more vertical movement, but it certainly came at the expense of velocity. The screwball has turned into something harder now, and its masked by a new name and the fact that most types of pitches are thrown harder than they used to be.

The line is always going to be blurry between pitches that are gripped the same and have similar movements, and I expect that there will be much arguing about the “true” nature of a screwball after this post is published. But the fact remains that the circle changeup rose to prominence at around the same time that the screwball faded away, doing a strikingly similar job and taking the latter’s reputation for causing injury with it. That probably isn’t a coincidence.

By its very name, the screwball  is an outlier — one part of a fabric of mythology that includes the unconventional, the strange, and the freakish. The circle changeup is just a variation on a pitch that is thrown by over 500 pitchers in the majors each year, and for that reason, it is normal and accepted. The fact that the two pitches share similar grips, a similar arm/release action, and movement profiles might seem like happenstance to many. It shouldn’t. In the push to rebrand, in the desire to banish the prospective injury worry that lurks unseen behind every darkened corner — there sat the screwball, changed in name and speed only: as weird and filthy as ever.

We hoped you liked reading Searching for the Modern Screwball by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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I met a woman who claimed to be Mike LaValliere’s mother in a consignment store in Hickory, NC. She had some of his cards in her purse. Thank you for your time.