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.
Shelby Miller, Texas Rangers
“I probably didn’t start throwing a curveball until high school. Growing up, my dad always told me they’re not good for your arm — not at an early age — and that changeups are better. But then there was this guy named Jerry Don Gleaton in my hometown — he played professionally, and was a baseball coach at Howard Payne University and I worked with him. He taught me some mechanical things, showed me some grips, and it kind of went from there.
“When it comes to throwing a curveball, you want to … essentially, what they tell you is to think fastball all the way to the very end, until you spin it — until you break it off. Same mechanics as your fastball, but then at the end you spin the baseball.
“Grip-wise, there are multiple ways you can throw it. Some people spike their curveballs. Some people go across the horseshoe. I throw it with the horseshoe. I’ve actually changed my grip multiple times, but the one I’ve stuck with the most is the one Adam Wainwright throws. He grips it with the horseshoe, and has the inside of his thumb on a seam. He kind of flicks it, which is how he gets that little extra spin. That’s what I’m throwing now.
“When a pitch isn’t doing what you want it to, you will toy with it from time to time. You’ll maybe go back and forth a little. We have all these things now that can show you the spin and the break on your pitches — the TrackMans and the Rapsodos — and you can tinker with the help of those. When you find the grip that’s working best, that’s the one you usually go with. For me, it’s pretty much just a standard grip on a 12-6 curveball, and I try to throw the crap out of it.”
Daniel Norris, Detroit Tigers
“I’d say I learned my curveball when I was 12 or 13. One of my coaches taught it to me. His name was J.P. Depatis — we called him ‘Coach J.’ — and ever since I’ve been kind of partial to that pitch. [Depatis] actually passed away recently, from cancer, which was really sad. He was still a pretty young guy. But he taught me so much about pitching, especially at an early age.
“You obviously want to save your arm, and when you’re young that means not throwing curveballs, so we kind of called it a ‘football pitch.’ But really, that was just more of a way to convince yourself that you weren’t throwing a curveball. Honestly, it’s a curveball. You’re not turning your wrist as much, but you still end up doing it when you’re out front.
“By the time I was 14 or 15, freshman year of high school — or maybe even eighth grade — I was really turning it. I was ripping on it. From there it just continued to develop. It was still the same curveball, but it got better.
“It’s actually funny that we’re talking about this, because I had a ball in my hand the other day and was thinking about how, as pitchers, we’re partial to our pitches. They’re almost like friends. Sometimes you have the ebb and flow of a friendship. Maybe you guys are super close, and then maybe one of you moves away, and you kind of get far apart. Then there are times where … some guys will draw their fingers on a ball to remember the grip, to remember that feel. I’ve seen a few guys do that. Shane Greene does it with his cutter-slider. If you start gradually moving millimeters over on a ball, it can change the shape of a pitch drastically. So your pitches are like your friends. You’ve got to work on them every day. You’ve got to stay in contact with them every day. You have to keep that friendship going good.”
Tyler Olson, Cleveland Indians
“I don’t think I started throwing a curveball until my freshman year of high school. That’s a decision my dad and I made, for the health of my arm. Early on, I just worked on developing my fastball and a changeup. My dad had been a catcher in college — a junior college — and he’s the one who initially taught me a curveball. It developed from there.
“It kind of came naturally to me, but at the same time, there’s a process. By my junior year I was able to pretty consistently put it in the zone, and then when I was in college I learned how to locate it better — especially where not to leave it. But high school was especially important. We moved to California for a year when I was junior — this was for my dad’s job — and the competition was a lot better than I’d been used to in Washington. I played basketball as well, and that was another adjustment in terms of competitiveness. That’s when I learned to work a little harder, and got better, in both sports.
“There’s actually nothing unique about my curveball. It’s a standard grip. I don’t spike it, or anything. I just grab it in the U — in the horseshoe — and let it eat. I throw a slider as well, although I think it usually registers as a curveball. It has a little more side-to-side. The grip is different from my curveball. I go across the seams, versus staying in the shape of the U.
“What happened is that I was playing around with grips my sophomore year of college. I’d started dropping down more sidearm, and found that I couldn’t throw with my curveball grip from down there, so I changed up the grip a little and basically started throwing sliders. But as for my curveball… again, it’s really just a generic curveball. I’ve simply worked really hard to make it a good pitch.”
The 2018 installments of this series can be found here.
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.