Walker Buehler is elite — he has a 3.08 ERA and a 3.11 FIP in 278 career innings — and his curveball is among the reasons why. The 25-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander can spin it with best of them.
It hasn’t always been the same curveball. Buehler changed his grip partway through last season, and made a good pitch even better. Why and how did he go about doing so? The Vanderbilt product explained just that, plus his curveball’s beginnings, when the Dodgers visited Fenway Park in mid-July.
Walker Buehler on his curveball: “I started throwing a curveball when I was 10 years old. I learned it from a guy named Brad Bohannon, who is now the head coach at Alabama. He was a volunteer assistant at [the University of Kentucky] at the time. He was my first coach.
“We worked on it, worked on it, and for a long time I threw it the same way. Same grip. I never really changed much, not even in college, but then when I had Tommy John, I talked to Carson Fulmer, and to another kid we had [at Vanderbilt] named Hayden Stone, who had a really good spiked breaking ball that played more like a slider.
“I saw the surgery kind of as a fresh start. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to learn how to throw this spiked one; I think it will be a better pitch than the one I throw. Now that I’ve had a year off, I can work on it and try to get the feel for it.’ That’s what I did. I threw that one up until about halfway through last year. Then I started messing around with a traditional one, and went back to that.
“We like the characteristics better. It ended up being a little slower, a little bigger — and the spin rate was up about 300 rpm on it. When I took the spike away, I actually spun it better. I think that’s because… when I started throwing the spiked one, I was using my thumb more than anything. With the spiked one, you can get away with using your thumb. With the traditional one, you can’t; you’ve got to get your thumb out of the way and let the front part of your hand do the work.
“I think my hand shape might have something to do with the spike having the thumb be too involved. I couldn’t fit the spike how I liked it with my thumb flat, if that makes sense. It had to be more angled up, so I was almost finishing pointing at the hitter, instead of up and over it.
“I have some pretty good dexterity in my fingers, but they don’t go back very far. I can get into that spike, but the thumb just didn’t want to get down there. I mean, I liked it — it felt good — so I will still throw it every once in awhile. It’s maybe even a better strike pitch for me. I have a feel for it, from throwing it for two years, but again, I like characteristics of the bigger and slower one better.
“One of the big feel things for me is to be able to hold my grip without this [pointer] finger on it. Kind of that traditional… like [Adam] Wainwright does it, how he throws it with that finger off of it. It’s more of a middle-finger pitch for me. I also think it matches up with my arm slot a little better.
“Going back to the more-traditional grip was a matter of messing around with it in the outfield, and talking to Kersh [Clayton Kershaw), and talking to Rich [Hill]. Josh Fields was with us at the time, and I’d talk to him about it. One day I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to try it.’
“Talking to guys… you can kind of pick and choose from different guys. It’s kind of, ‘Hey, this is what I feel. Oh, that didn’t work for me. What do you do again? Oh, OK.’ Then you meld them together and come up with something. But that’s the start of every pitch, right? You have to find somebody else’s feel, and then make it your own.
“I imagine the spin on mine isn’t quite what [Hill and Kershaw] get on theirs. Both of their curveballs are pretty elite. For me, it’s a speed-variance pitch more than anything. That’s important for me, because I don’t have much that’s super slow except for that pitch. Not throwing a changeup very often, the curveball is a big pitch for me.”
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.