Zack Britton, Tim Cate, and Alex Scherff on How They Learned and Developed Their Breaking Balls

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 focuses on breaking balls and features a big-league reliever, Zack Britton, and a pair of prospects, Tim Cate and Alex Scherff.


Zack Britton, New York Yankees

“Originally, I learned [my slider] in the minors, kind of at the same time I was learning the sinker. They taught me a slider grip, more of a four-seam grip, kind of hooking the horseshoe. It was pretty good. It always had a high swing-and-miss compared to my sinker, which had more contact. I threw it a lot as a starter, but then when I went to the bullpen I didn’t throw it as much. I just relied on the sinker.

Zack Britton’s slider grip.

“I started developing it more in 2018. When I came over here [to the Yankees], David Robertson was talking to me about how he threw his curveball. We were playing catch and I was interested in seeing how he gripped it. He kind of presets, so that he doesn’t really have to think about anything. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ So I started doing it on my slider.

“It actually turned my slider into more of… I guess, a slurve? They don’t really characterize it as anything. It’s 79 or 80 [mph], so it’s kind of slider velocity, but with a curveball break. It’s funky with how it sweeps.

“Presetting it, I don’t have to think about having to snap the wrist at the end. The work is already done, so I just worry about getting extension. The wrist just naturally… I’m not presetting it in my glove, or anything. It’s just more of an action, being in a certain position rather than thinking about snapping the ball. It’s like a mental cue, like ‘This is where you want your hand at release point.’ So the preset is more of a drill, so you know where your hand needs to be at extension. That’s what David Robertson was telling me. And to clarify, I’m talking about when you’re playing catch. Presetting your wrist in the glove during a game would be like the ultimate tip. Right? Presetting in catch is for muscle memory. Once you’re in the game, it will happen more naturally.

“So, the grip hasn’t really changed at all, it’s just different thoughts on where my hand needs to be at release. It’s way easier for me to pronate, to manipulate the sinker by pulling straight down through the ball, rather than kind of cutting the ball in half. When I learned it at first, I was thinking like ‘fastball, fastball’ and then I would snap my wrist at the last second. I think a lot of younger pitchers get taught that, and for me, that led to being inconsistent. You want to be perfectly on time.”


Tim Cate, Washington Nationals, prospect

“I started throwing [a curveball] when I was around 10 years old, in Little League. Back then — I guess still now — there were debates about whether a kid should throw a curveball early. My dad always told me to throw it like a football, because everyone thought the snap in the arm is what caused the injuries. So instead of snapping, he was like, ‘Throw it like a football almost, where your hand is on the side of it.’ I did that, and then it developed more into a curveball; I was still kind of throwing it like a football, but I was getting more on top of it, giving it some vertical drop. That’s kind of how it all started.

“From there, I just kept throwing in and becoming more comfortable with it. As the years got on, and I was throwing harder, it just got better. I supinate pretty naturally, maybe because that’s how I learned to throw my curveball. Once I started throwing it more, it just became natural. Sometimes I’ll do it with my fastball a little bit — I’ll get on the side of the ball too much and cut it — but that’s another story.

“With a curveball, you have to throw it kind of with your pinky, bottom. But as long as you get out in front of it, that’s where you’ll get most of your vertical drop. That’s like the spin efficiency thing, versus the gyro spin where you’re getting wasted spin. That said, I don’t really know the analytics on my curveball. I just try to get over it, put a lot of pressure on my middle finger, and just let it kind of roll off as I’m releasing.

Tim Cate’s curveball grip.

“As for [keys], sometimes my wrist will be too loose. If you throw a curveball with too a loose of a grip, you’ll kind of release it [in a way that] you get that gyro spin. So you want to keep a pretty tight wrist, almost locking it. When you come through, that’s the axis you’re going to get. A lot of it has to do with getting extension and getting out in front.

“In college, my curveball was more 12-6, because I was getting a lot of bend at my waist. I was really over the top. Since college, I’ve been more stacked with my head and my core, and staying over my stomach. That lowered my arm slot a little bit, so I have less 12-6, and am more 11-5. [The mechanical change] was because there was some inconsistency with my fastball. Going over the top made for a good curveball, because the release point was higher — I was coming straight down — and now with an arm slot that’s more 11-5, that’s how the pitch moves.”


Alex Scherff, Minnesota Twins prospect

“My [breaking ball] has kind of been in a development process since I signed with the Red Sox. My fastball and changeup have always been pretty good — I actually don’t throw many changeups now that I’m out of the bullpen — and I throw pretty hard and [spin] the fastball really well. That was kind of the thought process behind developing a hard-breaking slider, or a cutter.

“In the beginnings of the development of this pitch, it was a slider. In 2019, it was probably low-80s — a decent pitch, but it wasn’t really playing that well — so I didn’t throw it very much. In 2020, it was a slider; I was just throwing it a little harder. We talked about making it into a cutter, so all of 2020 that was in my mind.

“Then 2021 rolled around, and… I have a fantastic pitching coach in the offseason, Ryan Sullins — he works at a place I train at, APEC — and I worked with him on trying to make it a true cutter. We worked with a Rapsodo. Anyway, we thought that would play better off my fastball, which is upper-90s, and my changeup, which is low-80s. We wanted something in the middle, which was a harder breaking ball.

Alex Scherff’s cutter/slider grip.

“What I did was flip the grip entirely around the ball. It’s not something I thought was even going to work, but talking to some of the guys that I trained with… one was Parker Mushinski, who is in Double-A with the Astros. He has really good cutter, so I was like, ‘Hey, how do you throw this?’ We worked on it a little bit, and by February/March, it just like started to take shape.

“It started mid, upper-80s, but it was a true cutter spin, true action. Then I got into games and it was low-90s. It was an awesome pitch for me. As this season has gone on, I’ve tweaked it. I’ve changed the grip a little bit and made it have more depth at times, made it a little slower, a little less break, harder — just working it off of different pitches.

“The actual pitch itself, when I’m throwing it normally, is like a slider/cutter hybrid. It’s not like a true, true cutter. But as much as I can make it like one, that’s what I’m trying to do with it. The movement profile is a slider, but it looks like a cutter, if that makes sense. It’s weird, because I don’t think it’s either. With the spin efficiency and the axis, it’s a slider, but to me it’s more of a cutter.”


The 2021 installments of the series can be found here.

The 2019 installments of the 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.

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