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All About Pitching
There are many, many types of pitches in baseball. Even within a type of pitch, there can be variations. For instance, a pitcher may throw a curveball with a 12-6 trajectory, or he may throw one with a 2-8. These will be explained later.
Pitchers often know many different types of pitches, but are only comfortable with throwing four or five different varieties during the course of an actual game. There are two basic approaches to successful pitching: you may try to have batters grounding out, flying out, and not being able to figure you out by varying speed and location of the pitches. Or you can attempt to strike out batters by over-powering them and putting batters in a reactive and defensive posture.
Velocity is the speed of the pitch. There are optimal velocities for different types of pitches. For instance, you want your change-up to be thrown at a slower speed than your fastball. Pitchers' velocities often vary. Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer of the Boston Red Sox, for instance, has a slow fastball, clocking in the high 70s at most. A fireballer like Nolan Ryan would throw in the high 90s and possibly touch 100. Velocity itself is not as important, however, as is how fast your pitches appear when compared to the others. An 80 mph fastball complementing a 50 mph change-up would be much more effective than an 80 mph fastball backing up a 77 mph change-up.
Trajectory is the path the ball takes when compared with a clock. A curveball that drops straight down would drop from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock on an analog clock. A ball that "slides" from one side of the plate to another without any vertical movement would have a 3 o'clock to 9 o'clock trajectory. For lefties, the reverse would be true, a 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock slide. Different pitches have different trajectories.
As a footnote, a pitch's name is not determined by its trajectory and velocity but the method with which the pitch is thrown. Tim Wakefield's fastball is slower than most pitcher's change-ups but is still a fastball because it is thrown in the method a fastball would be.
Four Seam Fastball The four seam fastball is the standard pitch in baseball, and is almost always the fastest pitch in the arsenal of any pitcher who throws it. The four seam fastball has comparatively little movement, but exceptional four seamers may appear to have a rising or hopping motion. Physicists maintain that the rise on a four seam fastball is an illusion, but whether it's real or illusion it has the effect of making batters swing under the pitch, resulting in swinging strikes, popups, and fly outs. Pitchers who rely heavily on the four seamer may give up large numbers of home runs.
Curveball The curveball is often the first breaking pitch a budding pitcher learns. Contrary to what most non-baseball people believe, a "perfect" curveball breaks straight down with essentially no sideways movement, i.e. it has a 12-6 trajectory. Pitchers with outstanding 12-6 curveballs include Sandy Koufax, Adam Wainwright and Barry Zito. It is often a slower pitch than most, hence it is sometimes referred to as an "off-speed breaking ball."
Slider The slider is a faster breaking ball than the curve. It is not as fast as a fastball but is faster than the rest of a pitcher's pitches. Power pitchers often throw one in the 90s. It typically breaks 10-4 or 9-3 with less pronounced movement than a curveball.
Change-Up The change-up is a slow pitch, used to throw off the hitter's timing. A perfect change-up is thrown with the same arm motion but with much less speed than the pitcher's fastball. An effective change-up can make a hitter swing before the ball crosses the plate. As well as being effective by itself, a good change-up will enhance the effectiveness of a pitcher's fastball by making it appear to be faster.
Two Seam Fastball A two-seam fastball is thrown the same way as a four seam fastball, but with the fingers held along the seams rather than across them. This gives the two seamer more movement than the four seamer, but makes it a bit slower. The two seamer appears to drop compared to the four seamer, which results in ground outs and double plays. It is almost always thrown at the lower end of the strike zone.
Sinker The sinker is often thrown low and in, or low and out of the strike zone, and is designed to appear as a strike before dropping out of the zone completely. A sinker is simply a two seam fastball which, by virtue of the pitcher's arm angle, sinks and moves from left to right for a right handed pitcher, and right to left for left handers. Sinker ball pitchers generally throw with a 3/4 arm angle as opposed to a more overhand delivery. Chien-Ming Wang of the New York Yankees and Derek Lowe of the Atlanta Braves are examples of pitchers with exceptional sinkers.
Splitter A Split-finger fastball is similar to a sinker but has more of a downward break to it. The Split-finger can be thrown at high speeds but is less effective. The trickiness about a splitfinger is that batters tend to over-swing or swing over the ball. This pitch looks like a fastball as it heads to the plate then dives south. Some Split-fingers move like a two-seam fastball and others move like a knuckle-ball depending on how you grip and release the ball. Roger Clemens is known for a dangerous splitter. The pitch was popularized by the pitching staffs of Roger Craig in the 1980s but led to many injuries and is less popular now.
Cut Fastball The cut fastball is thrown inside on batters of the opposite-handedness of the pitcher (righty vs. lefty). It comes inside closer than it appears to and jams the hitters. Pitchers who throw this pitch like seeing broken bats because it means that the pitch has done what it's supposed to. Lefties are more likely to throw this pitch than righties, for the simple fact that righty batters are more common in MLB. Mariano Rivera has one of the best cut fastballs in the game.
Running Fastball The running fastball is thrown to move inside from a righty pitcher to righty batter or a lefty to a lefty. This is useful to use when you want to jam a batter of the same handedness as the pitcher. Like the cutter it can break the bat. Since lefties generally throw cutters because there are generally more right-handed batters, right-handers usually throw running fastballs to right-handed batters, but lefties can thrown this pitch to a left-handed batter as well.
Many trick pitches are banned nowadays, such as the spitter and doctoring the Baseball with pine tar, but there are those pitches that don't use outside substances.
Circle change A Circle Change is a change-up variant with lateral motion similar to a screwball. The trickiness about the circle change is the movement and velocity. In the batter's eye the ball looks like a slow two-seam fastball being lobbed towards home plate, then at the last moment the ball breaks in the opposite direction of a normal breaking pitch (such as a slider or curve). Pedro Martinez is known for a dominating circle change. Greg Maddux also had an effective circle change, and Warren Spahn's "screwball" may have really been one as well.
Palmball The palmball pitch is a type of changeup. It requires placing the baseball tightly in the palm and then throwing it as if throwing a fastball. This takes some of the velocity off the pitch, intending to make the batter swing before the ball reaches the plate. Notable pitchers who have been known to throw the palmball include Steve Farr, Edwar Ramirez, Dave Giusti, Bob Stanley, Roy Halladay, Orlando Hernández, reliever Tony Fiore, and "changeup" pitcher Trevor Hoffman.
Split Finger change-up/Three finger change-up This pitch is a split finger change-up is just a split fastball thrown slower. Like the splitter, the split change can be gripped with three fingers. This is especially useful for younger players or smaller handed people. Both of these drop straight down and are just different grips for a change-up.
Gyroball The gyroball is a pitch whose trajectory lies somewhere between a fastball and a curve, i.e. it falls faster than a fastball, but slower than a curve, and hardly breaks inside or outside. It achieves this unusual effect because it spins on an axis parallel to its trajectory, somewhat akin to a football being thrown with a perfect spiral. It was invented in Japan, and although Daisuke Matsuzaka is rumored to use it occasionnally, it has yet to prove that it can be an effective pitch in Major League Baseball. The Gyroball is thrown with bullet-like or football-like spin. Throwing this pitching with a four seam grip makes this ball decelerate less than a regular four seam fastball, so it arrives at the plate faster than the batter would expect. This makes the batter late on the ball. Also because of the spin it appears to be a breaking ball to the batter. The batter will ajust to swing below the ball, but then the ball doesn't break, making the batter swing below the ball resulting in a foul tip, infield pop-up,or even a whiff. The two seam Gyroball is thrown the same way but because the is more friction in the air from this different spin it decelerates more than the four seam Gyroball. This pitch seems like a breaking ball too, but like the other Gyroball, it only drops a few inches making the batter swing under it. Both Gyroballs drop a little but nor nearly as much as a good 12-6 curveball.
Shuuto The shuuto or shootball is a pitch commonly thrown by such right-handed Japanese pitchers such as Noboru Akiyama, Ryohei Hasegawa, Hiroaki Fukushi, Kenjiro Kawasaki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masumi Kuwata. The most renowned shuuto pitcher in history was Masaji Hiramatsu whose famous pitch was dubbed the "razor shuuto" because it seemed to "cut the air" when thrown. The pitch is mainly designed to break down and in on right-handed batters, so as to prevent them to make good contact with the ball. It can also be thrown to left-handers to keep them off balance.
Knuckleball The knuckleball was made famous by Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, although it dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. It is tantalizingly slow but dances all over the place. It's been said that a knuckleball screws everybody up, as "the hitter can't hit it, the catcher can't catch it, and the umpire can't call it." Tim Wakefield is a prominent knuckleballer in today's game.
Eephus (also spelled "ephus") An eephus pitch, invented by Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1930s, is impossibly slow, usually with a very high arching trajectory. It is basically a lob to the catcher. Steve Hamilton, who called this pitch the "folly floater," was probably its most successful practitioner. Kazuhito Tadano of the Cleveland Indians caused A-Rod of the Yankees to ground out on an eephus pitch in one of the 2004 season's more memorable moments. It is rarely thrown anymore, but pitchers like Carlos Zambrano Casey Fossum and Orlando Hernandez will throw them occasionally.
Forkball A forkball "tumbles" out of the strike zone (rather than breaks out of it) when thrown. The Forkball kind of looks like a fast dancing knuckle ball. If the wind is blowing in either direction, the forkball is a brain scrambler, meaning the ball is going to dance all over and sink. It is similar to the splitter, but is more of an off-speed pitch.
Vulcan Change-up This is similar to the forkball. Often called V change or the "trekkie" because of its unnatural grip. It is held like the Vulcan greeting that is used by Spock the Vulcan in Star Trek (The dude with pointy ears in Star Trek). This pitch drops like a regular change-up, but just puts a little more friction on the ball. Basically it is a different way to grip a Change-up.
Screwball A screwball is a "backwards curveball." When thrown by a righty, it breaks like a lefty curveball, and vice versa. This pitch was conjured up because hitters have an easier time hitting pitches that break in on them than those that fade away. Lefties would throw this against righties, and righties against lefties. Christy Mathewson and Carl Hubbell are among the most famous screwball pitchers in history, and in recent times Mike Marshall and Fernando Valenzuela have had great success with this pitch.
Slurve A slurve is a slider thrown at curveball velocity. It is designed to look like a slider out of the pitcher's hand, but then fool the hitter by taking longer to reach the plate than a typical slider would.
12-6 Curveball It is a curveball throw normally and then when your arm is behind your head, you thrown the baseball like a karate chop and then follow through.
Sweeping Curveball A curveball thrown from a slightly lower arm slot, which breaks from 2-8 on a clock for a right-handed pitcher.
Knuckle Curveball A curveball thrown with one knuckle up, making the pitch slightly slower than a regular curveball, but still breaks 1-7 for a right-handed pitcher
Spiked Curveball A curveball thrown with one knuckle up, the grip is different from the knuckle curve, but still has the same effect
Knuckle Slider A Slider thrown with the index finger knuckle up. It is a few mph slower but has the same break but with the slightly lower velocity it has about an inch to two inches more drop, but not quite a slurve.
Yellow Hammer This is an even slower 12-6 Curveball. It has top spin plus a low speed, which makes it drop even more than a 12-6 curveball. When a professional pitcher throws this pitch, it travels a 50-65 mph.
Most pitchers are taught at the beginning of baseball to throw overhand. Overhand can be an effective pitching motion, but other motions can be equally or more effective once mastered. A few pitchers can vary their motion from pitch to pitch. There are 5 types of pitching motions: overhand, three-quarters, sidearm, submarine, and tornado.
An overhand pitch is thrown with the arm directly above the pitcher's body. This is often described as "12 o'clock", as though the pitcher's body were a clock face and his pitching arm was the hour hand. The pitcher pushes off the rubber and whips his arm for velocity. If the pitcher is really tall and pitches over hand, in the batter's eye the ball will look as if it were dropping out the sky. This means the batter will have to drop his shoulders in order to get under the ball. Overhand pitchers tend to use a fastball/curve/change-up combination and stay away from sliders and screwballs.
The three-quarter pitching style is between a side arm and overhand motion, with the pitcher's arm at "10 or 11 o'clock" for a right hander or "1 or 2 o'clock" for a lefty. Both the legs and arm are used for velocity. With this pitching style, the ball will tend to have a tailing, sinking action as the ball gets near the plate. Any pitch can be thrown from a three-quarters delivery, though the curve will be less effective than when thrown overhand. Famous three-quarter pitchers include Bob Gibson and Pedro Martinez. It is the most common delivery today.
Sidearm pitching is when the pitcher releases the ball with his arm perpendicular to his body, at 3 o'clock or 9 o'clock. The motion is most effective when using sliders or curves. A right handed pitcher can throw a slider or curve directly at a right handed batter and have it tail back over the plate. The same motion can be effective against a left handed batter because the ball tails in on his hands, jamming him.
The submarine pitching style comes from an arm angle even lower than sidearm. Before releasing the ball, the pitcher drops his shoulder towards the earth and whips his arm, much like a softball pitcher. Depending on the pitch used, the ball might have little to a lot of movement. Submarine pitchers are most effective against same-handed batters because the ball looks like it is rising or running in on the hands. Submarine pitching can still be effective on opposite-handed batters because of the tailng action which makes the ball run away from the batter.
A tornado pitcher rotates his whole body before the delivery to home plate. It is a very difficult motion that requires very strong back muscles, but can be very effective when pitching to the corners. Against same-handed batters, the ball looks like it will stay inside because of the pitching motion but will have cutting movement at the end. Against opposite-handed batters, the ball will run across the plate diagonally and the reaction of the batter will be to jump away from the plate. The tornado motion also lets the pitcher disguise his release point, making it tough for the batter to pick up the ball. A weakness of tornado pitching is a slow delivery that makes the pitcher vulnerable to the stolen base.
- Dave Baldwin, Terry Bahill and Alan Nathan: "Nickel and Dime Pitches", in The Baseball Research Journal, Society for American Baseball Research, Cleveland, OH, # 35 (2007), pp. 25-29.
- Bill James and Rob Neyer: The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches, Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2004. ISBN 978-0743261586
- Terry McDermott: Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception, Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2017. ISBN 978-0307379429
- William F. McNeil: The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2006.