And here comes the pitch . . .
From 'sliders' to 'slurves,' baseball pitchers have a handful of tricks
Frank Funk grips a baseball and starts talking of the many, many wonders of a split-finger fastball. He begins with a technical discussion but soon becomes downright rhapsodic: "It's a nasty pitch. Really nasty. It's the pitch of the '90s."
He gets to thinking what the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kevin Brown can do with the split finger - by spreading the first two fingers far apart and playing with the position of the thumb alongside the ball, a pitcher can make the ball drop wickedly at the last second - and he progresses from rhapsodic to positively gleeful: "It just isn't fair. The hitters have no chance." That's why Brown has a new seven-year contract for $105 million.
A smile spreads across Mr. Funk's face as big as the Arizona desert surrounding him.
Funk estimates that only about 10 pitchers throw great split fingers, primarily because the pitch takes a lot of work. But the effort will pay off because the ball behaves similarly to the much hated and illegal spitball.
So since Funk pitched in a time before the split finger, did he throw a spitter? "There's an old saying around baseball," Funk says, "that if you're not cheatin', you're not tryin'." He will say no more.
Funk has been in professional baseball for 44 years. A former big-league pitcher (20-17) with Cleveland and Milwaukee in the early 1960s, he subsequently became one of the premier pitching coaches, including stints at Kansas City (he helped Bret Saberhagen win the Cy Young Award as best American League pitcher in 1989) and Denver. He was turned loose by the Rockies when they changed managers after the 1998 season.
Few understand better than Funk, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., what can be done with a five-ounce ball with 108 stitches on the seam hurled from an elevated mound a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. After all, hitting against big-league pitching over parts of four years, he went 3-for-45, an average of .067.
At root, Funk says the problem with pitching is that the overhand throwing motion is fully unnatural, the body being designed to throw underhand, as is done in softball.
Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, in his book "The Art Of Pitching," writes, "Every pitch has three dimensions - velocity, movement, and location - and if you don't have the last two, all the velocity in the world won't help you."
Funk agrees. A big-league hitter can routinely drill a 95 mile-an-hour fastball, if that's all he sees. But throw in varying speed and moving pitches, and "then he can't hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball," Funk says.
Nobody understands the evolution of pitching the way Funk does. Originally, there were two basic pitches, the fastball and the so-called outdrop, which became known as the curve ball. "That," Funk says, "was pretty much it." Today, there is a dizzying array of strange-sounding pitches, which to a layman can be a blizzard of nuance and gibberish. To Funk, they are as different as South Dakota and Mississippi.
He takes us on a guided tour:
This is the basic, power fastball thrown by the Nolan Ryans and Roger Clemens and Randy Johnsons of the world. The first two fingers go across four seams, thus 4-seam fastball. Are you keeping up? The ball is thrown with a wrist snap, often at speeds well above 90 m.p.h. What makes it so effective is that it rises just as it approaches the hitter.
A good fastball cannot be taught, unlike most other types of pitches, which can. It's the old problem in sports. Running speed can't be taught in football nor height in basketball. An aspiring pitcher born without a fastball best focus on another sport, say chess.
This pitch used to be known as a sinker. Pitchers hold the ball with fingers slightly off-center across two seams. When thrown by a right-hand pitcher to a right-hand hitter, it will at the last minisecond go down and in. Atlanta's Greg Maddux makes fine use of it.
It was better named in its old life as an "outdrop." That's because a curve doesn't so much curve as drop. That's why it will look, for example, like a waist-high pitch to feast on. Only after the swing has commenced does the hitter realize the ball is going low, out of the strike zone. Funk gives exemplary curve balling marks to Bert Blyleven, now retired, and the Rockies' Darryl Kile.
It is a cousin to a curve ball, which is why it sometimes is called a "slurve." William Curran, author of "Strikeout," says that while it acts like a curve, it is easier to throw and control. That is the reason Ted Williams railed against it and Phillies great Steve Carlton struck out more than 4,000 hitters, largely because he possessed it. These days, one of the best sliders is owned by San Francisco's Robb Nen, who can throw it at speeds up to 90 m.p.h.
Basically, a pitcher pulls down hard on the first two fingers - a motion much like throwing a bullet pass in football. It looks like a fastball and is often the preferred pitch of right handers against left-handed hitters, because it has a mean inclination to go down and in.
In the world of off-speed pitches, this one is king. The key to any change-up is to make arm speed look exactly like it does when a fastball is in the offing. If the decoy doesn't work, then "it's batting practice," Funk says. To try to take power off the ball, the thumb and first finger form a circle on one side of the ball while the second finger (the middle finger) is moved off to the side. Properly done, a change comes in looking for all the world like a smoking fastball, but 10 m.p.h. slower. To a hitter, a difference of even two or three miles an hour is huge.
The final insult to the already confused hitter is that the ball dies, going down and in (if both pitcher and hitter are right-handed) at the end of its deceptive journey. The biggest problem for the pitcher is it is unnatural to throw slowly, so to succeed requires a "difficult mentality," Funk says.
Some call it a "slip pitch." A pitcher holds it out on the fingertips, which eliminates resistance. It arrives even more leisurely than the circle change, usually around 80 m.p.h., then dies. San Diego's Trevor Hoffman, a premier closer, is a master of it. Not many throw it because it feels unnatural.
For years, the Dodgers were best at teaching this one. Trying to make it look like a fastball, the pitcher leads with the heel of the hand, then to release, pulls down like you would a window shade. The wrist doesn't snap, like it does for a fastball.
A straight change looks for all the world like a fastball, with the same spin, but about 8 m.p.h. slower. That's why a batter who is asked what he struck out on will often grouse of a straight change, "a batting practice fastball."
This is the sport's most hilarious pitch. Very few pitchers can control it. In the old days, Hoyt Wilhelm gave the pitch high status and later Wilbur Wood of the White Sox prospers because of it. Funk says a slow-motion video of Wilhelm's knuckler showed it changed directions 21 times during its flight. That's why it seemed to have a mind of its own.
The idea is to take all spin off the ball and let it be controlled by air currents, so pitchers grasp it with fingers carefully avoiding the spin-creating seams. Pitchers used to put their knuckles against the ball. But these days, they dig their fingernails into it. It's a nightmare for hitters and catchers, but few pitchers fool with it because it takes too much work. Mickey Mantle, an outfielder, could throw a mean knuckler, which continually frustrated Yankee catcher Yogi Berra when the two would be goofing off before a game.
Again, when pitcher and hitter are both right-handed, this ball goes down and in, just the opposite of a curve ball. To throw it requires an exceptionally unnatural motion, turning the wrist to the left while letting the ball go off the little finger. It is hard on the arm and violates all theories of kinesiology. The best screw baller was Warren Spahn. Currently, a top practitioner is the Rockies' Pedro Astacio.
OK, so it's illegal. It might still be thrown. A normal fastball spins backward. By applying a wet substance - spit will do, petroleum jelly or slippery elm is better - and not letting his fingers be on any seams, a pitcher can make the ball spin forward, then snap down.
Gaylord Perry was a legendary spit baller, albeit denying it vigorously. The spitter doesn't surface much these days, Funk says, because the split-finger fastball has such similar rude deportment.
While Funk bemoans the shrinking strike zone and the lowering of the pitching mound, all designed to allow for more offense, which is what fans want, he does point out that pitchers on average are successful against hitters 7 out of every 10 times. Or more. "So it's not as hard to get a batter out as some pitchers make it to be," Funk says.