The curveball: Resurrection of a lost art

This is my March feature.

In the 1980s, the slider replaced the curveball as the breaking ball of choice, and the curveball almost died. It faced extinction. Say mass for the curveball.

On second thought, hold that mass. People who know say the curveball is coming back to life.

Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti is someone who knows. He spoke about the unexpected resurgence of the curve at the Giants’ recent media day.

Righetti was sitting by himself at a high, circular table in a luxury suite at AT&T Park, dying to talk to someone. His legs extended past the table. At 6-foot-4, this former All-Star closer looked like he was sitting at the children’s table at Thanksgiving dinner.

“I came into the game in the late ’70s, early ’80s. The curveball was still prominent. But most of the ’80s was split fingers and a lot of fastballs and sliders.”

Righetti had one of the best sliders ever. He is a connoisseur of sliders.

“If a slider is thrown properly,” he said, “and it’s got the right spin on it and they don’t recognize it right away, you’re thinking fastball as a hitter so you’re going out there to hit the speed.”

Righetti shifted in his chair.

“The hitters now stay in there better than they used to against the slider. They don’t bail. Every hitter’s approach is up the middle, inside-out. Staying inside the ball — that’s all you ever hear. The slider is an easier pitch for those guys to hit.

“Plus, they all hit off tees. The ball is always right there and they groove their swing as a little kid.”

Now Righetti came to his point. His eyes lit up. “They don’t groove their swing with their eyes going from top to bottom,” he said.

He meant a curveball breaks down, way down. A slider breaks laterally. Modern batters look for a lateral break, not for the big curveball drop. They are out of practice. They never even get practice.

“Who can stand out there and throw curveballs to somebody all day in batting practice?” Righetti said. “No one. It’s breaking down. It’s not the same speed as a fastball so there is a speed differential. The problem with the sliders that are not thrown in a perfect spot is they are just hanging fastballs and they’re hit back up right at you. A bad slider is what we call a Backup Cement Mixer. It spins but it’s straight.”

What does Righetti call a good curveball?

“Yellow Hammer.”

The resurgence

Other names for the curveball: The hook. The deuce. The 12-to-6. The old-school drop. The Yakker. Uncle Charlie.

On a dry, sunny afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz., someone asked Bruce Bochy if Uncle Charlie is having a rebirth. Bochy was sitting in the Giants’ dugout after a workout holding his daily media briefing.

Bochy gave a stern nod and he rubbed his beard. “It’s all about making adjustments. Hitters make adjustments to what a pitcher has or a particular pitch that’s been popular — the split, the slider. So, we have seen the curveball come back. It’s getting a little more popular and it’s becoming a big pitch again.”

As he spoke he looked past the railing to the field and seemed to look back at the history of baseball. “When they started throwing two-seamers, hitters started staying behind the ball and getting on the plane of the pitcher instead of hitting that ball on the ground.

“The same with the slider. Hitters simulate that pitch on the machine in the cage. And so now, the curveball. It’s a different speed. It’s coming down at a sharper angle. It does make it a little tougher on the hitters to have another pitch they have to try to adjust to.”

Bochy’s news conference broke up. Bochy stood up to leave, but a reporter had a follow-up question about the Yakker.

“Who is the best curveball pitcher you ever caught?”

Remember, Bochy was a catcher. He loves to discuss the art of pitching. He lingered on the top step of the dugout.

“Nolan Ryan probably had one of the best,” said Bochy. “He wasn’t a slider guy.” He seemed to mean a “mere” slider guy.

Bochy started walking down the stairs into the clubhouse as another reporter piped in. “Who is the best curveball pitcher on the Giants now?”

Bochy looked back over his shoulder. “Timmy (Lincecum) has always had a really good one. (Madison) Bumgarner has come up with a really good one, too.” Then Bochy was gone.

Madison Bumgarner?

You may not think of Bumgarner as a curveball devotee — he throws mostly fastballs and sliders. He’s all power. It turns out he also throws a deuce.

Bumgarner discussed his deuce in the middle of a crowd at the Giants’ media day. A curve is a deuce because the catcher calls for the curve by flashing two fingers. “I started throwing the slider and the curveball at the same time,” Bumgarner said, “but it took a little longer to get the curveball dialed in. I feel like from the second half on last year it was pretty solid and I felt comfortable throwing it about any time.”

Bumgarner was great before he mastered his curveball the middle of last season, but everything he threw was about the same speed. His fastball crossed home plate at 92 miles an hour; his slider at 88. He needed something slow. Once he developed his curveball, he became virtually unhittable. Think of the World Series.

But he doesn’t throw the best curveball on the Giants. Neither does Lincecum. The Giants’ best curveball belongs to Jeremy Affeldt. He must have slipped Bochy’s mind.

The tall southpaw sat alone at a table on media day, just like Righetti. Curveball pitchers must be loners. Their minds are consumed by spin.

“Jeremy, why do you throw a curveball and not a slider?” a reporter asked.

Affeldt started to answer before the reporter finished the question. Clearly, he had thought this through long ago.

“When I was coming up, the curveball was a pitch that people were moving away from,” Affeldt said. “I had a good one. And my whole deal was, ‘Well, if everybody is going to throw a slider, then I’m going to throw a breaking ball that not everybody sees, nor can they adjust their swings to it.’ ”

As a kid, Affeldt came to the same conclusion Righetti recently came to: With the rest of baseball obsessed with fastballs and sliders, the curveball became unexpected and more dangerous than ever before.

Has Affeldt ever experimented with a slider?

Affeldt scrunched his nose as if he had smelled bad fish. “I’ve thought about switching to a slider just because sometimes my curveball is not commanding real well. I get frustrated with it and I say, ‘I’ll just go to a slider.’ But I know that when I’m throwing a good curveball, it’s a harder pitch for guys to think about how to hit. A slider they’ve seen a lot of. That’s why I’ve stuck with the curveball. It’s a lost art in the game.”

The lost art

The slider is a relatively easy pitch to throw. That’s one reason so many pitchers throw it. The curveball is difficult, and pitchers who can throw it well are proud of what they do. They don’t merely like the curveball. They love it.

Some pitchers cannot throw a curveball at all. Like the Padres’ Tyson Ross. All-Star last year. Can’t throw the hook. But he throws one of the best sliders in baseball.

He grips it like an offset fastball. Picture the part of a baseball where the seams make big, red “U.” Ross grips his slider on the right side of the “U.”

“Then I pretty much throw a fastball,” Ross recently said outside the Padres’ spring-training clubhouse in Peoria, Ariz. “The arm speed tricks the hitter, and if you get it on that same line as the fastball, it’s really hard for the hitter to pick it up.”

Simple.

Why doesn’t Ross throw a curveball?

“I actually threw one a little bit in college and a little bit in high school messing around. But once I got to professional baseball with the A’s, I tried to throw one, but with the different baseballs it wasn’t working.”

Different baseballs? Seriously?

“When you get to the pros, the balls have lower seams that are tighter wound,” Ross said. “It makes movement sharper and later.”

But the smaller seams make it harder to find a grip for the curveball. Ross never found the grip. “I tried to throw a couple of curveballs in the Arizona complex for the A’s and they didn’t really do a whole lot.”

Goodbye, curveball.

The master

A tiny figure 200 yards away came walking off one of the Padres’ practice fields toward the clubhouse. As the figure walked closer it grew in size and developed a face. It belonged to Bud Black, manager of the Padres, former pitcher for the Giants.

“Bud, do you have a minute?”

“I have a meeting in five minutes,” he said, and kept walking.

“I want to ask about the resurgence of the curveball.”

He stopped walking. He turned his head and stared at the reporter out of the corner of his eyes. He was interested.

“Resurgence of the curveball?” he asked. “Is this your philosophy?”

“No. It’s Dave Righetti’s philosophy. Have you noticed a resurgence?”

Black put his hands on his hips. Righetti was an authority, someone to take seriously. Black took him seriously.

“I have noticed, over the last three decades, the slider more prevalent with young pitchers coming up,” he said. “The true curveball — 12-to-6, the old-school drop — it’s not taught. It’s not taught in youth baseball, high school baseball, amateur baseball. A little slider is easier to teach. A true curveball, it takes patience. It takes work. It takes proper teaching.

“We as an organization like the curveball. If a guy has ability, we encourage it. Because, statistically, batting average against curveball is low. It’s lower than batting average against slider.”

Did Black throw a curveball?

“I threw a traditional 12-to-6, over-the-top curve,” Black said with pride in his voice.

Did he also throw a slider?

“As my career moved forward, yes. Slider to a lefty. Curve to a righty.”

Did the curve come naturally to him?

“I was taught at a young age what a curveball was and how to impart spin on it,” he said. And then he turned his face to the practice field and shouted, “Spence, throw me a ball!”

The equipment guy named Spence threw Black a baseball right away — that’s the kind of power Black has around the Padres’ organization. He caught the ball on a bounce with one bare hand, and then he held up it like it was on display in a museum.

“Let’s first take a 4-seam fastball,” said Black. “Four seams. One, two, three, four. Backspin the ball this way.”

Black rotated the ball like a chicken on a rotisserie.

“Curveball, true curveball, over spin,” Black said. Now Black started rotating the ball the opposite way. Forward spin. “Barry Zito. Sandy Koufax. Buddy Black this way,” he said. “Over the top. Grip the seams so you have four seams working against resistance. One, two, three, four.”

He demonstrated in slow motion. He brought the ball out of an imaginary glove with his pitching hand, his left hand, raised his arm and slowly carried the ball up to his ear. Then he froze.

“I was taught early and I practiced as a young kid — 9, 10, 11 years old,” he said as he held the ball next to his ear like he was listening to the ocean in a seashell. “Turn, get your wrist here and spin the ball.”

He flipped his wrist so his palm and pointer finger were in front of the baseball instead of behind it, and then he rolled the ball slowly forward over his index finger.

Throwing a curveball isn’t really throwing. It’s flipping.

“In theory,” Black continued, “curveball, the break is top to bottom.”

Black held the ball in his right hand 12 inches directly over his left hand to show the angle and distance of the break. It was a big break.

“Slider, a little tighter and harder,” he said.

He moved his hands 6 inches closer and rotated them so they were side by side to show the lateral movement.

Black dropped his hands and smiled. It was a youthful smile. For a moment he seemed 25 years old again, in his prime, demonstrating his craft on the field in the sun instead of 20 feet next to the field in the shade.

The reporter said, “One more question: Are the seams too low these days to throw a good curveball?”

“What?” Black asked. He seemed surprised, and then he seemed disappointed, as if the previous generation of curveball pitchers had failed to pass down the tricks of the craft to the next generation.

“No, no,” Black said, shaking his head. “To raise them up, you can go like this.”

He dug his fingernails into the baseball and turned the seams into little red hills. It’s called doctoring a baseball.

The natural

A few days later on the other side of the “Valley of the Sun” in Arizona, the best young curveball pitcher in baseball stood next to his locker and cleaned his glasses.

Sonny Gray had a smudge on his lenses.

A reporter walked over to him and asked if he had time to philosophize about the curveball after he handled the smudge.

Gray said sure.

“When did you come to the curveball?” the reporter asked.

Gray put on his glasses. “I was young. I think I started throwing it probably when I was 12, 11 or 12. I wasn’t able to throw a hard slider or a hard anything. My hands have always been a little smaller.”

Gray held out his hands. Small. Little kid’s hands.

“I just threw a curveball over and over. That’s what I threw. It’s what I grew up throwing. Mine is a little bit harder than a normal curve, but also I can slow it down. I think the only reason I have so much feel and so much control for it is I’ve never changed from it. I’ve always done it and always worked on it.”

“How long did it take you to develop it?”

“The curveball came the first time I ever threw it.”

“It was like you were born to throw it?”

“Yeah. The first time I ever gripped it and threw it, it’s been like that ever since.”

Sonny Gray, the King Arthur of curveball pitchers. He saw the curve and gripped it like Arthur gripped Excalibur.

“Show me how you grip it.”

Gray formed his right hand into the shape of a “C.”

“I use my middle finger and my pointer finger as one big finger and pull down with both of them. I can’t do a knuckle curve or a spike curve. I just try to hold the “C” like they say, and use these fingers as one big finger and pull down it with that. Pull straight down on it. Thumb up, straight down.”

“What does it feel like when you throw a good curveball?”

“If you leave them back, you can feel it kind of slip out. Or you can bury them or spike them. It’s all about releasing it out in front and not back, but not too far. It’s a fine line. If you let go of it at the right time with the right snap, it feels pretty good.”

The words were not as vivid to him as the feel. It’s like he was trying to describe love. That’s what he was doing. Describing love. Words never capture the feeling.

The convert

On the opposite side of the A’s clubhouse, Scott Kazmir was putting on a shirt. Kazmir is a slider guy, but he picked up a curveball a couple of years ago and has been throwing it more and more. And it helped save his career.

“Did you develop the pitch quickly?” a reporter asked.

Kazmir gave a confused look. He seemed to be wondering if he had heard a trick question. There was nothing quick about learning the curveball. He put his foot on a chair and said, “No. A curveball is a different feel from any other breaking ball. Your fingers are completely over the ball instead of the palm being directly behind the ball. There are a couple keys to having a good curveball, and that’s being on top of the baseball and … it’s something that’s hard to explain in words. You have to finish and be able to trust a pitch.”

Kazmir couldn’t find the words.

“What do you mean you have to trust it?” the reporter asked.

Kazmir took his foot off the chair and sat down.

“When I say you have to trust it, you have to … everything is out in front, everything is a feel. When you trust it, I guess … it’s so hard to explain in words. It’s just getting through the ball and knowing that when you get out there and you have that feel of it coming off your fingertips that it’s in the right spot.”

Kazmir was leaning forward on the chair, head down, talking to the floor. This curveball convert didn’t sound confident in what he was saying. He talked about trust, but he couldn’t explain it. He was like a skeptic trying to wrap his mind around God.

Scott Kazmir wants to be a true believer and every day he is trying. All around baseball pitchers are trying.

The return of the curveball is a resurrection of faith.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 16 Comments

          1. Your comment is fair but consider this last piece of defense on my part, they aren’t digs. They’re droll comments on a quiet Sunday for a light chuckle. Maybe you didn’t find it funny but I did and I’m sure a few others did as well. No harm no foul.

            1. CFC,

              The problem with your attempted joke is that CK’s passes don’t miss because they curve away from receivers. So there’s no relationship between CK’s passes and a curveball, and hence, your joke wasn’t that good.

              1. CFC,

                Thanks for recommending “The Fall” to Grant. The exchange you two had about the show led me to finally get around to watching it. It’s a very good show.

  1. When I was in J.H.S. I had a friend named Young Kim, who was Korean. He had never played organized baseball but could somehow throw these ridiculous curve balls with a baseball. I don’t know how he did it and he didn’t know how he did it, but he did it consistently. He was right handed. The ball would flare out at a 45* angle above his head and complete a perfect (very high) arch. The drop was like an optical illusion. Nobody could hit it. Nobody could touch it. It really was cool and bizarre at the same time. I had forgotten about that until I read this article. Good read, Grant.

  2. great article

    My theory (and I’m not too knowledgeable about baseball) is that the slider further screwed up Lincecum. By the end of the season in 2010, Lincecum’s mechanics had already started to breakdown. He hit a slump. His primary pitches during his Cy Young years were fastball, change up, curve ball. Lincecum’s mid 90’s fastball fell to the low 90s. What bailed him out (I believe and someone correct me if they know differently) is that Lincecum developed a slider to go with his low 90’s fastball. He pitched his way successfully with the slider through the playoffs and into 2011 for most of the season. But the wheels continued to slip off more and more….as I believe the slider really plays havoc on a pitcher’s arm and probably screwed with Lincecum’s mechanics even further.

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