The Evolution of the Pitch

Pitching has changed from the days of being forced to throw underhand into something far more complex and intricate. Here’s a history lesson on how several pitches evolved through time. Similarly, movement of a pitched baseball can be altered based on a pitcher’s grip and arm motion. Through the use of special video cameras, watch Long Island Ducks pitchers demonstrate movement as Stony Brook physics professor Dr. Chang Kee Jung explains the science behind why a pitched baseball moves the way it does.

By Cody Derespina, Chris Ware, Chuck Fadely, Jeffrey Basinger, Matthew Golub, Anthony Carrozzo, Mark La Monica, Robert Cassidy & Ryan McDonald

The Fastball

a.k.a. heat, cheese, gas, No. 1, smoke

The first fastball thrown on a baseball diamond would have looked more like something you would see during a softball game. The original rules of the game, generally referred to as “the Knickerbocker Rules” for the club that adopted them in 1845, stated that the ball must be “pitched, not thrown, for the bat” – aka, with a stiff wrist, underhand. It was not until 1884 that limitations on a pitcher’s delivery were removed, permitting the overhand motion and leading to a truly fast ball. This rule change begot another rule change, as the new delivery method led to increased pitch speeds, which in turn led to the pitching distance increasing from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches, where it currently stands.

As for movement, changing a fastball grip can cause the pitch to either move on a downward plane, as a sinker or two-seamer would, or appear to “rise”, as a four-seamer does. A pitch actually cannot rise; it stays on a straight plane. But the lack of sink as it speeds in from the mound makes the ball appear to rise to the batter. Backspin pulls the ball up while gravity drags it down, resulting in a straight path to the plate. Bill James writes in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers that “there is little evidence, before 1950” that pitchers understood they could throw both two- and four-seamers simply by changing their grip. Before this realization, most pitchers, James writes, believed the movement on the ball was a natural talent.

Because of the height at which they arrive at the plate and the action on the pitch, four-seamers that are put in play traditionally lead to fly balls and two-seamers to ground balls.

The fastest pitch ever recorded was a 105.1 mph four-seam fastball thrown by Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman on Sept. 24, 2010 at PETCO Park.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 57.8 57.6 57.8 58.7 59.7
Average Velocity 91.7 mph 91.6 mph 91.5 mph 91.2 mph 91.2 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 99.3 mph (Bruce Rondon, Tigers) 98.5 mph (Kelvin Herrera, Royals) 98.4 mph (Maikel Cleto, Cardinals) 99.6 mph (Aroldis Chapman, Reds) 99.3 mph (Joel Zumaya, Tigers)
Slowest Average Velocity 81.9 mph (R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays) 78.6 mph (Jamie Moyer, Rockies) 72.9 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 72.9 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 72.4 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox)
Pitchers to throw it 678 662 662 634 664
Highest Percentage Used* 94.1 (Kenley Jansen, Dodgers) 94.5 (Kenley Jansen, Dodgers) 86.8 (Kenley Jansen, Dodgers) 90.4 (Ronald Belisario, Dodgers) 90.0 (Bartolo Colon, White Sox)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Changeup

a.k.a. change of pace, slow ball, change, Bugs Bunny changeup

Similar to the story of the fastball, the first changeup was accomplished when some unknown pitcher threw a fastball a little bit slower in order to upset the batter’s timing. Given this definition, it’s no wonder the changeup was largely referred to as the “slow ball” during its genesis and for the first several decades of its existence.

But the changeup story, well, changed when pitchers also sought movement to fool hitters. Changeups resting in the palm of the pitcher’s hand with the thumb and pinkie applying pressure resulted in a wobbling, knuckleball-like motion and were referred to as a “palm ball.” The most popular type of changeup thrown in contemporary baseball is the “circle change,” named for the grip that features the pitcher’s thumb and index finger coming together in a circle shape. An effective circle change will break both downward and horizontally.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 10.2 9.8 10.4 10.7 10
Average Velocity 82.9 mph 82.8 mph 82.5 mph 82.2 mph 82.2 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 90.8 mph (Tanner Scheppers, Rangers) 92.0 mph (Maikel Cleto, Cardinals) 91.6 mph (Maikel Cleto, Cardinals) 90.4 mph (Daniel Bard, Red Sox) 90.4 mph (Kyle Farnsworth, Royals)
Slowest Average Velocity 70.4 mph (Pat Neshek, Athletics) 72.1 mph (Jamie Moyer, Rockies) 66.5 mph (Daniel Herrera, Brewers/Mets) 66.3 mph (Daniel Herrera, Reds) 68.5 mph (Daniel Herrera, Reds)
Pitchers to throw it 557 528 528 510 587
Highest Percentage Used* 35.8 (Fernando Rodney, Rays) 39.0 (Jairo Asencio, Indians/Cubs) 36.5 (Rich Harden, Athletics) 46.0 (Juan Oviedo, Marlins) 39.2 (Rich Harden, Cubs)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Curveball

a.k.a. deuce, hook, Uncle Charlie, curve, yakker, hammer

Candy Cummings’ tale of inventing the curveball is one of the few firsthand accounts of how a particular pitch was invented — whether it’s as apocryphal as Abner Doubleday’s story of “inventing” the game of baseball is another matter.

Cummings’ “eureka” moment occurred one day in 1863 when he and other boys were throwing clam shells and studying the path of their flights. As the shells curved in the air, Cummings wondered if he could make a baseball do the same thing. For four years he experimented with his positioning while throwing, the location of the ball in his hand and anything else he could think to alter. Finally, during a semi-pro game against a club from Harvard in 1867, Cummings says he succeeded.

“The batters were missing a lot of balls; I began to watch the flight of the ball through the air, and I distinctly saw it curve,” Cummings wrote in September 1908.

Of course, Cummings faced the same restriction the early practitioners of the fastball did: throwing underhand. It wasn’t until 17 years after the curveball took its first flight that some pitcher finally unleashed it in the overhand or three-quarters fashion observers are accustomed to seeing today.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 9.7 10.4 9.4 9.0 9.1
Average Velocity 77.3 mph 77.0 mph 76.7 mph 76.3 mph 76.4 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 85.8 mph (Craig Kimbrel, Braves) 85.8 mph (Craig Kimbrel, Braves) 84.0 mph (Jason Motte, Cardinals) 85.2 mph (Brian Stokes, Angels) 84.0 mph (Carlos Marmol, Cubs)
Slowest Average Velocity 66.2 mph (Eric Stults, Padres) 58.9 mph (Vicente Padilla, Red Sox) 59.5 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 60.2 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 54.0 mph (R.J. Swindle, Brewers)
Pitchers to throw it 415 409 411 378 430
Highest Percentage Used* 39.7 (Manny Parra, Reds) 43.0 (Xavier Cedeno, Astros) 46.9 (Daniel Schlereth, Tigers) 41.4 (Sean Marshall, Cubs) 39.6 (Jason Bulger, Angels)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Knuckleball

a.k.a. floater, flutterball, knuckler

The knuckleball was first thrown in the early part of the 20th century by either Nap Rucker, Lew Moren, Eddie Cicotte or Ed Summers. It’s likely some combination of the group, actually. Cicotte, who later gained infamy as a member of the White Sox that helped fix the 1919 World Series, said in 1952 that he and Summers worked on the pitch together. James and Rob Neyer’s book notes that Cicotte also pitched with Rucker in 1905.

Then there’s this wrinkle: Toad Ramsey, who pitched from 1865-90, may have been the actual originator, though his discovery would have been more about necessity than innovation. Dave Clark writes in “The Knucklebook” that Ramsey severed a tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand when he was young. He ended up having to pitch “by resting that finger on the ball and gripping it with the inside of his index and ring fingers.” Such a grip can produce a pitch with no spin.

And that’s the point of a knuckleball: little or no spin. The idea is that the lack of spin causes a buildup in air pressure, making the ball seem to “dance” unpredictably and often dart downward near the plate.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 0.5 0.4 0.6 0.7 0.4
Average Velocity 75.7 mph 77.1 mph 71.2 mph 71.8 mph 68.5 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 81.6 mph (Cory Burns, Rangers) 77.1 mph (R.A. Dickey, Mets) 76.6 mph (Ryan Franklin, Cardinals) 80.8 mph (Eddie Bonine, Tigers) 81.6 mph (Eddie Bonine, Tigers)
Slowest Average Velocity 75.6 mph (R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays) 77.1 mph (R.A. Dickey, Mets) 65.8 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 65.9 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 65.2 mph (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox)
Pitchers to throw it 4 1 3 6 5
Highest Percentage Used* 87.0 (R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays) 85.4 (R.A. Dickey, Mets) 89.0 (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox) 83.8 (R.A. Dickey, Mets) 84.9 (Tim Wakefield, Red Sox)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Slider

a.k.a. slide ball, slide piece

The short story is that no one knows how the slider was invented. George Blaeholder, who pitched from 1925-1936, is sometimes given credit. But the pitch Blaeholder threw was more likely a cutter.

Then there’s the mystery of the pitch thrown by Charles Albert “Chief” Bender. Bender pitched from 1903-17 (and made one appearance in 1925), winning 212 games and posting a 2.46 ERA. He described his repertoire like this to Baseball Magazine in 1911: “I use fast curves, pitched overhand and sidearm, fastballs, high and inside, and an underhand fadeaway pitch with the hand almost down to the level of the knees.” Was one of those fast curves actually a slider? Some evidence supports this. For one, the slider was sometimes referred to as a “nickel curve” during its early days. Also, pitcher Bucky Walters told The Sporting News in 1955 that Bender taught him how to throw a slider in 1935.

Why such confusion? Because one man’s slider could be another’s cutter or curveball. The slider is gripped similarly to the cutter, but more of the ball’s surface is in contact with the middle finger, causing a larger down and sideways break on the resulting pitch. The extreme break and downward motion can cause inconsistency in identifying the pitch.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 14.5 14.4 14.6 14.8 14.9
Average Velocity 83.3 mph 83.1 mph 83.4 mph 83.3 mph 83.0 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 89.9 mph (Matt Harvey, Mets) 91.0 mph (Jeremy Jeffress, Royals) 89.4 mph (Alfredo Simon, Orioles) 90.5 mph (Fernando Rodney, Angels) 92.0 mph (Kyle Davies, Royals)
Slowest Average Velocity 71.5 mph (Joe Paterson, Diamondbacks) 70.9 mph (Yoshinori Tateyama, Rangers) 70.7 mph (Yoshinori Tateyama, Rangers) 72.5 mph (James Houser, Marlins) 66.2 mph (Chad Bradford, Rays)
Pitchers to throw it 491 485 499 504 554
Highest Percentage Used* 72.9 (Pat Neshek, Athletics) 68.6 (Luke Gregerson, Padres) 64.0 (Carlos Marmol, Cubs) 65.0 (Michael Wuertz, Athletics) 65.4 (Michael Wuertz, Athletics)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Cutter

a.k.a. cut fastball, sailer

A cutter is technically just another variation of a fastball. Or a slider. Kind of. A cutter generally reaches speeds a few miles per hour shy of a pitcher’s four-seam fastball and breaks a few inches horizontally, like a slider, but not downward, unlike a slider. The horizontal movement is due to the pitcher releasing the ball slightly off center. When thrown by a righthander, a cutter breaks away from a righthanded batter and in to a lefthanded hitter. The inward break to lefthanded batters is sometimes referred to as having a buzzsaw-type effect because of its tendency to cause broken bats.

While the pitch has been around since at least the 1950s, and probably long before that, just without proper identification, it began to reach prominence in the baseball lexicon in the 1980s and achieved staying power in the 1990s, particularly because of its use by Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 5.7 5.8 5.7 4.7 4.6
Average Velocity 87.5 mph 87.5 mph 87.5 mph 87.5 mph 87.1 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 94.8 mph (Yordano Ventura, Royals) 92.6 mph (Bryan Shaw, Diamondbacks) 93.1 mph (Bryan Shaw, Diamondbacks) 92.7 mph (Evan Meet, Pirates) 92.1 mph (Brian Wolfe, Blue Jays)
Slowest Average Velocity 79.7 mph (Javier Lopez, Giants) 76.5 mph (Jamie Moyer, Rockies) 80.8 mph (Daniel Herrera, Brewers/Mets) 78.3 mph (Jamie Moyer, Phillies) 78.4 mph (Jamie Moyer, Phillies)
Pitchers to throw it 176 178 159 123 143
Highest Percentage Used* 89.2 (Mariano Rivera, Yankees) 81.1 (Bryan Shaw, Diamondbacks) 87.3 (Mariano Rivera, Yankees) 85.0 (Mariano Rivera, Yankees) 92.0 (Mariano Rivera, Yankees)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

The Splitter

a.k.a. forkball

Thanks to excellent research by Bill James and Rob Neyer, we have a fairly complete picture of how the forkball/splitter came about. Outfielder Mike Lynch developed it in 1905, but he couldn’t control it and, in 1908, Lynch taught his creation to minor league pitcher Bert Hall. Hall unveiled the pitch in game action on Sept. 18, 1908. Its effect was immediate with an article in the Seattle Times declaring “Hall’s assortment yesterday beats all the spit-ball and knuckle ball combinations to death, for he used it overhand, side arm and any old way and kept the ball breaking over the plate.” The Tacoma Daily Tribune referenced Hall’s “fork ball” for the remainder of that season. On the other coast in October 1908, New York State League pitcher James Swift had what he told The Sporting News was a “dobre ball”. What makes this case interesting is that the grip Swift describes sounds an awful lot like a forkball grip.

Joe Bush also developed a forkball in the early 1920s and, unlike Hall, threw it in the major leagues. His use popularized the pitch and he’s been recognized as its inventor for many years.

The splitter is somewhat of a “refinement” of the forkball and came about in the early 1970s. Despite its relatively contemporary origins, its story remains murky. Pitcher Roger Craig is popularly acknowledged as the inventor of the splitter, and he no doubt helped make its use widespread as pitching coach for the Tigers in the 1980s and manager of the Giants from 1985-1992. Reliever Bruce Sutter, however, who was the primary reason the splitter’s popularity grew, contends that he learned it from one of his pitching coaches and taught the pitch to Craig.

The forkball/splitter grips are similar. Both feature the index and middle fingers spread wide over the ball’s seams. A forkball, however, is wedged deeper between the fingers, while a splitter is lodged further into the pitcher’s palm.

2013 2012 2011 2010 2009
Percentages of all pitches thrown 1.7 1.7 1.5 1.4 1.3
Average Velocity 83.7 mph 84.4 mph 84.3 mph 84.5 mph 83.7 mph
Fastest Average Velocity 89.7 mph (Yu Darvish, Rangers) 89.2 mph (Pedro Strop, Orioles) 89.8 mph (Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox) 90.4 mph (Danys Baez, Phillies) 89.8 mph (Danys Baez, Orioles)
Slowest Average Velocity 75.7 mph (Hector Santiago, White Sox) 74.6 mph (Hector Santiago, White Sox) 76.1 mph (Hector Santiago, White Sox) 74.7 mph (Robert Coello, Red Sox) 76.5 mph (David Riske, Brewers)
Pitchers to throw it 80 78 78 68 81
Highest Percentage Used* 56.0 (Edward Mujica, Cardinals) 55.0 (Jose Arredondo, Reds) 51.9 (Jose Arredondo, Reds) 52.5 (Jose Valverde, Tigers) 34.1 (Braden Looper, Brewers)
*minimum 30 innings Source: Fangraphs

Other

Eephus (blooper, floater), scuff ball (emery ball), spitball (spitter), screwball (fadeaway)

Though most aren’t categorized by any modern pitch tracking system, there are still plenty of trick pitches thrown throughout contemporary major-league baseball. The eephus is one of the more interesting and rare of the trick pitches. When thrown it comes in at speeds around 50 mph, by far the slowest pitch thrown in baseball, and makes a big, looping movement. It’s equal parts danger and hilarity. An unsuspecting batter can be helpless standing in against one as he either freezes in place or swings wildly through it. But for a hitter with great bat speed or an inkling that it’s coming, it’s an easier home run than a batting practice fastball. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a recent practitioner of the pitch.

The spitball has been outlawed since 1920 (although pitchers who already threw it as a major part of their arsenal were allowed to keep using it) when baseball banned applying any foreign substance to the ball.

But don’t be fooled by the name “spitball”. Pitchers would generally apply anything they could to the ball in order to get it to oscillate in all kinds of wild fashions.

Despite its abolition nearly a century ago, many pitchers have been accused of doctoring the ball since, and it’s likely that not a season goes by without someone throwing a ball embellished with some substance.

Neyer and James credit Bobby Matthews with the invention of the spitball, and his use of it apparently was documented as early as 1868, when pitchers threw underhand.

A scuffed ball, either cut with an emery board, catcher’s shin guard or some other kind of abrasive tool, is used to achieve the same result of unnatural break when delivered. It’s also probably just as rampant (if not moreso) in contemporary baseball as are variations on the spitball.

Baseball Reference gives credit for the discovery to Russell Ford in 1907, though others have contended that this brand of baseball doctoring had been around for a while before that.

A screwball, or fadeaway, is essentially a “reverse curve,” breaking in the opposite direction of a pitcher’s curve or slider. It has been used since the 1800s and was popularized by Christy Mathewson. Other than that, its origins are murky.

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