Like a Houdini act, a flick of the wrist can alter the outcome of an at-bat.
Breaking balls offer a simple objective: steal a strike and keep hitters off balance.
The Lower Columbia area has many talented curveball hurlers, like R. A. Long pitchers Tanner Allen, Jadon Williamson and Kevin Barnett. Mark Morris sees Jack Shipley throw a live one with regularity, Kalama watches Bradey Vance freeze hitters with his, and Kelso has rostered some of the better curveball pitchers in the area for years.
There’s many kinds of breaking balls: the cutter, splitter, sinker and slider are the most common, but only after the 12-6 curveball, which is named aptly after the hands on a clock. That’s the breaker many like to use.
As the pitch is meant move through the zone, there’s always the chance that it doesn’t find it’s target, and instead ends up deep in the outfield corner. Bases also become easier to steal as most curveballs end up low in the zone or in the dirt.
“It’s a huge advantage,” R.A. Long coach Mark Hulings said. “Every ball that’s down, coming out of the pitchers hand, you anticipate it going on the ground so we can move an extra 90 feet. … That allows us to be aggressive.”
Throwing it well isn’t easy. Kalama coach Brandon Walker said it can take years for a pitcher to hone the requisite spin. And that’s not even the biggest part. It’s knowing where to aim, and when to throw it.
“There’s no hitter out there looking for a breaking ball on their first pitch,” Walker said. “So if you’re looking to steal a strike, it’s a good time to do it.”
Kalama uses simply technology to practice it: a bucket and a stick. The bucket is placed at the pitcher’s feet, and their elbow it touching the top of the stick — which is more 2x2 than tree branch. The objective is to snap the ball from the wrist and into the bucket, which can be moved around to dictate spin.
“The way that it’s taught hasn’t changed a whole lot,” Walker said.
Honing the craft
When a pitcher begins throwing a breaking pitch can vary widely. Some coaches won’t teach it until after they’re satisfied with a fastball-changeup combination. In the internet age, though, information about the pitch is endless and there’s generally enough guidance for a kid to know what information to listen to.
“I started throwing it when I was about 11 or 12,” Mark Morris starter Jack Shipley said. “I worked on it with a guy from Wahkiakum, more just trying to throw it. To get that spin, to get more of a drop so it doesn’t hurt your arm as much.”
It took Shipley the better part of two years to get the kind of break needed for a ball to really move away from the initial target point. For the next few years, he improved.
“The hardest part is getting your arm out in front, because if you leave it back at all it’s going to hit the batter,” Shipley said. “You have to leave it out in front to either get it in the zone or make it unhittable. Because if you hang a curveball, it’s probably going to get smacked.”
R.A. Long pitching coach Dave Gomez doesn’t want to see a curveball thrown in a bullpen session before a fastball and changeup has been established, Hulings said, and it still might not develop even at that point.
The curveball has been scrutinized since the early 2000s, when it was argued that injuries increased with each rotation of the wrist. Since 2012, though, research has found that a properly thrown curveball does not aggravate the arm any more than a fastball.
It’s been taught later and later as a result of the fear, and fewer pitchers are able to nail it before graduating high school. When it does get honed, it can be an effective pitch that makes life miserable on hitters, especially if the batter falls behind in the count.
“We were always taught the first curveball is in the dirt,” Mark Morris coach Greg Bussell said. “You want to get a lot of spin and you want to make sure that one is down. And this is happening in the bullpen and in practice, so you learn to get the spin down so you’re not going to do any damage if you screw up. But you also really emphasize pounding those first few into the ground.”
One of the toughest things about standing in the box and seeing a curveball leave the pitcher’s hand is that hitters are taught to lay off it whenever possible. But if they do need to swing, Hulings said, maintain the fundamentals.
“You want the ball to be deep in before you swing,” Hulings said. “That way you can see it longer. … If he has a breaking pitch, we’re going to have to double up and make that adjustment.”
Added Vance: “Think fastball, hit curveball. That’s how I think when I’m at the plate if I have an 0-2 count. I would still be thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to smack this fastball,’ but I can easily read it out of the hand with the rotation of the ball and pick that up pretty quick.”
Another things hitters generally look for it whether a pitcher is digging into his glove more than usual. A well-practiced hurler will have the ball a little bit away from the leather’s deeper pit as to hide it, which can be another tell. There’s a lot of ways a hitter can pick up on what’s to come.
The approach matters more than anything, though, whether it be hand placement, patience, or the whole lot of it.
“The biggest thing we try to teach is you’re never going to look curveball,” Walker said. “If you’re looking breaking ball and you get a fastball, you’re never going to stand a chance.”