Pitching is an art.
For many legends, it was about one signature offering. Consider Randy Johnson’s menacing upper-90’s fastball or Mariano Rivera’s unhittable, bat-splitting cutter. The greats tend to put their unique spin on the classics.
For the less-gifted, pitching is about confusing hitters. It’s about outsmarting them rather than overpowering them. Mixing speeds, changing eye-levels, and keeping hitters off-balance.
The bigger the arsenal, the more weapons a pitcher has available to them.
Today, we’re going to go through every pitch in the book. We’ll illustrate how to throw each one in detail. We’ll also discuss hall-of-fame hurlers who mastered specific pitches.
Ready to step into the box?
The Anatomy of the Pitch: An Introduction
Ever marvel at a big, looping curveball that looks as if it starts above a hitter’s head and winds up at their ankles? Perhaps you’ve heard an announcer refer to it as a “12-6 curve;” likening the break of the pitch to the numbers on a clock.
How can a pitcher throw such a slow curveball, and then manage to throw a blazing fastball that nears triple-digits on the radar gun?
Different grips and arm angles can produce a wide array of pitch speeds and pitch breaks.
Pitch grip is the most significant influencer on the action of the ball after it leaves the pitcher’s hand. The grip isn’t just about how many fingers you put on the ball. It also includes where the seams are in relation to the fingers. Some pitches even get your palm or knuckles involved.
With the correct grip, a pitcher can add nuances that can fool expert batters.
A two-seam fastball, for example, goes three miles-per-hour slower than a four-seamer. Couple that with the three-finger grip of a change-up, and a pitcher can have the variety to keep every batter guessing.
During the windup, a pitcher moves their entire body weight onto their back foot to thrust it forward to put more power behind their pitch. In biomechanical terms, this process is the “sequential summation of movement.”
The power from the windup gets transferred from the body to the shoulder and arm. The result is similar to cracking a whip with all the momentum from the windup and body thrust going into the arm.
Pitch break is the shift in the movement that the ball makes as it flies toward the batter. Some pitches, such as a four-seam fastball, do not break much at all. Curveballs and sliders have a significant pitch break.
Pitch break refers to the left or right movement of the ball. It can also apply to up and down motion. For example, a splitter breaks downward significantly right before it gets to the plate.
Pitchers use grip and arm angle to affect pitch break. Skilled batters learn to recognize different pitches and predict the motion before it happens.
The final piece of the pitching puzzle is the arm angle. Arm angle is essential for speed and accuracy. Shoulder rotation and elbow angle can affect the pace. There is no one optimal angle for pitching, though.
Hall of Fame inductees Randy Johnson and Dennis Eckersley were famous for their unusual low delivery angles.
Generally speaking, overhand pitchers have an arm angle of 40 degrees or less. The measurement for sidearm pitchers, in contrast, is 70 degrees or more. Hurlers who fall somewhere between these two angles are in the ¾ arm slot.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at all the pitches that you can add to your arsenal.
A 4-seamer is the first pitch that most pitchers learn. Long-time all-star pitcher Justin Verlander built a hall-of-fame-worthy career with a four-seam fastball. Many other pitchers who depend on pace to beat batters rely heavily on this fastest of all pitches.
For a 4-seam fastball, you lay your index and middle fingers on top of the ball. These fingers should touch two seams and be perpendicular to the connected stitching (known as the “horseshoe”).
The thumb should sit on the exact opposite side of the ball between the two seams. This pitch requires minimum friction and maximum velocity. You grip it lightly with your fingers, making sure that there is no palm contact.
A 2-seam fastball is a slightly slower pitch that pitchers use as an alternative to the 4-seamer or if they want to mix up their pitches. Hall-of-Fame pitcher Greg Maddux used the 2-seam fastball effectively to keep batters guessing.
A properly executed 2-seam pitch will sink slightly and travel about three mph slower than a 4-seam fastball. For this pitch, you place your index and middle finger directly over the two seams, pointing toward the curved “horseshoe” seam.
The thumb goes directly opposite, and it should sit between the two bottom seams.
You want to hold the ball a bit tighter than with a 4-seamer and keep it closer to the hand without touching the palm.
Some of history’s best pitchers, including Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and Dwight Gooden, were masters of the curveball. Many minor leaguers have their big league dreams end because they can’t pick out or hit a pro-level curve. The best curve has a severe 12-6 break.
The grip is vital for an effective curveball. You place your middle finger on the bottom seam of the ball. The index finger goes directly next to the middle finger. Your thumb goes on the back seam.
A curveball won’t curve without a proper release. The pitcher rotates their thumb upward and their middle finger downward. The result is a kind of twisting motion during release. Also, you want to have a release point that is slightly closer to your body, which results in a tighter spin and more ball motion.
The slider is a pitch favored by pitchers who rely on variations to fool batters. Fastball artists such as Randy Johnson used the slider, which is slower than a fastball for faster than a curveball, to keep batters guessing.
Actually, a good slider only breaks about six inches. Yet, that break plus the difference in speed from other pitches, is often enough to fool batters. One of history’s best hitters, Ted Williams, called the slider the best pitch in baseball.
The slider grip is similar to the 2-seam fastball grip. Instead of laying your middle and index finger over the two seams, you place them around the bottom seam. Then, the ball rests against the side of the ring finger. The thumb rests on the bottom of the ball.
The slider should have a straight release, but you can spin it off the inside of your index finger.
A changeup is an offspeed pitch that can be especially difficult for hitters. This challenge comes from the fact that the spin of changeup is the same as the spin for a fastball. Yet, because of the grip and arm speed, it can be as much as 15 mph slower than a fastball.
Prime Pedro Martinez was a master of mixing the changeup and the fastball to fool hitters.
There are two ways to throw a standard changeup. One involves placing your middle and ring finger on top of the ball and your pinky and index finger on the smooth sides of the ball between the seams.
You complete the grip with your thumb on the bottom side of the ball between the seams.
Pitchers with smaller hands can use a three-finger approach by covering the top of the ball, across the seams, with their three larger fingers. They then grip the bottom of the ball with their thumb and the side of their pinky. The tip of the pinky should touch the thumb.
A cutter is a mixture of a slider and fastball that cuts away from batters (or jams them by cutting toward them). Sometimes known as a cut fastball, it breaks a few inches, less movement than a slider. Mariano Rivera, one of the best closing pitchers in history, was a master of the cutter.
Rivera’s cutting action routinely fooled batters into swinging at pitches in on the hands; leading them to split their bat on a weak ground ball and become an easy out.
A cutter grip starts just like a fastball grip. Instead of putting your index and middle fingers directly on the seams, you place them off to one side. Straddling the seam covered by the middle finger in a regular fastball grip is a small yet powerful change.
This off-center grip creates a subtle movement. The ball will only break a few inches. That will be enough to confuse batters, especially if they are looking for a regular fastball or a slider.
A knuckleball has almost mythical status in baseball. This floating, slowly spinning pitch is notoriously tricky for batters to hit.
Knuckleballs have almost no spin, but the seams rotate across the ball. This makes it difficult for the hitter to judge. Plus, it creates turbulence that causes the ball to dip or swerve in unexpected directions.
The ball rests in the palm of the pitcher’s hand with the pinky and thumb supporting the sides of the ball. The pitcher then uses the nails of their middle three fingers to hold the ball on the top. The fingertips should grip the ball and point back toward the palm at a 45-degree angle.
Tim Wakefield was a master of the knuckleball during his years in Boston. Because the knuckleball creates significantly less stress on the arm than most other offerings, knuckleballers can traditionally throw for a while without tiring out.
More recently, RA Dickey won a Cy Young award as a member of the New York Mets. Dickey’s signature offering was a low 80’s, fluttering knuckleball. Hitters routinely failed to square the ball up against him, and he finished the year with a sparking 2.73 ERA.
A knuckle curve is a variation of the curveball that spins slower than a regular curveball. Some pitchers use the knuckle-curve grip exclusively. They feel that it gives them more break than a standard curveball grip.
The knuckle curve grip starts just like a regular curveball grip. However, there is an essential difference. The pitcher tucks their index finger into the ball, holding the ball with their fingertip and nail. The middle finger remains extended, just as in a regular curveball grip.
The splitter, or split-finger fastball, is similar to a 2-seam fastball. The difference is that it tends to drop suddenly before reaching the plate. Pitchers use the option to get a swinging strike. Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter was famous for swinging strike-outs with his unparalleled splitter.
You can begin the splitter grip the same as a 2-seam fastball grip. Then, you slide your middle and index fingers apart. Then, they grip the smooth sides of the ball outside the two parallel seams.
The splitter has the same straight release as the fastball, but the splayed grip makes the ball drop in the last 10-15 feet of its flight.
A sinker is a fastball that drops slightly. Many sinker pitchers try to force hitters to contact the top part of the sinking ball, leading to easy groundouts.
You throw a sinker the same as a two-seam fastball. The sinking motion comes from wrist and finger spin. A sinker pitcher rotates their palm to the right during the release to create the sidespin that causes the ball to sink.
Some pitchers also apply extra pressure with the outside of their index finger to increase this spin.
A slurve is part slider and part curveball. Pitcher Kerry Wood relied heavily on the slurve during his record-breaking 20-strikeout game in the late 1990s. A regular curve breaks from 12 to 6 o’clock, but a slurve breaks from 11 to 5 or 10 to 4.
To throw a slurve, you grip the ball with your index finger on the top, touching the horseshoe seam. The index finger is on the side of the ball, opposite the thumb. As with a curveball, you rotate your thumb upward and fingers downward.
If you want to get a look at a plus slurve in 2021, tune in when Jose Berrios is on the mound for the Twins.
A forkball is a variation of the splitter. A forkball pitcher splays their index and middle fingers even more than with a splitter. They grip the sides of the ball with the inside of their fingers. Unlike the splitter, the pitcher needs a downward snap of the wrist on release.
Forkballs are more challenging to control, so they aren’t as common as splitters. But, properly executed, the downward break can completely fool batters and leave them swinging well above the ball.
A screwball breaks in the opposite direction of a curveball or slider. While a curve travels from 12-6 o’clock, a screwball moves from 1 to 7 or 2 to 8.
The secret to the screwball is the arm rotation, and you can hold the ball like a 2-seam fastball or sinker. When you release the ball, you rotate your arm outward so that the palm is facing right (for a right-handed pitcher) or left (for a leftie).
The unnatural rotation can lead to arm health issues in some cases. In somewhat of an anomaly, Fernando Valenzuela often used the screwball and had a career that spanned nearly two decades. But, there’s a reason why the screwball is rarely thrown in 2020.
A circle change is a variation on the changeup. This off-speed pitch can trick batters expecting a fastball. The grip of circle change adds an unexpected break. Pitchers who prostate their arms at release can give the ball a screwball like movement.
The grip of a circle change is a bit tricky. You Connect your index finger and thumb and press the side of the index finger into the side of the ball.
The other two big fingers go on the top of the ball, while the pinky side supports the ball’s opposite end, which touches your palm.
The Final Out
What makes pitching so interesting is that every at-bat is its own story.
The inning, the score, whether or not runners are on base, the ballpark, the weather. Even the point in the season. All of these factors ultimately play a role in the way a pitcher will attack a hitter.
Pitches are like tools in a box. Every pitcher has a favorite tool. A tool they’re most comfortable with. Sometimes, it may take a mix to get the job done.
Other times, one tool is all it takes.