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Apparently Safeco Field is built on top of Union Station, and I am fascinated by rare pitches.

Is there anything more distracting than nearly constant train whistles as one is trying to pitch? I know I was gritting my teet the whole time I was watching this whole series. My favorite moment of the series was yesterday, when R.A. Dickey accidentally threw a 52-mph eephus pitch by accident when a train whistle went off as he released. I miss that one thing about Livan: No other pitchers get batters to finish their whiff before the ball even reaches the dish. I think that more people should learn the eephus pitch, just because of how disorienting it could be; imagine Crain coming up there and throwing 96, 95… 61. No one would have any idea what was going on! It would be great!

I remember reading an interesting post on one of the Strib blogs earlier this year, after Liriano bombed in April. The poster wondered whether Liriano should try throwing the knuckleball in an effort to get a new and totally unexpected pitch. I did a little quick research on knuckleballers of the last ten years. Before you peek, see how many you can remember (these are only knuckleballers that used the pitch regularly and does not include the knuckle curve):

  • R.A. Dickey (2001-present)
  • Tim Wakefield (1990-present)
  • Ryan Jensen (2001-2005) (Still in the majors, but stopped throwing the knuckler after he got demoted to AAA in ’05)
  • Steve Sparks (1995-2004)
  • Jared Fernandez (2001-2004)
  • Dennis Springer (1995-2002)
  • Kirt Ojala (1997-1999)
  • Tom Candiotti (1983-1999)
  • Bonus Point: Bet you didn’t know that Wade Boggs pitched 2.1 innings in his career, and in one game in ’98 he threw 16 knuckleballs in a 17-pitch inning?

Of these, the only loogy on the list is Dennis Springer, and only Jenson threw from the 3/4 arm slot.

I want to make it clear: I am not advocating Liriano become a knuckler. However, I do think it would be interesting to add it to the repertoire, and not just for Liriano. I am too young to remember the likes of Phil Niekro or the other great knucklers of the 70s and 80s, but I think the decline of the knuckleball has helped lead to a higher offensive output overall.

Why has the knuckleball gone away? I tend to think that it became less popular because it is incredibly hard to throw consistently for a strike. If a knuckleball doesn’t dance the way it is supposed to, it becomes a batting practice fastball. Also, there really aren’t that many great masters of the knuckleball left to teach the tricks to the younger generation. In order for Springer to learn how to effectively throw the knuckler, he spent weeks working with Phil Niekro.

So what about Liriano (or any other active pitcher? Well, I think it is important to note that the knuckler who leans the craft later in a career is generally trying to counter a decline in velocity and effectiveness or to prevent injury. Such is the case with Tim Wakefield, who adjusted his pitching style in 1990 (in the Caroline League), when he started to feel a significant amount of tightness in his throwing shoulder. If Liriano is ineffective for the rest of this season, I wouldn’t eliminate the possiblity. However, the drawback of a knuckleball is that it is nearly impossible to control; right now, Liriano can’t even adequately control his fastball. Generally, the pitchers that try to convert to a knuckleballer after not starting their career as such (R.A. Dickey has thrown a knuckleball for his whole professional career) are generally Greg Maddux-type control pitchers whose declining velocity can’t be countered by their control (Livan Hernandez would be a prime candidate, if he wasn’t so old).

Does anyone else remember Mr. Snappy? It was Randy Johnson’s “I only have this pitch to scare you sh!tless” pitch. (EDIT: Dean, in the comments below, informed me that Mr. Snappy was not Johnson’s first choice for a name for the pitch. He wanted a more macho name, but he was convinced while shooting a commercial that “Mr. Snappy” would be better than what the Unit had thought. Thanks for the help, Dean!). Mr. Snappy was thrown such that, at the point of final release the ball actually rested on the back of the middle and ring fingers, with no grip whatsoever. Johnson could throw the pitch in the low 90s. He stopped throwing the original version of Mr. Snappy in 1993, when he was suspended for five games for hitting three batters in one game. (NOTE: The Mr. Snappy most people know of is the wicked “razor slider” that Johnson started throwing in around 1995; he stopped throwing it when he lost the ability to throw it over 90 mph had major back surgery in the early 2000s (Thanks for the correction, Doug!)).

Speaking of Mr. Snappy, what about that “razor slider”? There are only two current pitchers that throw a “razor” slider, which is named because of the incredibly tight rotation of the ball causes a sharper move than the more common sweeping slider. The razor slider is not a matter of continuum of very sharp on one end being called “razor” and the other end “sweeping;” the razor slider has the first two fingers split slightly (only about half an inch or so) which can cause a tigher rotation on the ball. Both of these pitchers are very familiar to most of us: Liriano and Neshek. The down-side to the razor slider is it brings INCREDIBLE stress on the elbow of the throwing arm, and nearly everyone that has thrown the pitch has had some difficulty with the UCL (like both Neshek and Liriano). It has yet to be seen whether or not Liriano’s slider still qualifies as a “razor” slider or if it changed to a more sweeping version as he adjusted his delivery to lessen the strain on his elbow.

How about the ever-rarer screwball? The only current pitchers that throw a screwball (that I could find record of) are Dallas Braden (who may or may not have thrown the pitch for the A’s, but did in the minors) and Daniel Herrera. The pitch has become rarer and rarer; the only recent pitchers of note using the screwball are Jim Mecir, Francisco Valenzuela, and John Franco. Why? The screwball is incredibly hard to throw, and is even harder on the pitcher. Hall of Fame luminary and the first real screwballer, Christy Mathewson, said of the screwball: “It is a very hard ball to deliver. Pitching it ten or twelve times a game kills my arm, so I save it for the pinches.” Carl Hubbell, who threw the screwball much more often than did Mathewson, twisted his left arm so severely from years of throwing the pitch that his left palm eventually faced outward when the arm was at rest. In general, the pitch is seldom recommended to young pitchers because of the harm it can potentially do to their arms. The screwball is making a comeback in city leagues against left-handers, since the ball breaks very hard away from lefties… but more often than not will make a rightie run for cover.

Finally, let’s think about split-fingered fastballs and forkballs. Split-fingered fastballs are fairly common, and tend to tumble a bit, like a slightly faster curveball. Forkballs, on the other hand, involve the ball being jammed much deeper between the index and middle fingers; it is thrown more slowly and tumbles drastically and unpredictably. However, it causes severe damage to elbows, shoulders, wrists, and fingers. The most common injury is bone chips, which can be found in the elbows, shoulders, and the joints of the first and middle fingers. In addition, the pitch loosens the tendons of the index finger, which can result in easy dislocation of the digit. Current pitchers that use the forkball relatively commonly include Chien-Ming Wang, Jose Contreras, and Edwar Ramirez. Probably the most recognizable name to Twins fan is Jack Morris, who used a devastating forkball as his primary strikeout pitch. Former Seattle Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki had to have bone chips removed from his elbow and shoulder nearly every all-star break and off-season. The pitch is much more common in Japan, for some reason.

Pitchers invent “new” pitches every year, which are usually just recycled versions of one of these listed pitches, sometimes including the palmball. Most of these pitches flop almost immediately, but some are successful. Case in point: Hideki Okajima’s “Okie-Dokie,” which is a circle changeup with screwball motion. He has thrown it for a strike 79 % of the time since he started using it April 16, 2008. Most, however, fail; it can be very interesting for a pitcher to try out one of these new pitches, though.

Which of the Twins staff do you think would benefit the most from using one of these pitches?


10 Responses

  1. I hated listening to the train sounds at Safeco in this series. We have to listen more because the Twins are at Seattle again at the end of the month.

  2. Gross. Can’t we wait until next year?

    At least the Pale Hoses lost.

  3. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  4. Oh, Thanks! Really amazing. Greets.

  5. Hi. Actually, “Mr. Snappy” was a name I gave Randy’s pitches when I wrote a few goofy commercials back in the early 90’s for MLB. We shot that one in the Twin’s Metrodome. Randy had a few issues with the script. Didn’t want to say “Mr. Snappy.” I think he thought it would make him “less intimidating” or something. He wanted to give his pitches more “macho” names. After a few minutes of explanation about “why this will work better,” he gave in and we shot it. Funny how later he referred to it in press conferences. Sort of became his de facto answer for nasty bean balls and purpose pitches.

  6. Thanks Dean! The post has been duly updated.

    I appreciate your help! Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Was looking EVERYWHERE tonight for that commercial! I remember it well, I thought it was hilarious but it’s one of those that just can’t be found on youtube or anywhere that I can see. I couldn’t quite remember the name, indeed it wasn’t “Mr. Happy” as I thought.
    I couldn’t believe it was a name for his slider, I had never even heard that. I just remember the commercial.
    I believe it was a pitch held with just the pinky and pointer fingers.

  8. […] I still get about five hits a week from people googling weird pitches – including Mr. Snappy. […]

  9. This is awful late, but R.A. Dickey was a conventional pitcher before he turned to the knuckler. FanGraphs confirms this. http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1245&position=P#pitchtype

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