Grant Cohn: The curveball: Resurrection of a lost art
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?
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.