Last mission to repair the Hubble telescope Hubble space telescope discoveries have enriched our understanding of the cosmos. In this special report, you will see facts about the Hubble space telescope, discoveries it has made and what the last mission's goals are.
For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Study our primer on the common pitches and grips and perhaps you'll be able to answer the question, "What the heck was that pitch?"
By TOM JONES
Published May 17, 2005
[Times illustration: Steve Madden]
You're sitting in your La-Z-Boy with your feet up, a cold drink next to you and a bag of chips close at hand.
The ballgame's on. You watch a batter swing and miss a pitch in the dirt.
"Got him chasing his nasty slider," the announcer says.
How did the announcer know that? Well, it might be a guess. But it's an educated guess, based on the speed of the pitch and the action of the ball.
Most baseball fans know the names of the pitches. They've heard of sliders and changeups and curves. They can spot a knuckleball. If the radar reads 98 mph, then, duh, we all know it's a fastball.
But what's the difference between a two-seam fastball and a four-seamer? Are the curve and the slider the same? How do you hold a changeup?
[Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
We're here to answer your questions in this session of Pitching 101.
Maybe by the end, you'll be able to watch a ballgame and impress your friends by saying, "That's one heck of a split-finger fastball."
Nickname: Gas, Cheese, Heat.
Speed: 88-100 mph.
The Masters: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens.
The Lowdown: The four-seam fastball is the most basic pitch in baseball. Grip it and rip it. Just rear back and let it fly.
Speed alone doesn't do the trick. Major-league hitters will catch up to even 100 mph pitches if the ball doesn't have any movement.
"If it just sits there," Rays pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said, "hitters will kill it."
A good four-seamer should rise a result of a backspin on the ball as it approaches the plate. When the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, it might appear belt-high. But as it crosses the plate, it's up around the hitter's letters and the batter, thinking the pitch is low, swings beneath it.
It's easy to watch a game on television and criticize the batter on the screen for chasing a Roger Clemens fastball up in his eyes. But consider the batter has less than a second to make a decision whether to swing. And with so much movement on the ball, it's often nearly impossible to lay off.
Nickname: Sinker, backdoor fastball.
Speed: 88-95 mph.
The Masters: Greg Maddux, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax.
The Lowdown: The physics are the same as a four-seam fastball, but instead of a backspin, there's a bit of a sidespin, which causes the ball to dive slightly sideways and down at the last instant. For example, if a right-handed pitcher throws it, the ball will cut slightly away from a left-handed hitter or slightly in to a right-handed hitter. In addition, a good two-seamer will dart down just a bit.
"Same idea as the four-seamer," Hernandez said. "You just want to get a little movement. You don't want the ball coming in flat."
The spin and movement of the ball depends on the grip. Holding the first and middle fingers together creates more spin, and thus more movement. If the first and middle fingers are spread, there's less spin and less movement.
The trick, again, is to deceive the hitter into thinking a pitch is belt-high over the middle, but ends up low and inside. This pitch can strike hitters out, but it's perfect for inducing ground balls and, especially, double-play balls.
Nickname: The Hook, The Deuce, Lord Charles, Uncle Charlie.
Speed: 74-88 mph.
The Masters: Bert Blyleven, Mike Mussina, Barry Zito.
The Lowdown: There's an absolute consensus in baseball that former 22-year major league veteran Bert Blyleven had the best curveball ever.
"You can teach anyone to throw it," Blyleven said. "I don't know what made mine better other than the proper mechanics. The key is to get your fingers above the ball."
The curveball is less about grip and more about arm motion. The pitcher needs to get his fingers above the ball and then sharply snap his wrist and elbow down as he is letting go of the pitch. That creates a heavy topspin that forces the ball down.
Blyleven's curve, though, appeared to go up, then down.
"I can't explain that one," Blyleven said.
If a pitcher throws using a more sidearm motion, the ball will curve from left to right or right to left.
Blyleven knew when to use it. Because it was so good, hitters looked for it. But some games, Blyleven would go innings without throwing it. Just the threat kept hitters guessing.
Oh, and one more thing.
"I didn't start throwing it until I was 14 or 15," Blyleven said. "You shouldn't throw a curveball before then. A 12-year-old's arm isn't developed enough to throw it, and if you want to throw it, your arm has to be developed and you have to use the proper mechanics."
Maybe that's why Blyleven went on the disabled list only twice even though he threw curve after curve through nearly 5,000 innings.
Speed: 84-91 mph.
The Masters: Steve Carlton, Ron Guidry, J.R. Richard.
The Lowdown: Blyleven said, "I always thought sliders were for people who couldn't throw curveballs."
The slider resembles a curveball. The difference: The ball is thrown harder, creating a tighter spin and less of a break. But the speed is greater than a curve.
Blyleven has a point about sliders. Fewer and fewer pitchers throw curves, preferring sliders.
"In the minors, they teach sliders instead of curves," Blyleven said. "Good curveballs are become less and less of an art."
Take the Rays' Doug Waechter, who abandoned his curve for a slider in the minors.
"My curve wasn't that great; I couldn't get a good spin on it," Waechter said. "So I was taught a slider. I can control it better and the deception comes because I throw it at different speeds."
Changing speeds is crucial, regardless of the pitch. With the incredible knack of being able to read the spin on a baseball, hitters often can identify the pitch. What they can't tell is the speed, and that often is what tricks the hitters.
Nickname: Change, Offspeed, Dead Fish.
The Masters: Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Pedro Martinez.
The Lowdown: What's the key to a good changeup?
"A good fastball," said the Twins' Johan Santana, last year's American League Cy Young winner and owner of the best changeup in baseball.
The idea behind the changeup is simple. It looks like a fastball, but because of the grip (the ball is held firmly in the hand against the palm) it comes in anywhere from 10 to 20 mph slower.
But everything has to look the same as a fastball: the angle of the arm, the speed of the arm motion, the release point.
Santana, though, is right. A good changeup works only if the hitter is wary of the pitcher's fastball.
"You have to be willing to throw the changeup on any count," Santana said. "The batter has to respect your fastball and if he does, then you can throw one changeup after another as long as you mix up the speeds on your changeup."
Santana has been known to throw a dozen changeups in a row, but hitters still can't sit on it. Because once they guess, that's probably when Santana will buzz a 92 mph fastball by them.
"He has that big Bugs Bunny changeup and they still can't hit it," said the Twins Brad Radke, another master of the change. "For all changeup pitchers, the key is making it look exactly like your fastball. The hitter has to have no idea the changeup is coming until they're already halfway through their swing and they realize, Oh no, it's a changeup.' "
Speed: 80-93 mph.
The Masters: Bruce Sutter, Tim Hudson.
The Lowdown: Batters describe a nasty split-finger fastball as a ball that "explodes" to the point where the bottom drops out. It looks good, looks good, looks good and then ... ka-boom, it takes a nosedive straight toward the ground.
It's a difficult pitch to master. First, a pitcher needs big hands in order to cram the ball between the pointer and middle finger. As the pitcher throws the splitter he pushes the ball with his thumb between his fingers and violently snaps his elbow, causing ridiculously absurd topspin.
The spin is next to impossible to determine. Maybe it's a curve, the hitter thinks, or is it a two-seam fastball? Because it's thrown so hard, the batter makes a split decision to swing . . . and finds himself swinging at a ball in the dirt. When the master Bruce Sutter threw it, it didn't even make it to the plate half the time. But it broke so suddenly that hitters would fish at it.
The downside of the splitter: It wreaks havoc on the elbow.
Nickname: Knuckler, Floater.
Speed: 60-75 mph.
The Masters: Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood, Tim Wakefield.
The Lowdown: First, the name is a misnomer. You don't throw a knuckleball with your knuckles. You throw it with your fingertips. The idea is to push the ball toward the plate so the ball has little or no spin. What happens then is a complete guess.
Some say the ball passes through little air pockets along the way that cause the ball to dance. Sounds reasonable.
The result is anyone's guess. Even the pitcher who throws it isn't sure what the ball is going to do. It might shift from left to right. It might tumble downward. It might do both. It might do nothing.
The pros of a good knuckler are it works against every hitter and a pitcher can throw a million and never tire. The con is it's almost impossible to control. Catchers have a tough time catching it, meaning a bucketful of passed balls and stolen bases. And a knuckleball pitcher occasionally runs into jams because of walks. When he is backed into a corner and needs a strike, he has to throw another pitch, and most knuckleball pitchers have no other pitch.
If the knuckler is working, a pitcher can occasionally sneak a 75 mph fastball by a hitter. If a hitter is sitting on a fastball, though, a 75 mph effort is like batting practice.
The palmball. The forkball. The screwball. The spitball. Those are pitchers of yesteryear that are pretty much out of use. The palmball, a variation of the changeup, and the forkball, kind of like the splitter, evolved into other pitches.
The screwball behaves just the opposite of a curveball. For example, if a right-handed pitcher throws a screwball to a left-handed batter, the ball spins away from the batter. The Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela might have thrown the best screwball ever.
So why don't pitchers still use it?
"Here's why," Rays coach Chuck Hernandez said, pointing to the long scar from surgery that runs across his elbow.
Because the pitcher has to twist his arm with an inside-out motion, it's only a matter of time before the elbow, bending in a way not intended by nature, breaks.
The spitter? That was a bit of a misnomer. Years ago, pitchers would rub a substance such as Vaseline on a ball to make it spin oddly. Remember Gaylord Perry? Of course, such a pitch is illegal, mostly because it was dangerous the pitcher simply couldn't control it.
The true spitter had nothing to do with spit or Vaseline. Pitchers would scuff the ball with a thumb tack or a piece of sandpaper in their glove or the catcher would rub the ball over a sharpened buckle on his shin guards. This allowed pitchers a better grip.
This was common back in the days when balls would be kept in the game through several batters and now we're going way back several innings. Nowadays, it's rare for a ball to stay in the game for more than a few pitches. Going through the trouble to do something so illegal just isn't worth it.