throwing a cement mixer

[Since I don’t get to the definition very quickly…cement mixer curveball defined.  I can’t find video for it…]

I’m a baseball fan. I would not say I’m a “hardcore” fan if only because I don’t have enough time to remember individual OBPS or WHIP for hitters or pitchers, respectively.  I do know enough to know what those stats are, though…

What I do know is that a lot of analysts and color commentators get the technical stuff wrong during games. This always drives me crazy because, of your job is to help enlighten viewers and listeners about why that was a poor fielding decision or that bad mechanics les to the pitch that led to that home run, then do it right – don’t be lazy and take the easy way out.

A great example has to do with curveballs and, in some cases, breaking balls in general.  These are funny beasts.  The best of them can be devastating pitches that can easily be a number 1 pitch (see:  Barry Zito when he was good).  A mediocre one can be a third pitch that keeps a batter guessing just enough to make the first two pitches even better.  The worst of them…well, they’re bad.  But the point is that a breaking pitch is something almost every pitcher throws, but to varying degrees of effectiveness.

They’re also odd pitches, plain and simple.  They rely entirely on the spin on the ball, letting all 108 laces and friction with the air coupled with incredibly fast rotation to make the ball drop anywhere from 6″ to 2-3′ (yes, feet).  To achieve the right rotation, you basically let the ball slip out of your hand.  Rather than putting your fingers behind the ball to impart velocity, you actually release the ball over fingers that are facing the hitter.  Depending on how much pressure you put on the ball, where the grip is tighter or looser and even how much you extend your arm at release, you get different kinds of spin and end up with big looping curves to hard, “power” curves to sliders that come in at one side of the plate and dive towards the other (anyone that’s seen Randy Johnson and his power slider in his hey day can attest to just how much movement a pitch like that can have).

The mechanics behind a good curve are just as critical as the grip and finger pressure.  It’s hard enough making sure that your arm slot is always in the right place or that your weight shift is right.  Now you have to make sure to stay “on top” of the ball.  Since a curve goes up before it goes down, you have to use the fact that you’re on a raised mound to throw a curve downward, essentially.  But this isn’t easy – as someone that had a big looping curve in high school, it’s more just “doing it” than feeling it.  I shortened my stride a few inches and, for a curve, kept my arm in a bit (a slider, which is thrown with more velocity and breaks more sideways, is thrown with more extension) but otherwise just let it fly and let the spin do its thing.  Making sure to always bring that stride in just a little bit, and to stay focused on every curve to stay on top of it is hard, and requires excellent mechanics from the beginning.

As a result, you get all kinds of terms.  If you release the ball with your entire hand facing the batter, you get a “cement mixer” where the axis about which the ball rotates faces the hitter.  It just spins sideways.  This won’t break much because the friction is on the wrong sides of the ball.  If you don’t stay on top, the ball will end up higher than you want.  If you put the wrong amount of pressure on one finger or the other, or don’t quite get as good of a grip on the seems as you’d like, the break isn’t as much as you want or perhaps, if you’ve got a pretty good curve, it might not break in the right direction (I could vary my slider from about 5″ at the last minute thrown quite hard, to about 1.5′ starting earlier on thrown with a bit less velocity with more pressure on my index finger).

A curve is not easy to throw, in other words.

If one watches even a moderate amount of baseball, one will invariably see a hitter launch a long homerun off of a breaking ball.  Often because of the reduced velocity of these pitches (even a slider, which is thrown pretty hard, is going to be a good 4-5mph slower than a fastball), it will look almost like the pitcher lobbed the ball in there and the hitter just nailed it.  Almost always, the commentator says that it was a “hanging” breaking ball – one that just didn’t break as far as it should have, and the hitter could anticipate and time the movement.’

But saying that every curve that is hit hard is a “hanger” is simply unfair.  There are in fact many reasons why a curve might get hit.  And this is where my analogy begins…

Let’s get one thing straight – a curveball can be labeled as a “hanger” for lots of reasons.  It’s the nuances of these reasons that annoy me about generalizations by commentators.

  • Location
    As with many things in life, it’s about location, location, location.  Unless you have a truly amazing curve, if you throw it in the wrong place, it’ll get hit.  A lot of hanging breaking balls are ones that are thrown just too high.  They start off too high, and break right into the middle of the strike zone.  When a hitter anticipates the break on a ball, if it ends up in the hitting area, it often gets hit.  If it ends up in the dirt (as it should), then it’s a swinging strike.
  • Poor pitch selection
    Like I said, not everyone has a dominant curve.  In fact, because it’s such a hard pitch to throw effectively (between the weird release and the requisite consistent mechanics), lots of pitchers have curves that are there to keep hitters guessing just enough that other pitches (a good fastball, a change-up, a cut fastball, etc) will be that much more effective.  But if you throw that mediocre curveball at the wrong time, when a hitter is expecting one, a pitch meant to keep a batter off-balance suddenly becomes something he can at least slap into play and probably hit with enough bat to get a single or even double.
  • Lazy mechanics
    Poor location, throwing a cement mixer rather than a proper breaking ball, or the difference between a horrible curve and a mediocre one is all about mechanics.  Did you stay on top of the ball?  How was your grip?  Did you get your arm slot right (a side-arm curve is a lot harder to throw than a 3/4 or over-the-top one, and when one tires the arm tends to drop more and more on delivery)?

So, in my opinion, other than a cement mixer, most breaking balls that are hit hard are actually the result of poor location, choosing to throw it at the wrong time, or getting slopping in mechanics.  Rarely is it because it didn’t break the right amount.  It’s physics – if the ball is spinning the right way and the seems are moving through the air, the ball will break.

So let’s look a bit at how both the mystery of the curveball – and how it’s used by different people – and the need for precision can be useful in management and business-y stuff like that.

The dominant, big curve.   

A big, slow, looping curve can be just as effective as one that dives at the last second.  I’m a Yankee fan, so Phil Hughes is a good example of someone that throws this kind of curve.  It can even be a strike-out pitch, as David Wells used to do or AJ Burnett can do if he can get any of his pitches to work in the first place.  But they are often used to throw called strikes.  Hitters see a pitch that is up in the zone, they wait a second too long, and it drops into the strike zone before they can react (especially if it’s a big, sharp breaking ball).

How this applies?  Well, if your skill set is perhaps not “dominant,” and is more nuanced, it can be just as effective.  If you’re needing a win at work, or have to get someone on your side, you may have to use that skill earlier than later (like a big curve pitcher often has to use a curve for an early strike rather than the out-pitch), but it can be just as effective.  Not everyone has to be the “big stud” charismatic, inspiring leader with the killer instinct to be a good leader and/or manager.

At the same time, a big looping curve is ineffective if you can’t locate it.  Something that starts off too high and therefore can’t break into the strike zone is still a ball.  So this is all about mechanics and location.  It’s about precision.  So make sure you use that skill at the right time and use it effectively.

The power curve

These days, lots of pitches that do throw curves have “power” versions of them, that dive-bomb at the last second and have remarkable velocity.  They are still traditional curves in that they break straight downward, but are without a doubt swing-and-miss pitches.  Strike-out pitches.  David Robertson, the Yankees reliever, has one of the best (the power curve is against the last batter).  Stephen Strasbourg, the #1 pick for the Washington Nationals a couple of years ago and Kerry Wood of the Cubs his rookie year (remember that 20 strikeout game?  wow.) had these.  There are lots of in-between curves that tend towards power rather than not – Burnett comes to mind again, as a lot of hitters swing and miss because of the hard, hard break.  Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox has a power curve, too.  Not quite like Robertson or Strasbourg, but these are hard curves.  No “looping” involved.

Another example would be the kind of slider that goes basically down and sideways.  Randy Johnson at his prime (or even slightly-below-prime – that sucker was nasty), C.C. Sabathia today – their sliders dove away from left-handed hitters.  Again, a dominant breaking ball pitch.

At the same time, these pitches are complemented by solid and often hard fastballs that can be located effectively.  Even Johnson had to learn how to control his fastball before he could make fools out of hitters with that slider.

How this applies? Well, a power curve still requires precision, but the best of them can be thrown even a bit higher than intended and get the intended result.  Sometimes it’s just “throw it low and break into the dirt” kind of precision that is needed, not a “get it on the inside corner 1″ off the plate” kind of stuff.  So if your skill is something that is truly dominant, then use it for that strike-out situation.  I don’t mean anything aggressive, necessarily.  But if you got that big ace up the sleeve, then use it when it will be most effective.  When this a runner on third and only 1 out, when a sacrifice-fly – something relatively easy – will get a run in.  Throw that pitch for the strike-out to turn the tide in your favor.

But in the meantime, move that fastball in and out, up and down.  Set up the hitter.  Then go for the kill.  Or the big move.

The mediocre curve

Even a lame curve can be very useful.  If you already have two dominant pitches, you still need at least some kind of third pitch to keep hitters honest.  Tim Lincecum of the Giants, for instance, has a 2-seam fastball he can move all over the place, and one of the best change-ups in the game.  93mph fastball, 85mph change-up that looks like a fastball but also dives out of the strike zone (usually down and in on the right-handed batter).  That’s a nasty combination.

A dominant pitcher that can be hit, though, is someone like Johan Santana, formerly of the Twins and now of the Mets’ disabled list.  One of the best change-ups in baseball, but a relatively straight fastball (still good velocity, but not a ton of movement).  Hitters that can catch up to a fastball and put it in play can react to those while expecting a change-up.  Derek Jeter (how I managed to wait this long before mentioning that Yankee is surprising) is a great example.  He just kills Santana.  He can catch up to his fastball when needed (usually serving it to the opposite field – I’m not saying he can expect change-up and still turn on a 92mph fastball).

To be honest, I’m not sure if Santana has a curve.  But I know Lincecum has been working on one.  It’s pretty lame right now – doesn’t break a whole lot and doesn’t have much of a “bump” to it (it’s kind of flat then drops a bit).  But if you’re looking tailing fastball or change-up, then he drops in that curve “back-door” (outside part of the plate to a left-hander, curves back into the strike zone), it can be very, very effective.

How it applies? Well, even if you have two great skills (or two very good ones) – charisma and diplomacy, for instance, which are valuable leadership and management tools – you still need that third skill now and then to back things up.  Maybe it’s playing the political card.  Maybe it’s schmoozing at some social function to get your foot in the door with a needed contact.  And maybe you’re not great at these things.

So you word really hard at those things (just like Lincecum has to really focus on his mechanics on even his curve to get every last bit out of it) and you use it when you think it’s right.  You don’t throw it for the strike-out (usually) and certainly not when you’re behind in the count (because you’re likely to miss).  But you know the pitch, what it can do, and use it and locate it the right way.  If you’re not a great politician in the work place, then focus on the charismatic leadership to get support, the diplomacy to win over those that are not fully behind you, and keep up just enough solid relations and measure up opponents and opportunities just in case you need them.  Just in case you need to go to someone down the road and ask for a favor.  The danger is you over-estimate the value of what you have – Lincecum throwing that curve when the hitter is ready for it – but that’s why it’s your third pitch.  That’s why it’s your third option.

Use it right, and even a mediocre pitch – or skill – can be just as devastating and effective as that killer fastball or knee-buckling power curve.