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The Art of the Curveball

Throwing the Deuce

By David Krival with Jerry Reuss
Photography by Dennis Hightower

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This article appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of HardBall Magazine.

With the advent of the slider and, more recently, the split-fingered pitch, the curveball—once mandatory in the pitcher's repertoire—has become something of a lost art. However, for the master of its mechanics and strategy, no breaking pitch is more useful or effective than the old-fashioned "deuce.”

"Bert Blyleven had the best curveball I've ever seen,” says Jerry Reuss, who generously consented to lend us his considerable expertise for this article. "Not only was he fundamentally correct, but he had different kinds…a short one, a long one, a back-door curve. He could change location and speeds."

Something to Think About

The curve can be thrown hard or used as a change-up, but the physical forces which cause it to break also function to slow it down. With the same arm speed propelling it, a ball spinning sideways cannot travel as fast as one spinning forward. And that's good.

"You can't throw everything with the same speed,” says Reuss. "Sooner or later good hitters will catch up with the fastball. You have to give them something else to think about.”

Moreover, unlike the slider or splitter, the curve is not disguised as a fastball. The pitcher's hand position at the release point gives it away. Therefore, unlike the newer breaking pitches, the curve must "stand on its own.”

Basic Repertoire

To make this comparatively slow and easily-recognized pitch work against good hitters, a pitcher must use every facet of his craft. "Never throw the same curveball twice in a row,” says Reuss. "Give the hitter something a little bit different.” To this end, Reuss—like Blyleven—developed a variety of curves by studying the effects of slight variations of his grip on the ball.

Get-Me-Over: Used early in the count, this itch starts high and away or inside, and breaks over the plate. "It shows the hitter you can throw it, and you're not afraid to throw it for a strike.” Says Reuss.

Chase-Me or Set-Up: Used when the pitcher is ahead in the count, it looks like a strike, then dives low and in or low and away. Since the hitter can't afford to let it go, he often chases it. If he lays off, it sets up the next pitch.

Backdoor: This shorter-breaking pitch starts outside, and breaks over the plate after the hitter has given up on it. On his heels, the hitter takes it for a strike. This pitch is never thrown early in the count. "Never let a hitter see your ‘out' pitch for free,” says Reuss.

Change Up on All Three: By varying speeds, the pitcher disrupts the hitter's timing. The humble curveball becomes, in effect, six different pitches. "The sweet spot on a wood bat is only about five to six inches,” says Reuss. "If you can get the hitter to hit the ball off the trademark or the end of the bat, the result is usually a pop-up or an easy ground ball.”

The Art

In combination with the fastball, the pitcher also uses the curve to work the hitter in and out. After being jammed with the fastball, a hitter may bail out on a get-me-over curve that looks like it's aimed at his head.

After seeing a fastball on the outside corner, a hitter may crowd the plate, becoming vulnerable to a chase-me curve that starts out looking good, then dives into his hands. "A pitcher might jam you with the fastball early in the game and save the curve for his ‘out' pitch on your final at-bat. At that level,” says Reuss, "pitching becomes an art form.”

Technique

To deliver the curveball, the pitcher must alter his basic fastball mechanics at three significant points: grip, hand position and finish (or follow-through).

Grip: To deliver the fastball, the pitcher grips the ball with two fingers directly behind the ball. Figures a1 and a2 demonstrate the standard 4-seam fastball grip.

Photos a1 and a2 - the four-seam fastball grip.

To throw the curve, the pitcher grips mainly with his middle finger (figures a3 and a4). This creates an eccentric pressure o the ball even before it is released. As he releases the ball, the pitcher snaps it with his middle finger, imparting an even more radical spin.

Curveball grip, the middle finger "leads."

To throw a change-up curve, all the pitcher needs to do is to modify his grip. He may grip the ball tighter, or he may hold it deeper in his hand (figures a5 and a6). "I threw the slow curve with two joints of the middle finger on the ball, and the harder one with just the last joint,” says Jerry.

Curveball grip (left) and change-up curveball grip (right), which is tighter and deeper in the hand.

The key to learning the change-up curve, or any other variation of the pitch, is experimentation and practice. The pitcher must learn for himself how to apply the basic principles Reuss is talking about. Slight variations in grip depth affect the speed of the itch; subtle variations in finger pressure affect the degree of spin, and thus the degree and type of break.

Hand Position: "If you're standing at home plate watching a pitcher deliver a fastball, you'll be able to see his whole palm. But if the pitcher is throwing a curveball, all you'll be able to see is the bottom part [heel] of his hand.” (See photos b1 and b2)

 

Top photo (b1): Fastball

Middle photo (b2): Curveball; batter sees the heel of the hand.

Bottom photo (b3): Fastball at 10 o'clock

Photo b4: Curveball at 10 o'clock

Photos b3 and b4 show the respective hand positions for the fastball and the curveball at the "10 o'clock” point in the delivery. As the arm approaches the "12 o'clock” position (b5 and b6), note how the pitcher's hand is already turning in towards his body in the curveball delivery, and how much more completely his hand encircles the ball.

Photo b5 (top) shows fastball at 12 o'clock position.

 

Photo b6 (bottom) shows curveball at 12 o'clock posiiton. Note grip, inward rotation of hand.

Equally important, and perhaps more impressive, is that while delivering these two pitches, the pitcher's body mechanics are identical. Nothing differs except the grip and hand positions.

Follow Through: "The finish is really important, the loose wrist,” Reuss says. "A lot of guys try to throw it with a stiff wrist and you can't get proper rotation. It's the finish, the snap of the finger, that causes the ball to move.” (See photo c1).

The follow-through portion of the curveball delivery is necessarily shorter than the fastball follow-through. The proper grip, hand position and finger-snap all function to shorten the follow-through (photos c2 and c3). Jerry's arm passes below the opposite knee in the fastball delivery; on the curveball sequences, it passes markedly higher.

Photo c1: the Curveball "Snap"
Photo c2: The fastball follow-through
Photo c3: The curveball follow-through

Mastering the Pitch

By the time Reuss signed with St. Louis in 1967 at the age of 18, he already had a big, slow-breaking curve. As he moved through the pro ranks, he gradually learned to make the ball break more sharply and to change speeds. "I learned something from every pitching coach. Not necessarily mechanics, sometimes it was their method of thinking. The more clearly you think about what you're doing, the better your chance of being able to make corrections on the mound yourself,” Reuss said. "Against good hitters it's a game of constant adjustments. Being able to make those adjustments is how you stay in the big leagues.”

Training Regimen

"You can't come out once a week and expect results. My work habits made me successful. I worked out every day,” he said.

Jerry Reuss Training Regimen for Starting Pitchers

DAY 1

Start

DAY 2

Aerobic exercise (Reuss runs 3 miles) plus Nautilus (weight machines)

DAY 3

Throwing - 15 minutes at 65-75 percent plus free weights (Dr. Jobe's shoulder routine, 5 lbs maximum) plus speed sprints

DAY 4

Aerobic plus Nautilus

DAY 5

Light sprints plus 1 set of free weights for toning

DAY 6

Start

On Day 3, pitching off a mound, Reuss was all business. "After a minute or two of long toss to get warm, strive to make every throw with proper mechanics and to a target, gradually increasing velocity as the arm gets loose,” he advises.

The Curveball Drill

While with the Dodgers, Jerry learned a special curveball drill from pitching coach Ron Perranoski. "My biggest problem with the breaking ball was finding the release point. The two-o'clock position,” he recalls.

Perranoski's drill helps the pitcher concentrate on finding the release point by abbreviating the windup and push-off.

After the pitcher has warmed up, the catcher moves up in front of home plate and the pitcher merely spins and snaps the ball to him until he finds his release point. "It's important to follow through properly also,” Reuss adds. "You've got to practice correctly. Sloppy practice habits will come back to haunt you in the game.”

About Jerry Reuss

Left to right: Photographer Dennis Hightower, Jerry Reuss,
and author David Krival

A true student of The Game, Jerry Reuss played professional baseball from 1967 to 1990. His 90-95 mph fastball made his curve even more effective. Among his accomplishments: 220 wins, 39 shutouts, 1907 strikeouts, and one no-hitter.

"I threw nothing but fastballs that game,” Reuss recalls. "Not particularly hard. Got 27 routine outs…28 really…[Bill] Russell kicked one.” Jerry may best be remembered for the fifth game of the 1981 World Series, in which he beat the Yankees 2-1.

From 1991 to 1993, Reuss worked with ESPN as a broadcaster-analyst. In 1994 he did several games for Prime Ticket in addition to his main job as radio and TV broadcaster for the Triple-A Las Vegas Stars.

Jerry was an enthusiastic regular participant in the SoCal MSBL in 1993 and 1994, and competed in the MSBL World Series both years.

 


 

Special thanks to Dave McCurdy (Facility Manager, Peccole Field in Las Vegas, Nevada) and to catcher Tony Sofia, formerly of the MSBL of Southern California Rockies. Without their enthusiastic cooperation this article would have been impossible—D. Krival

 

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