Curve now takes a back seat to other breaking pitches

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2011 - 6:29 AM

Difficult to throw and command, the curveball is no longer the out pitch of choice for many.

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Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay has one of the best curveballs in the game today.

Photo: Darren Calabrese, Associated Press

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If it seems as if nobody has thrown a curveball as good as Bert Blyleven's since he retired, maybe that's because few have tried.

Mastering the curveball became a lost art, as pitchers began relying more on the slider.

"We didn't see as many pitchers come to the big leagues with a curveball," said longtime major league pitching coach Mark Wiley. "There was nobody for about 15 years. It was unbelievable."

Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay and Yovani Gallardo are among the modern pitchers with outstanding curveballs, but how could such a basic pitch lose its relevance for so long?

"The curveball is difficult to throw and command, so most organizations thought the fastest way to the big leagues would be with a slider," said Steve Stone, a curveball specialist in the majors from 1971 to 1981. "The slider was much easier to get over [the plate] because, for the most part, it stays on the same plane."

Curveballs break downward, from north to south, while sliders are thrown harder and break from east to west. Since there's a bigger velocity drop from a fastball, a curveball can upset a hitter's timing.

But "the curveball remains the only pitch that leaves the pitcher's hand and goes up," Stone said. "The good hitters have eyes like computers. When they see a ball go up from a pitcher's hand, it can only be one pitch."

Twins left fielder Delmon Young said, "The curveball can be tough to hit, but it also can be a gift, if it just hangs up there."

Ah yes, a hanging curve. Blyleven hung quite a few in his Hall of Fame career. Pitching for the Twins, he led the American League in home runs allowed with 50 in 1986 and 46 in 1987.

"A lot of times, curveballs are lost in the minor leagues because kids can't throw them over consistently," Blyleven said. "When I signed with the Twins, if I wouldn't have been able to throw it over consistently, I wonder if they would have said, 'Hey put that in your back pocket. You've got a good fastball. Let's throw sliders.' Nobody ever said that to me."

Good thing, or Blyleven wouldn't have 3,701 strikeouts.

Now, the "pitch du jour," as Stone calls it, is the cut fastball. Basically, this is a variation of the slider, thrown almost as hard as a fastball. Mariano Rivera has been a one-pitch pitcher, relying on his cutter for more than 580 career saves.

James Shields, Josh Tomlin and Jaime Garcia are among those who credit their success to throwing more cutters.

Hitters are trained to pick up the ball's spin, and they have a harder time recognizing cutters than sliders and curveballs. A good cutter also has late movement.

"All a pitcher needs is for the ball to move a little, so it misses the good part of the bat," Young said. "When you commit, you make contact, but you get it off the end of the bat, or it just gets in on you."

So why doesn't every pitcher throw the cutter? Some try and start having trouble with their other pitches, losing velocity on their fastball and command of their off-speed stuff. Noted cases include Royals closer Joakim Soria and Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek.

Also, some believe throwing too many cut fastballs can be harmful to the arm. That's one reason the split-fingered fastball became less prevalent after it was the pitch du jour in the 1980s.

"If you throw the curveball properly, it doesn't affect your elbow," Wiley said.

Few have thrown it more properly than Blyleven. That's why he reached the Hall of Fame.

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