There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.
Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.
You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.
But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.
Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.
Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.
Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.
Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.
Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.
Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.
Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.
Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.
I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.
“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.
“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.
“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.
“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.
“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”
Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.
Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.
“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.
“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.
“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.
Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.
“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.
“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”
Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.
“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.
“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”
There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.
“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“
Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.
“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.
“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.
“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.
“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“
Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?
“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.
“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.
“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”
As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.
“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.
“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.
“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“
And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?
“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“