More on improving your Curveball

Mastering the Breaking Ball - The Coach's thoughts regarding mastering the curve and the state of the modern breaking ball - the pros and cons of power curves and sliders. 

Why Curveball First - Coach Bagonzi presents his thoughts regarding the importance of why one needs to have the complete grasp of the 6 1/2 or 1/7 curve ball.

Breaking & Off-speed Pitches DVD

Expanding the Toolbox - The Breaking & Off-speed Pitches -. Go to the Pitching DVD and Video Clip Library for more info & DVD preview, click the DVD inset to go to detail page and see a preview of the Integrated Curveball Drill Set segment.

New for improving your Fastball

Coach Bagonzi's recently released 2-hour DVD, The Holy Grail - The Fastball - the first in the 4-module DVD series.  Click here to preview the DVD designed to help one understand, build, and hone this all-important foundation pitch.

Learning Curve

A potent curveball can make a batter’s head spin. A pitching ace tells you how to do it—safely and effectively.

By Dr. John A. Bagonzi

One of the taboos surrounding baseball is that of throwing curveballs at a young age: “Don’t throw curveballs unless you want to hurt your arm.” This stricture has persisted through the years and still holds currency.
But as players get older, their bodies mature, their bones calcify, their ligaments become defined, and their tendons grow. Eventually, it’s time to start looking past the forbidden and begin talking about the proper techniques for throwing the curveball.

Being a believer in the curveball and having possessed a rather strong form of it, I advocate a certain technique that I know works. In this article, I’ll discuss the efficacies of throwing the curveball and the intricacies of its technical aspects. I’ll even get into the details of aerodynamics and the leverage systems necessary for a majestic curve—without arousing the ire of any team physician peering over our shoulders.

I’m of the school that says, “If you do something right, injury and misfortune do not occur—or at least occur very rarely.” I even think that if pitchers are taught a curveball correctly at a younger age—14 to 16, if they’ve physically matured—that tendinitis or tennis elbow will not necessarily occur. This is not to suggest that players still can’t damage their arm throwing any pitch, curves included. However, the threat that they will destroy their career throwing curveballs has likely passed, and they can get into developing a magnificent “Uncle Charlie.”

A Matter of Details

Attention to detail is always the great discriminator when it comes to excellence and refinement in teaching pitching technique. This applies even more strongly in developing the outstanding curve. Many pitchers have the ability to develop the great curve, but few actually do. Some accept a mediocre version, believing that it is adequate or even good.

Another reason some pitchers don’t master a curveball early in their careers is that they become enamored with the slider, either because they’ve been encouraged by a coach or due to the ease of learning a slider, which allows for a short cut to a breaking pitch.  It follows rather simply that if you get a degree of mastery on a curve, it will be relatively easy to develop the slider as an additional pitch. The reverse is rarely true—possessing a slider does not encourage the development of a real curve. The wrist learns some lazy pronating movement on a slider, which simply does not translate into the full flexion necessary for the curveball.

If a pitcher is seriously motivated to learn to throw a curve, he should be able to achieve that goal. But the criterion for “What is a good curve?” needs to be strongly emphasized, because there are so many pitchers willing to accept an inferior form, often while thinking they have a real curve. A truly good curve is quite recognizable and even startling. An average curve evokes little reaction, except maybe from a batter eager to hit it.

Mastering Spin

Learning the direction of spin in throwing any breaking pitch is paramount to mastering its function and, ultimately, its effectiveness. Being able to “read” the rotation is indispensable to accomplishing correct alignment of the spin in any pitch that veers, dips, or tails—perhaps with the exception of the knuckleball. This is necessary to consistently apply the proper rotation to effect the desired pitch.  For this purpose, the Johnny Sain spinner is a great tool in understanding the axes of various curves and the location of the dots on the axes. It’s easy to make one of these devices (named after the former big league pitcher) yourself—take a baseball and drill a hole that’s big enough to attach a nail to an old wooden bat or ax handle. Make sure the ball can spin freely, and that the hole is drilled straight to prevent the ball from wobbling.
Pretend that the ball is the face of a clock. With the 12 on top and the 6 on the bottom, the ball would spin from the 6 to 12 rotating on an axis from 3 to 9 o’clock. Some of the spin directions to use in throwing curveballs are:

• 6/12 - drop
• 1/7 - outcurve
• 2/8 - curve or slurve
• 3/9 - flat curve

By adjusting the type and amount of rotation, the action of the break can be late and therefore “doing its thing” in the strike zone. Arm speed and wrist and hand power can regulate the timing of the break. The size of the break needs to be shortened in order to arrive at its “lateness.” A pitcher has to start with the 6/12 drop curve, though; if he can’t master that, there’s no way he can hope to add the 1/7 outcurve to his arsenal.

Do’s and Don’ts

The curveball can be difficult to master because there are several factors that all must come together. Finger position is especially important. Make sure the pitcher begins with a 6/12 rotation, using his middle finger as a “trigger on rotation,” and placing his third finger on a seam right at the second knuckle. The thumb is also used to assist with the rotation by pushing up. On releasing the ball, the hand should be in a “gun” position and finish the follow-through with fingers pointing up.

During the pitch, bring the forearm down straight in a “hammering” type movement, while keeping the hand on top of the ball. If you hook the forearm too much, you’ll increase the arc of the curve, making it too rounded and less deceitful. It’s also important to adjust stride length—it may be different than with a fastball because the release point will be raised to compensate for the downward break.

At the same time, there are several things for pitchers to avoid when developing the curve. Don’t drop the elbow—it must be as high or higher than the shoulder—and don’t let the elbow get behind. Be careful not to tuck the wrist early—turn it toward the head only as the forearm passes the ear. Make sure the forearm remains vertical (90 degrees or more), to produce a straight trajectory before the ball abruptly breaks down and away. Collapsing the forearm toward the head will tend to make a big curve with a rounded trajectory.  Pitchers must also be warned to try not to choke the ball. Rather, the fingers should be loose enough to create maximum rotation. And instead of using as much arm speed as on a fastball, the pitcher should put his energy into producing the rotation.

Two Drills

There are a couple of drills particularly useful in developing the curve.
The Curve Wrist Drill isolates the motion of the wrist, preventing a pitcher from stressing his elbow.

  1. Using four seams, the closed side of the horseshoe should be at the right of the ball (for a RHP). Place middle finger on seam, pressing down until the fingernail gets white.
  2. Place thumb on opposite side of ball even with the middle finger, pressing down until the thumbnail gets white.
  3. Remove index finger from ball (having it sticking straight up).
  4. Point middle finger in direction of first base.
  5. Use the left hand to grasp the right wrist just below the right hand.
  6. Position a receiver 15 to 20 feet away.
  7. Propel ball with wrist action to the right to impart a 6/12 type rotation clockwise. Keep the elbow up.
  8. Get a tight spin to increase the bite of the curve.
  9. Put the index finger on and attempt to increase rotation and tightness.

You can do this drill 10 to 15 times every day to work the wrist—since you’re not throwing curves, this drill shouldn’t stress the elbow.

The Stride Drill involves the rest of the pitcher’s arm beyond the wrist. Have him start in the power position and bring the arm straight across the body, releasing the ball in a slightly higher position than a fastball.

  1. Place back foot against pitcher’s plate.
  2. Extend left foot as far as a normal pitcher’s stride would allow and remain on the ball of the foot.
  3. Raise right elbow above shoulder, getting into a power position.
  4. Secure curveball grip with ball (remember to remove index finger).
  5. Have forearm vertical.
  6. Position a receiver about 30 feet away.
  7. Throw the ball, keeping the elbow up, imparting 6/12 clockwise rotation.
  8. Reach out and come across the release point, visualized as a line going to a target from the pitcher’s chest.
  9. Bring arm across body and to the bottom of its normal cycle.

Keep back foot back and follow through, burying the shoulder as if dipping into an imaginary bucket to the left of the front leg. (If you can visualize a circle next to the pitcher’s body that’s slightly tipped so its edge is just left of the left knee, his hand comes down to that.)

Unleashing the ‘Scroogy’

The reverse curveball, also called the screwball or “scroogy,” does everything the curveball does, except it breaks in the opposite direction because the wrist pronates outward. Thrown by a right-hand pitcher, a screwball can:

• Break in on a right-hand batter
• Break down
• Break away—this is the most startling one there is, like the kind former Expos and Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall threw back in the 1970s.
• Be off speed
• Be fast

A screwball is an extremely effective pitch, but because it is awkward for most pitchers, it can cause strain, and it is often difficult to control. The contortion required to throw a screwball is substantial, so it’s not a convenient or comfortable pitch for everyone. But once all the growth in a pitcher’s arm has taken place, he can experiment with the screwball.

Pitchers who are very flexible in the wrist area will have more luck with the scroogy, as the more rotation one gets, the better the screwball will be. The middle finger, like with the curveball, is the trigger. Assistance with the index finger in helping and the thumb turning to the left will give a good release to the pitch.

Screwballs should be delivered at a certain angle, one that gives optimum break. The release point must be learned by the pitcher, as it is likely to be different than the fastball or curveball release point. To make the screwball go down, the thumb must be pointing down and the finger must be in front of the ball. The hand should be pronated outward and the hand should be turned over to get the down break. Downspin can be created in a 12/6 direction (similar to a curveball). If a 9/3 axis is maintained, the down break should be similar to the curveball. If the axis is 2/8, the ball should break in and down on the right-hand batter—the reverse of the outcurve.

A screwball, by necessity and the nature of its aerodynamics, is an off-speed pitch. Throwing it hard defeats its actions and negates its usefulness. There has to be a speed comfortable to the rotation, which is absolutely necessary for its break. Much experimentation has to occur before this optimum speed is achieved.

A Thing of Beauty

A great curve is a stunning sight, truly an aesthetic event and a beautiful phenomenon. Imitations are quickly revealed. Good curves are common, great ones are few and rare. The difference between the two can be slight in technique, but nonetheless shows its difference in appearance and effect.
Batters, no matter how adept at adjustments they are, do not relish any pitch that has two dimensions (down and away) to it. Truly great curves are not often hit. A ball tailing down and away (on a right-hand batter) or down and in (on a left-hand batter) is challenging even to the best of hitters. When you mix speeds, you have a very viable way of pitching.
The ultimate curve will enhance a fastball in a way that a power slider will not. However, anyone astute enough to master the rotations and read the ball effectively can execute both pitches and maybe even a screwball, thus increases his level of pitching effectiveness.

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