July 10, 2014


The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball (BRUCE SCHOENFELD, JULY 10, 2014, NY Times Magazine)

Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels was sitting at a restaurant table in Glendale, Ariz., in March, holding an orange in his left hand. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger, then spread his remaining fingers around the fruit with half an inch between each one. He was demonstrating how he throws his screwball, which is the best in baseball mostly because nobody else has one.

The secret, he said, is to exert no pressure with the pinkie or ring finger. As he moved his arm forward in a slow-motion simulation, he pushed hard with his middle finger on the inside of the orange until much of his hand was beneath it, creating a clockwise spin. "Like driving on your right wheels going around a curve," he said. [...]

In 1974, Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League's Cy Young Award by relying on the screwball. Tug McGraw used it to get to three World Series as a reliever with the Mets and Phillies. In 1984, Detroit's screwballer, Willie Hernandez, was both the American League's top pitcher and Most Valuable Player. The last great practitioner was Fernando Valenzuela, most famously a Dodger, who threw a wide assortment of pitches, none more prominent -- or effective -- than his screwball.

Today few, if any, minor leaguers are known to employ the pitch. College coaches claim they haven't seen it in years. Youths are warned away from it because of a vague notion that it ruins arms. "Pitchers have given it up," says Don Baylor, the former player and manager, who now works with Angels hitters. "Coaches don't even talk about it. It's not in the equation."

Many of baseball's best hitters have never seen a screwball. This spring, I spent time in nearly a dozen clubhouses asking about the pitch. "Maybe in Wiffle ball," David Freese, the Angels' third baseman, said. "But I've never sat in a hitters' meeting and heard, 'This guy's got a screwball.' It doesn't come up. I'm not sure I even know exactly what it is."

As a result, the pitch has taken on somewhat mythical properties. "I don't think it's physically possible," the Giants' Buster Posey, the 2012 National League M.V.P., told me one morning. "I just don't believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don't."

Posey's clubhouse locker faced the corner where many of the team's pitchers dress, including Tim Hudson. The veteran fastballer had overlapped in Oakland with Jim Mecir, a right-handed journeyman who threw screwballs from 1995 to 2005. "I didn't think I'd ever see one," he volunteered. "I thought screwballs were just really, really good changeups. Then Mecir threw one, and it broke like a curve in reverse. That's when I understood."

Posted by at July 10, 2014 7:04 PM

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