In a perfect world, a pitcher is as machine-like as possible. The traditional way of training youngsters includes schooling them to disguise the ball as much as possible, and to refine their release point to the degree that, no matter what they're throwing, the hitter has no hint until they actually see the ball. By then, it's too late.
Apocryphal stories (okay, ones my dad told me, whatever) of Juan Marichal or Sandy Koufax tell us that they had objectively different motions depending on the pitch. You knew it was a curve or a fastball. You just couldn't hit it. That was before Big Baseball created the industry of Little League and travel that eventually empties out in the majors. Pitchers are supposed to have one motion. But sometimes, that's not how it's supposed to be. Sometimes, consistency isn't king.
The most famous recent example of this is Rich Hill. Hill exploded from relative anonymity last season as a crafty curveballing lefty from another era. Instead of the usual mix of pitches, Hill throws two or three curveballs from a couple different angles, and makes batters look like fools despite rarely cracking 90. His release point map is just so much fun to look at:
It's just kind of a smudge. Compare that to a man who is, in many ways, a perfect pitcher: Corey Kluber. He encapsulates the robotic attack that pitching coaches school their charges on:
Kluber is a better pitcher than HIll, yes. The Tribe ace is also representative of what most pitchers in baseball strive for. Yet not as much of a gulf exists between the two as you might think, given that one is a Cy Young contender and the other a middle-aged dude. Kluber's .258 xwOBA tops Hill's .273, but that split is not as stark as I expected. Strikeout rates (34.1 percent for Kluber, 30.1 for Hill), hard hit rate (28.9 for Kluber, 28.3 for Hill), and several markers of a good pitcher are closer than expected.
Kluber has allegedly the "best pitch in baseball,” and he does do similar things with it as Hill does wit his curveball, in that he can make his breaker move in a couple different planes. But Hill takes it to an extreme: he can make basically the same pitch look like three or four different offerings depending on how he throws it. (I bet one day he tosses a slider so low, it actually breaks up and cracks physics. (Do not take that bet please.)) Hill is a weird pitcher, but he’s also an excellent pitcher, way better than the vast majority of major leaguers who throw the way that’s always been taught.
It's not just Hill though. Back in Cleveland, lefty reliever Tyler Olson made 30 appearances this year and allowed zero earned runs. He did this despite breaking 90 mph JUST nine times this summer. I wrote about it. It's amazing. He’s amazing. But he also became the budget Andrew Miller by coming at all types of angles:
It’s not as broad as Hill, but it’s all over the place. Which is why his mini-Olson, as designed by Trevor Bauer, looks like a bisected octopus:
PiTchers like this are fun. Athleticism is ostensibly about being bigger and faster than the other guy. But baseball has this space for finesse and subtlety that other sports have discarded. It's led to Brad Peacock going from, as the Houston Chronicle call it, a "mediocre Triple-A pitcher" to one of the key cogs in a World Series contending rotation. Like Hill, like Olson, he got to the guile:
It’s not quite as much a smudge as Hill, more a fat wavy snake or a cat in loaf mode. But there’s a decided range of attack, and for hitters that have come up with the teaching to find release points, it’s simply brilliant.
At some point, this has to bleed out into more talented pitchers, guys with the high velocity and insane breaking pitches that are the usual path to big-league success. I’m not saying Kershaw or someone will just regularly start dropping arm angles, though he’s apparently given it a whirl now and again, as his chart from this year suggests. But Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball did make a prescient point the other night. Responding to a tweet about how Kyle Hendricks, another man who lives off craft rather than sheer velo, and how Hendricks holds his two-seamer —
Kyle Hendricks, pitch grips. pic.twitter.com/yNJx3zJHPH— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 6, 2017
— Boddy noted, “Look at the 2sFB grip. No, it’s not wrong. You are thinking dogmatically about grip. Think spin axis and manipulation.” That’s not how you’re “supposed” to hold a two-seamer, but Hendricks doesn’t care. He just throws what feels good, what gives him the right axis and makes the ball come out of his hand right, and gets the break he wants.
I can’t help but wonder if there’s going to be a swing over time towards this idea of just throwing rather than pitching like some kind of automaton. A muddling in the stiff definition of pitches. You can classify Trevor Bauer as throwing a cutter or a slider, but it’s the same pitch that doesn’t fit perfectly into either category. Corey Klbuer throws an undefined “breaking ball.” Andrew Miller has talked about how he shapes his slider to do different things depending on the situation, sometimes for more depth and sometimes for more lateral movement. And this is just on the Indians!
Pitchers everywhere today have been taught by the half-century of ingrained lessons and rules that have come from youth baseball. That “old school” has long infected the pros, and is the reason the sport develops so slowly. I half-think it’s what broke Dontrelle Willis. That guy could throw, but people wanted to cram him into a box he didn’t fit. He flamed out, and we’re all worse off for it.
As with so much that’s wrapped up in dogma, you wonder what we lost throughout the past because the unorthodox isn’t allowed in baseball. Hill, Olson, Peacock; these guys certainly aren’t a vanguard of a new way of doing things, of changing the face of baseball and pitching in particular. But they’re notably important pitchers on the three best teams this year. People — whether coaches, scouts, or other fringey struggling-to-make-it players — notice things. They notice where success springs, and they copy it, because maybe it’ll work again. Throwing a baseball is a mutant activity the body hates anyway. Fiddling with release points and arm angles takes that hard activity and makes it harder, but it makes it worse for the hitter, too. It takes a great athlete to pitch like that, sure. But that’s where we are now — even the 38-year-olds make average college kids look like fat slobs.
Deception. Novelty. Taking advantage of your own strengths, and the other guy’s weakness. That’s what it takes to succeed in baseball when you don’t have the left (or right) arm of God. The guys mentioned here found that out, and they’re amazing for mastering it.
Merritt Rohlfing is a writer at Beyond the Box Score, Let’s Go Tribe, and probably somewhere else. He produces the excellent podcast Mostly Baseball. Listen to his vital thoughts @merrittrohlfing.