"I don't know who the fellow was who came up with the first curveball. I don't know when or where. But whoever he was, when he did it, he took all the joy out of baseball." -- Burt Shotten, manager, Brooklyn Dodgers
Brandon Morrow looked around the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse a couple of weeks ago and started counting the curveball pitchers on the then 13-man staff.
"In this clubhouse, I throw one ... Mark ... Brett ... Darren ... Brad ... Loup throws like a big slurve ... Casey has a curve ball," he said.
For the record, that's Buehrle, Cecil, Oliver, Lincoln, Aaron Loup and Janssen -- seven guys who together represent something growing more and more rare in baseball these days.
Yes, the curveball is slowly disappearing from the weapons rack of Major League Baseball, just a generation after almost everyone had your standard fastball, curve and changeup.
Visit the Tampa Bay Rays, for example, and, after Jeremy Hellickson, you're hard put to find a true Uncle Charlie.
Like everywhere else, there's a lot of sliders, sinkers, slurves (a bastardized curve/slider thing), backdoor cutters and other breaking crap that's easier to teach, reputed to not put as much pressure on the arm and nowhere near as pretty as the old-fashioned 12-6 or 10-8 Yellow Hammer, Deuce, Hook or Yakker.
Long-time baseball people tend to blame two main culprits: the strike zone has become so small compared to the olden days that it's much harder to drop a curve in; and it takes much longer to teach a true Uncle Charlie to youngsters who are being rushed much more quickly through the minors, so organizations search for something else.
"I think the big thing among pitching coaches in the minor leagues is they emphasize get the ball down, get the ball down, get the ball down, so therefore you get sinker-slider guys coming up," Toronto's bullpen coach and former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen said as he relaxed in the dugout before a recent, sun-drenched, afternoon game.
"The curveball is a tough pitch with your release point because, if you let go of it too soon, it's belt high and a hanger [and thus tomahawked] and, if you hang onto it a click long, it's in the dirt."
Hentgen believes the number of curveballers on the Blue Jays is merely a coincidence. Asked if he knew how many Tampa Bay has, he paused thoughtfully for a moment ...
"Hellickson, right?" Correct.
"I think there were a lot of curveball pitchers in my era [1991-2004 with Toronto, St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles]," he said. "I think there are quite a number of curveball pitchers right now ... but I think you hit it right on the head there.
"It's hard to get it called for strikes, therefore pitchers get frustrated, so they start slurving the ball in there to get an easier called strike."
Into town, a few days later, came James Alvin Palmer, a 268-game winner and one of the greatest curveball tossers of all time. Now a broadcaster with Orioles, the Hall of Famer (1990) agrees his weapon of choice is gradually disappearing.
Not that it's going to be gone anytime soon, you understand.
Palmer pointed out young Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman on his own club have good ones, as does David Robertson of the New York Yankees, who came in a month ago and struck out three straight Orioles on nine straight Uncle Charlies.
"But the curveball has kind of fallen out of favour because it's just not a pitch that's a high-frequency, percentage-type of strike pitch," he said. "Everyone is telling you, you need to get ahead ... you like to be strike one on hitters and it's kind of a hard pitch to throw for a strike."
Because the curve has always been a perfect weapon to punch out hitters when you're already ahead of the count, those who were great first-strike pitchers (like Palmer) were made famous by it.
Think of Sandy Koufax or Don Sutton. There's Bert Blyleven or even a more modern guy like David Wells. Mostly, it's the pitch of starters and long relievers, however, because a short guy can't afford to fall behind.
"If you can't get ahead of hitters, it's probably not the pitch you want to throw ... because of the small strike zone," Palmer said.
Young pitchers aren't given a curveball until they get to around high-school age because of the stress on still-growing arms. To make it work, the grip and delivery create a forward spin on the ball, causing it to dip at the last minute as it arrives at the plate.
'A tough pitch to throw'
Until Ralph Lightfoot came along in 1949, there were many who believed the curve was simply an optical illusion. But the aeronautical engineer with Sikorsky proved, by using a wind tunnel, that it does indeed curve.
A 2010 peer-reviewed study in PLOS ONE that you'd need Sheldon Cooper to interpret showed that, from a batter's perspective, the ball's movement from direct vision to peripheral vision makes it seem to curve even more.
In other words, the darn thing is hard to hit.
Back in the Jays room, Morrow chatted about how he brought kind of a dinky little curve to the big leagues for the first time with the Seattle Mariners in 2007. It wasn't until he went back to the minors in his second year that a real curve appeared.
"I was sent down to stretch out to start because I was relieving and that's when I started messing around with it," he said. "And I didn't really have command where I could throw it for a swing-and-a-miss, I couldn't dump it over for a strike early in the count or really play with the velocity."
But it arrived one day as, in effect, he kind of taught himself on the side. It worked just fine and now he can get it over for a first strike.
Palmer is convinced that as fewer pitchers have the curveball, throwing one will become much more of a tactical advantage because batters will have less experience with it.
"The irony of all this is that it's a tough pitch to throw, but it's also one of the toughest, along with the change-up, to time as a hitter," he said. "And what is pitching all about? It's trying to disrupt the timing of a hitter."
Follow Malcolm Kelly on Twitter @sportsnag
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