7/12/17 - The San Carlos tournament next week marks the official end of the 2017 Little League season. However we will still continue to post content in the off-season. Some content will be loosely related to baseball, but entertaining (hopefully) nonetheless. We will also post some old articles on the site, starting with the one below about Hugh Irwin, who is celebrating his 32nd year with the San Carlos Little League Board in 2017.
San Carlos Tournament Kicks Off Tuesday July 18th
For the complete schedule, results, and standings of games, check out the San Carlos Tournament Section on the top right hand side of this web site.
There are 5 Divisions in this tournament
San Carlos has the following teams in this tournament...
7U/8U - Lumberjacks
8U - Missions
9U - Missions, Lumberjacks, Seals
10U - Bears, Lumberjacks, Missions, Impact
11U - Missions Orange, Missions Blue, Lumberjacks
It's going to be a fun week of baseball and good luck to all the teams in this tournament!
The Decline of Baseball and Why it Matters
SCLL registration was down over 100 kids last year.
33% of all 11 year olds that played in 2016 hung up their cleats in 2017.
Registration had been trending up until 2017.
Was this a one year anomaly?
Or a sign of a more ominous trend?
I ran into the below article in The Huffington Post and really thought the points were valid so decided to post it.
When I was a kid me and my friends would go out and play without supervision.
We would invariably find ourselves at the park and whoever was there would wind up playing baseball.
Summers were full of endless pickup games until it got dark.
I don't see a lot of pickup baseball games at the park now.
In fact I live 2 blocks from Burton Park and I'm amazed at how many times during summer both baseball fields are completely empty.
Granted I do not let my kid run out to the park without supervision either, as those days are long gone.
But there is some truth to the point that the author makes in her article below.
When I pick up my kid from school, I see kids playing football, basketball and even ultimate frisbee...but not baseball.
Perhaps a sign of the times for this instant gratification generation, but for this long time baseball fan, it is sad to see.
By Laura Hanby Hudgens
April 9th, 2017
Years ago I read the book A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Sane Existence by Ference Matte. In this book, Matte laments the loss of simple pleasures, among them baseball. He compares the joys of a Sunday afternoon pick-up game to the intense, high stakes sport that kids play today. Maybe he has a point, but as the mother of a boy playing intense, high stakes baseball, I can tell you that it is anything but a joyless sport.
My son loves the game and everything that goes with it — long practices, weekends away, the fierce competition. Still, I wonder if he will still be playing five years from now. I wonder if he’ll have anyone to play with.
Apparently, baseball is dying or at least significantly declining. According to this article by Mark Fisher in the Washington Post, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, has concerns about the sport’s decreasing appeal to young people. The article points out that MLB viewers are the oldest of any sport, with 50 percent being over the age of 50. And for the first time ever there were no baseball players among ESPN’s 2015 list of favorite athletes. Perhaps most telling, is the fact that over the last 12 years the number of kids participating in Little League Baseball has dropped sharply, causing many towns to resort to multi-city teams and leagues. With the sport losing popularity, it’s no wonder that some Little League teams and high schools are struggling to recruit enough players. Buy why? Why is America’s favorite sport losing ground with American kids?
Baseball is too slow for a generation of kids raised on TV and video games.
As Fisher points out, baseball involves a lot of waiting. Waiting for a turn to bat. Waiting in the outfield for the ball to come your way. Waiting for someone to finally hit the ball or to strike out. Baseball is also a thinking game. In some ways it requires more patience and concentration than football or basketball. There’s less hustle and more calculation. For kids used to instant entertainment and near constant stimulation, baseball can seem boring.
It’s expensive to play baseball.
Bats, gloves, helmets, shoes, private lessons. All that adds up in a hurry. Then there’s the cost of travel...
There is growing pressure for kids to specialize.
As I mentioned, my son is on a high stakes team. He loves it. We love it. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that we are part of the problem. It can be a significant financial burden for parents to have a child play on a traveling team. There’s the expense of travel and time away from work. That eliminates some kids who might otherwise play. And traveling teams have a longer season than city league teams — some even play year round. So the boys on these teams naturally get in a lot more practice. When summer rolls around again, some kids’ only experience with the game is getting clobbered by teams who play several months out of the year. For these kids, soon baseball just isn’t that fun anymore.
Kids from single parent homes are far less likely to play baseball.
According Fisher’s article, a recent study by David Ogden at the University of Nebraska found that 95 percent of all college baseball players come from two parent homes. That is a remarkable statistic, but the logic is simple. Boys learn to love and play baseball from their dads. Not only that, but considering the substantial financial and time commitment that the game often requires, many single parent homes likely find it difficult to manage the sport.
Baseball is a humble sport.
In addition to the other strikes against baseball (pun intended), Fisher makes the point that baseball has far fewer big time celebrity players than football or basketball. That’s because the nature of the game does not lend itself to show stealing or cockiness. Thanks to big money endorsement deals and massive fan followings, young boys are more likely to be drawn to flashier, more in-your-face sports.
The way kids play has changed.
It’s easy to blame video games, but the way kids play has changed for a lot of reason. The days of The Sandlot are over. Parents today are far less likely to send kids out into the neighborhood to play unsupervised for hours on end. And school recesses are much shorter and more controlled than ever before. It might be possible in twenty minutes for kids to run a few football plays or a play a quick game of basketball. But it’s not likely that they will have enough time to organize and execute even one inning of baseball.
So, what does it matter? Unless you are a rabid baseball fan, who really cares if the game continues to attract kids and be America’s favorite sport?
It matters because even those who aren’t fans of the game admit that baseball is a great sport. Baseball requires a different level of discipline than other sports. Baseball combines athleticism and brain power. Baseball matters because it has shaped our culture and our kids for decades. It is a part of our history. But mostly it matters because, as a friend of mine who has coached the game pointed out, baseball is a microcosm of America. The things that affect baseball — money, the family, values, and how kids spend their time — are things that affect us all.
Chris Berman's Top 25 Nicknames
I was saddened to hear of the death of ESPN's Chris Berman's wife in a car accident in Connecticut a few months ago.
Chris Berman changed the sports landscape when he joined ESPN a few months after the network launched in 1979.
The sports landscape in 1979 and well into the 1980’s was a very different place.
You had to wait until the 10:00 news on KTVU to get any scores, and as a kid I couldn't stay up that late.
So you would have to wait until the morning paper the next day and cross your fingers that they got the late west coast games in there.
Games were routinely tape delayed.
Wimbledon and French Open…tape delayed.
NBA playoffs, tape delayed. (Game 3 of the 1986 conference finals between the Rockets and Lakers was the last NBA playoff game ever showed tape delayed on CBS).
March Madness, tape delayed on CBS at 11:30 p.m.
Even the Miracle on Ice game was tape delayed.
ESPN and Berman came on the scene and all that changed.
Every big game was shown live, regardless of the time.
I got cable in 1988 and the thing I was most excited about was Chris Berman's nicknames on ESPN SportsCenter.
Berman semi-retired from ESPN this year. He will no longer do NFL Primetime, the NFL Draft, or the Home Run Derby (thankfully we won't have to hear his "back back back back" call).
But love him or hate him, Berman was the key figure in the key network that made things better for every sports fan.
For everyone that dislikes Chris Berman or ESPN for what they have become, just remember what it was like in 1979 and how much things in sports have changed for the better.
ESPN showed every match at Wimbledon live this year.
I got to watch my favorite tennis player Roger Federer win his 19th Major LIVE.
In 1980 NBC showed my then favorite player Bjorn Borg win Wimbledon in the greatest match ever in 5 sets over John McEnroe TAPE DELAYED.
I would have woke up early to watch the live match, but NBC deprived me and other tennis fans by showing the match tape delayed.
In fact NBC was showing Wimbledon and the French Open on tape delay up until a few years ago when ESPN bought out their rights.
And the Miracle on Ice game...well my Uncle told me the result of the game before ABC showed it tape delayed many hours later.
So much for that.
Regardless of how annoying ESPN can be with all the talking heads and shouting sports opinions and 7 man NFL pre-game shows laughing at their own jokes, I will always remember what it was like in 1979 and be grateful for that.
So in tribute to the Berman family during this difficult time in dealing with their loss, here are the Web Site Guy's Top 25 Chris Berman nicknames.
Chris Berman, one of my favorite sports broadcasters of all time.
He had the worst comb over of any sports broadcaster ever.
But he did the best football highlights.
He made the NFL Draft an event.
He had the best catch phrases.
He was the best SportsCenter anchor.
He loved gambling.
And he was a true original.
Nobody circled the wagons like Chris Berman.
25. AJ “Touchy” Feely
24. Delino “Decoconut” Deshields
23. “Hey! You! Get Off Of” Mike Cloud
22. Greg “The Wrath Of” Zahn
21. “Ground Control To” David Toms
20. Bert “Be Home” Blyleven
19. Bernard “Innocent Until Proven” Gilkey
18. Brook Jacoby “Wan Kanobi”
17. John “I Am Not A” Kruk
16. Chuck “New Kids On” Knoblauch
15. Eric “Sleeping With” Bienemy
14. Todd “Snap Crackle” VanPopple
13. Rene “La Kook” Arocha
12. Joey “Cask of” Amalfatano
11. Mike “Enough” Aldrete
10. Bruce “Two Minutes For” Ruffin
9. Jim “Saturday Night” LeFebvre
8. Sean “Personal” Landeta
7. Joe “Actual Retail” Price
6. Andre “Bad Moon” Rison
5. Gary Sheffield “Of Dreams”
4. Mike “Lego My” Gallego
3. Oddibe “Young Again” McDowell
2. Lance “You Sunk My” Blankenship
1. John “Tonight, Let It Be” Lowenstein
John "Tonight, Let It Be" Lowenstein - if you are old enough to remember the Lowenbrau commercials, this nickname will never be topped
Add campaign from 1977, Tonight Let It Be Lowenbrau
This article was originally posted on the SCLL web site on 11/16/15.
Hugh Irwin - 32 Years of Service on the SCLL Board
We all have fond memories of 1985.
Before the Internet and social media.
Before iPhones could magically connect you to the world and disconnect you from your immediate surroundings.
Back when a playdate meant “Mom I’m going to the park to play with my friends. I’ll be back for dinner”.
Back when there were 5 channels on TV and if you wanted to get a 6th channel, you had to hold the antenna with your hands and stay frozen in that position.
The #1 Box Office Movie of 1985 was “Back to the Future”.
And the #1 song was “St. Elmo’s Fire” by John Parr.
1985 was also the year Hugh Irwin first joined the San Carlos Little League Board.
But unlike John Parr, Hugh Irwin is no one hit wonder.
You see Hugh Irwin is celebrating his 30th anniversary on the Board this year.
As a current member of the Board I wanted to find out about Hugh’s story.
What kept him on the Board so long when most parents step down after their kids age out of Little League?
What changes has he seen in baseball and on the Board in his years of service to the community?
So I sat down with Hugh at his house in San Carlos on Rosewood Ave. to hear his story.
Hugh has been living in this same house for nearly 50 years since he bought it in 1967 for $26,000.
That seems like great value for a house now, but it was more than four times Hugh’s salary then as a grade school math teacher.
Hugh grew up in Redwood City and although he loved baseball as a young kid, he couldn’t play Little League.
Redwood City did not have a Little League at that time and the closest Little League was in Palo Alto.
But Hugh got his chance to play baseball when he went to Menlo Atherton High School.
He played catcher and right field because in Hugh’s words, “I was always the slowest kid on the team”.
In 1963 Hugh married his wife Kathy and they are still together today in their 52nd year of marriage.
They have 3 kids, Claire, Heather, and Christopher and Hugh has 3 grandkids with one more on the way in a few months.
In 1967 Hugh took his first full time job as a math teacher.
Hugh has been teaching math ever since, and at almost every grade level.
He still teaches math today at Redeemer Lutheran School in Redwood City.
Hugh first joined the San Carlos Board as the Field Coordinator when Christopher was 8 years old in 1985.
There were 6 members on the Board then compared to around 40 now.
There were only 3 Divisions in Little League in 1985…Farm, Minors and Majors.
Hugh coached all of Christopher’s teams and when the game was over, he had to umpire the next game.
The format back then called for coaching your game and then you had to umpire the next one.
It seems like a lot of work, but Hugh loved it because he got to know all of the kids.
There were many differences in 1985 when Hugh joined the Board.
He said the fields were in worse shape than they are now which required a lot of his time and effort as Field Coordinator to get the fields in good playing condition.
There was also no Snack Shack.
“There was no access to pitching machines back then. There was no way to get professional instruction so kids relied more on the coaches to teach them the game”.
Hugh has seen many good players pass through San Carlos Little League over the years.
He said the best player he coached was Mike Zirelli, who pitched several years in the San Francisco Giants farm system, and is now on the Board as well.
And Hugh has seen Daniel Nava and Daniel Descalso, who both played in the major leagues, come through San Carlos Little League.
Hugh has worn many hats in his 30 years with the Board.
He has been Field Coordinator, Director of Umpires, and most recently Player Agent.
As a Player Agent he helps coordinate the Triple A and Majors tryouts each year and helps resolve any player issues that may occur.
He said he is most proud of helping organize the Majors draft to ensure a fair balancing of teams.
But Hugh’s time on the Board is really just the tip of the iceberg.
I brought my notepad and pen and tried to keep track of all that Hugh has done for the community, and I couldn’t keep up!
He coached over 20 different soccer teams.
In fact Hugh was an avid soccer player and played for a long time but finally had to stop “because 8 year olds were running faster than me”.
He coached Pony League baseball for 10 years.
He coached Babe Ruth baseball for another 10 years.
He coached his daughters’ softball teams.
He refereed soccer for over 10 years.
He is currently a math tutor for the Sequoia High School football team.
And I think he told me some more but my pen was furiously trying to get ink on the paper and I missed a few.
So why does Hugh continue to volunteer his time after all these years?
“Because I love teaching, I love people, and I love helping kids”.
I guess it is really that simple.
And much to the good fortune of the San Carlos community, Hugh has no plans of “retiring” any time soon.
As I sat down with Hugh, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between him and former UCLA legendary coach John Wooden.
Players that Wooden coached speak of him in reverential tones.
Bill Walton said that he learned more about life from Wooden than basketball…that Wooden cared more about the person than the player.
The same can be said about Hugh Irwin.
He has dedicated his entire life to teaching young kids to not only get better at sports, but to become better people.
In 2004 Hugh was coaching Menlo Atherton against Sequoia High.
The umpire made a terrible call that went in Hugh’s favor.
The Sequoia coach was irate, charged out of the dugout ready to confront the umpire, and then stopped and went back in the dugout.
After the game the Sequoia coach came up to Hugh and said, “you know I was so angry at that bad call I was going to come out and yell at the umpire, and then I saw you in the opposing dugout and I just couldn’t throw a tantrum with you watching”.
That just about sums it up.
Hugh Irwin has been giving back to the community his entire life.
And while other one hit wonders of the 80’s have long since burned out, Hugh continues to shine bright and continues to give.
Hugh Irwin - 32 Years on the SCLL Board
To Curve or Not to Curve?
SCLL is one of many Little Leagues that does not allow kids to throw curveballs. But there are other Little Leagues that do allow kids to throw curveballs.
When San Carlos faces other District teams that do throw curveballs, there is no question an advantage for those other teams.
It is hard to hit a curveball if you don't see it often.
And it is hard to throw one if you don't throw it in game situations often.
The question has been debated...does throwing curveballs for kids 12 years and younger hurt their arm and make them susceptible to future arm damage. That has been the prevailing theory for years.
But there is another theory that throwing curveballs at a young age builds up resistance to throwing curves as an adult, sort of like an anti-venom.
Which theory is correct? There is no right answer, or at least an answer that someone can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
And while SCLL has no plans to allow kids to throw curveballs next year, it always makes for an entertaining discussion.
The following story was written by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci on May 23rd, 2017. It's an interesting history of the curveball's invention, it's current increasing usage in MLB, and even discusses kids throwing curves at the end.
Tom Verducci - Sports Illustrated
May 23rd, 2017
Terrifyingly beautiful, like summer thunderstorms and whitewater rapids, the curveball of Astros pitcher Lance McCullers can be found at the intersection of violence and wonder. It is a demon he unleashes on hitters, especially with two strikes, when he throws it 68% of the time.
He takes the nail of his right index finger and places it into the seam of the baseball where it curves around the MLB logo. He places his middle finger directly over the long seam. He places his thumb on the bottom of the ball, over another seam.
Seams are held in triplicate. Seams beget grip. Grip begets force.
“I just try to rip over it and throw it as hard as I can,” McCullers says. “It’s an aggression pitch for me. It’s called an off-speed pitch, but I don’t view it that way.”
The middle finger applies tremendous pressure on its seam, the nail of the index finger applies only a bit of pressure, and the thumb, a lazy hitchhiker along for the ride, applies none. When the process works perfectly, it takes only the split second when the ball has just left McCullers’s hand—as his head snaps to the side, as the ball starts to spin at 2,850 revolutions per minute and as the fastest curveball in the majors among starters flies up to 88 miles per hour—for McCullers to know the poor batter is toast.
“I feel it come off my hand and I know it’s most likely going to result in a punch-out,” he says. “A hitter knows off the hands when the ball hits his sweet spot and it’s going to be a homer. I have that feeling when it comes out of my hand. Like, This is a really quality pitch.”
He smiles fiendishly.
“And then I start fading toward the dugout sometimes,” he says.
Even as the ball leaves his hand, even before it completes its 55-foot thrill ride, the last 10 of which are a stomach-turning, Coney Island drop, even before the doomed batter swings at where the demon used to be—McCullers knows how it will end.
No pitch has ended more aspiring careers than the curve. As former Kentucky congressman Ben Chandler once said on behalf of the great diaspora who know the feeling too well, “I was planning to be a baseball player until I ran into something called a curveball.”
No pitch causes major league hitters to freeze more often. No pitch has inspired more legends, myths, fear, grips, nicknames, and ooohs and aaahs. It is a wonder of physics, geometry and art, a beautiful, looping arc through space made possible by the interplay between gravity and the Magnus force—a result of the flow of air around the spinning sphere—that often leaves us, and the hitter, paralyzed in wonderment.
This season marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the first curveball (and its first controversy). So it’s fitting that McCullers and the red-hot Houston Astros are at the forefront of a revolution in pitching. Spin is in. Thanks partly to technology and the ubiquity of high velocity, the curveball is enjoying a very happy 150th birthday.
The Astros soared to the best start in franchise history (29–15) by throwing 14.1% curveballs, a regimen exceeded only by the White Sox (16.6) and the Red Sox (14.6) and Indians (14.2%). Houston ranks next to last in percentage of fastballs thrown (47.3). “I joke with the guys that the four-seam fastball is a dying pitch,” McCullers says.
He’s only half-joking. Even though velocity keeps increasing (the average fastball velocity, now at 92.7 mph, is up for a seventh straight year), the number of fastballs keeps declining. Since 2002, when Pitch F/X technology began capturing pitch data, the percentage of fastballs has declined from 64.4% to 55.4%. Houston is one of four clubs to turn conventional pitching wisdom on its ear by throwing fastballs with a minority of its pitches.
The Astros, who led the majors in curveball usage last year, have built a rotation around ace Dallas Keuchel, whose 79-mph slider acts like a short curveball, and curveball specialists McCullers, Charlie Morton, Mike Fiers and the injured Collin McHugh. Their success follows on the heels of a 2016 season in which major league pitchers threw about 9,000 more curveballs than in ’15, and the pennant-winning Indians relied heavily on curves in their postseason run.
“It’s easier these days to find guys with good fastballs, because there are a lot of guys who throw in the mid-90s and high 90s,” says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow. “But finding a guy who can actually spin a ball, it’s a skill teams are looking for more now because it’s a differentiating factor. If you can find a guy that can throw hard and spin a ball, that usually bodes well.”
Said one NL general manager, “Three teams have become big, big believers in the combination of high fastballs and curveballs: the Astros, Dodgers and Rays. Those teams are heavy into analytics. The game is changing away from the sinker/cutter/slider guys.”
In the early going, overall curveball usage is down slightly from last year (10.2% to 10.0), but the teams and individuals who buy into curveballs are putting a greater emphasis on the pitch. Among veteran pitchers throwing a career-high percentage of curveballs (which includes the knuckle curve) are Drew Pomeranz of Boston (45%), Alex Cobb of Tampa Bay (36%), José Quintana of the White Sox (32%), James Paxton of Seattle (20%), and Rick Porcello of Boston (19%).
They have followed the recent lead of pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill of the Dodgers and McCullers, who have found success by throwing more breaking balls and fewer fastballs. There are also craftsmen with outlier curveballs like Gio Gonzalez of Washington, who throws a four-seam curveball his father showed him alongside their Hialeah house at age 13; and A.J. Griffin of Texas, who throws one of the slowest (68 mph) and biggest-dropping (nine inches) lollipops in the game. Confidence in curveballs has grown as technology began to measure the pitch’s spin rate, spin axis, velocity, horizontal and vertical break—and how much trouble hitters have hitting it.
“The data is showing, if the curveball is your best pitch, use it more often,” says manager John Farrell of the curveball-mad Red Sox. “It used to be that if you threw less than 60% fastballs, you were not going to start. That’s gone out the window.”
Says McCullers, “I don’t view my curveball as complementary stuff. Whereas old school was more like, ‘No, establish the fastball, pound the heater and wait until they prove they can hit it.’ Well, what if I have two guys on and I’m trying to establish my heater, and he hits it out of the ballpark? You saw it in the postseason: Now it’s about pitchers challenging guys with their best pitch, and that means a lot of curveballs.”
The legend of the first curveball starts like this: In the summer of 1863 a 14-year-old boy named William Arthur Cummings experienced a eureka moment one day while tossing clamshells along a Brooklyn beach with some buddies. “All of a sudden it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way,” Cummings later wrote.
Four years of practice later, Cummings, then pitching for an amateur Brooklyn team as a 5' 9", 120-pound righthander, broke out his new pitch in a game against Harvard University on Oct. 7, 1867. Harvard won 18–6, but Cummings rejoiced in the success of his curveball, later writing, “I could scarcely keep from dancing with pure joy.”
By then Cummings had earned the nickname “Candy,” a Civil War–era honorific that denoted the best at his craft. Cummings pitched 10 years before a sore arm sent him off to a career in painting and wallpapering.
Other pitchers of that era, including Fred Goldsmith, also claimed to have thrown curveballs, but Cummings defended his legend as its inventor so often and so well that in 1939, 15 years after dying, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame with a plaque that reads, “Invented curve as an amateur ace of Brooklyn Stars in 1867.” His enshrinement came five weeks after Goldsmith went to his grave clutching an 1870 newspaper clipping that he insisted proved he was the original curveball artist.
From Candy to Sandy (Koufax) to the Dominican Dandy (Juan Marichal), the curveball gained mythic status, partly because it relied on folklore, not empirical evidence as with fastballs and their easily understood miles per hour.
Dead Ball era ace Mordecai (Three Finger) Brown flummoxed hitters with a curveball that spun crazily out of a make-do grip: He had lost part of his right index finger in a threshing-machine accident, mangled his middle finger chasing a rabbit and had no use of his pinky. No less a hitter than Ty Cobb called Brown’s curveball the most devastating pitch he ever saw.
Stan Musial had similarly high praise for the curveball of “Toothpick” Sam Jones, an intimidating 6' 4" righthander who pitched from different arm angles and snorted like a horse (because of a sinus condition). “Sam had the best curveball I ever saw,” said Musial, who batted .122 in 49 at bats against Jones.
Other legendary curveballs belonged to Camilo Pascual, who earned Ted Williams’s praise as owning “the most feared curveball in the American League for 18 years”; Koufax, who generated outrageous spin by throwing his curve with four seams rather than the standard one or two; Bert Blyleven, who threw his curve with so much force that one of his catchers, Phil Roof, could hear Blyleven’s middle finger snap against his palm; and Dwight Gooden, who threw such a majestic curveball that Mets announcer Ralph Kiner, riffing on players’ slang term for the pitch, Uncle Charlie, upgraded it to a Lord Charles. A modern master, Adam Wainwright, adopted “UncleCharlie50” as his Twitter handle.
The break of a well-thrown curveball holds illusory power. All pitches pass from a hitter’s central vision—two eyes tracking its path—to his peripheral vision as the ball gets closer to the plate. (Pitches move too fast and too near for central vision to track it all the way to the bat.) The curve moves the most just as it passes from a hitter’s central vision to his peripheral vision, which means the hitter swings at where he thinks the pitch is headed, not where it actually is.
The derivation of Uncle Charlie is unclear, but more easily understood nicknames for the curve are “bender,” “hook,” “unfair one,” and “deuce” (in honor of the universal two-finger signal from the catcher). Less obvious are two nicknames derived from the Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), a woodpecker with a curveball-like swooping path to its prey: yellowhammer (the bird’s nickname) and yakker (derived from yawker, another term for the bird).
Legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully added to the curveball lexicon on March 9, 2008, when the Dodgers brought a 19-year-old minor league pitcher into a spring training game in Vero Beach, Fla. The pitcher caught Boston first baseman Sean Casey looking at such a rainbow of a pitch for strike three that Scully gushed, “Oh, what a curveball! Holy mackerel. He just broke off Public Enemy No. 1.” It was most viewers’ first introduction to the frightful plunge of the Clayton Kershaw curve, a classic 12-to-6.
Kershaw is the current King of Curves. He throws his hook with a traditional grip, only with his middle finger along the outside of the long seam rather than directly on it. Kershaw has thrown 3,863 curveballs in his career and allowed only nine home runs on it, with a ridiculously low .127 batting average on the pitch.
Oddly, there is almost nothing spectacular about the metrics of Kershaw’s curve. It spins (2,373 rpm) more slowly than the average curve (2,500), and also travels (73.3 mph) more slowly than average (77.8). The wizardry of Kershaw’s curve is in how much it resembles a fastball out of his hand. Kershaw throws each pitch from an identical release point, depriving hitters of an early “tell.”
Kershaw also disables hitters’ second level of decoding: the reading of spin. Four-seam fastballs have true backspin; they rotate so fast over the poles of the baseball that no spin is discernible. The ball appears as a gray circle. Curveballs rotate in the opposite direction—they have topspin—but slow spin or a tilted-spin axis can reveal to the hitter streaks of red across the gray circle, a tip-off from the spinning seams that the pitch is a breaking ball.
Kershaw spins his curveball at a similar rate to his fastball (2,326 rpm). Though they spin in opposite directions, because he throws both with a true overhand delivery, creating pole-to-pole rotation, the pitches first look exactly alike to a hitter: a gray circle. The four-seamer holds its plane while the Kershaw curve can drop nine inches.
“My only thought with my curveball is location,” Kershaw says. “I throw it the same every time. So it’s just a matter of whether I want to throw it for a strike or throw it in the dirt. That’s really about it.
“It’s tough to teach people. Based on the way you were born and the way you throw a baseball is the way your curveball is going to break.”
So inscrutable is the magic of a curveball that it is accepted wisdom in the game that, while pitchers can learn to sink a baseball (with a two-seamer) and cut it (with a cutter or slider), they generally cannot learn how to throw a great curve. It is not a projectable pitch. Organizations have learned that if someone does not show an aptitude to spin the baseball as an amateur, it’s foolish to expect him to acquire the skill.
Says Luhnow, “Yes, I agree, which is why there’s a lot of focus in the amateur world on finding guys who can spin a baseball. It becomes the differentiating factor. It’s not impossible to teach, but it is harder to teach than a slider.”
There is an old saying in baseball: “Don’t throw a curve until you shave.” The long-held belief is that the action of imparting spin on a baseball increases stress on the elbow, especially for young pitchers whose growth plates have not closed.
This is a myth. There is no scientific evidence to show that curveballs for young pitchers are more dangerous than fastballs (as with all pitches, fatigue and poor mechanics are the biggest risk factors). A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham in 2011 found no relationship between throwing curveballs at a young age and any increased risk of arm injuries in young players.
The “shave” rule has not applied to some of the greatest curveball practitioners. Blyleven, following his father’s advice, began throwing his curveball at 13. Kershaw was 11. Pascual began throwing his curveball in Cuba when he was 10. Wainwright learned his when he was nine, from his older brother, Trey. Barry Zito learned his hook when he was seven, and fired curveballs into a mattress with a strike zone painted on it.
Pomeranz, the Boston lefthander, picked up his curve at nine, and his story illustrates how metrics are changing pitching today. Pomeranz’s father, Mike, learned a unique curveball grip from a coach when he was in high school: He held one seam with the knuckle of his index finger and flicked the ball forward. There was no cranking of the elbow or wrist, not even the usual turning of the hand so that the side of the pinky faces the batter and snaps down upon release. Drew would perfect the technique while sitting on a couch, flicking the ball into the air over and over.
Pitching in the conventional fastball-first style, Pomeranz bounced from Cleveland to Colorado to Oakland to San Diego before a 2016 spring training meeting with Padres manager Andy Green and general manager A.J. Preller changed his career. They told him statistics showed that the more he threw his curveball, the better he pitched. They told him to feature the pitch.
“I just kept throwing curveball after curveball, and guys weren’t hitting it,” Pomeranz says. “They kept swinging over it and taking it for a strike. So I just kept throwing it more and more.”
Pomeranz became a 2016 All-Star for San Diego before his trade to the Red Sox. His ERA dropped from 4.07 before the change to 3.62 since. He has given up only five home runs on more than 2,000 curveballs over the past four years.
Pomeranz says, “Growing up or in college, somebody [on the other team] would call you a thumber or yell at you for throwing so many curveballs. But now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, ‘I don’t care. If you’re not hitting it, you can call me anything you want.’ ”
One of the stranger elements to Pomeranz’s curve is its low spin rate—just 2,142 rpm, a function of his knuckleball-like flick upon release. As teams collect more data from new technology, they generally equate higher spin rates with better curveballs.
According to MLB’s Statcast data last year, curves that spun faster than 2,600 rpm generated a lower batting average (.196), weaker contact (86.8-mph exit velocity) and more misses per swing (32.2%) than curves below 2,600 rpm (.225, 87.7 mph and 30.2%). Spin rates for curveballs have become just as much of a scouting tool as radar-gun readings for fastballs. The Astros, for instance, rescued McHugh and his 8.94 ERA from the scrap heap before the 2014 season because his high-spin curveball caught their attention. They took away his sinker and made him a predominantly four-seamer/cutter/curveball pitcher. From 2014 through ’16, McHugh won more AL games, 43, than any pitcher except Cy Young winners David Price, Porcello, Corey Kluber and Félix Hernández.
“That’s a success story,” Luhnow says. “I’ve had the opposite as well, where you think you can change the mix, then once you have the player, he’s not capable or doesn’t want to make the change.
“The one takeaway for me [from the data] is you can have a high spin rate with nice shape, but if you can’t throw it right where you want to throw it, it’s still not going to be a valuable pitch for you. You’re not going to throw it in meaningful counts. But if you have reasonable command, it can be a true weapon.”
Last Aug. 2, McCullers left a start against Toronto with inflammation in his elbow, which was diagnosed as a strained ligament. He did not pitch again the rest of the season. McCullers’s agent, Scott Boras, was concerned that the pitcher’s frequent use of his power curveball was taking a toll on his elbow. So Boras brought McCullers to Neal S. ElAttrache, an orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles.
ElAttrache examined McCullers. He asked him to demonstrate how he threw his curveball. Boras expected ElAttrache to tell McCullers to throw more fastballs. Instead, the doctor told McCullers to keep on snapping hooks.
“He thought the way my arm moves and the way I throw it and hold it, I actually do the least amount of damage to my ligament,” McCullers says. “I’m not manipulating the ball with my wrist. That’s where a lot of people get into trouble. I’ve got my wrist set, I’ve got my grip and I throw it right over the top like a heater. I’m letting it pronate the way it’s supposed to.”
The first time he took the mound this year McCullers threw 60% curveballs. He has increased his average curveball velocity to 86.2 mph; the average fastball velocity in 2002 was 89 mph.
The dirty little secret in this age of advanced velocity is that major league hitters are seeing fewer fastballs. At the current rate, this year they will see about 50,000 fewer fastballs than they did in 2002. Spin, not velocity, is the new currency of pitching.
To understand this change in traditional pitching principals, just watch McCullers when he reaches a full count on a hitter. The full count is the batter-pitcher matchup pushed to its limit. It used to be the baseball equivalent of a Dodge City showdown at high noon. It was the time for a pitcher’s best heat, and both sides knew it.
This year McCullers has thrown 42 full-count pitches—and 35 of them have been curveballs. Hitters are 2 for 21 against curves that ended those at bats. “This is my best pitch,” he explains, “and this is what I’m attacking you with.”
The baseball world is spinning faster and faster. In the name of Candy Cummings, it’s not just folklore. In the three seasons under Statcast, the average curveball spin rate has increased from 2,316 rpm to 2,473 to 2,500. You should forgive hitters if they don’t wish a happy 150th anniversary to their longest-running nightmare.
Clayton Kershaw's curveball grip
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