Disclaimer: There are many different grips and every pitcher has their own way of pitching. This uniqueness makes baseball beautiful, and it makes it hard to catalog. This is a simple guide, not a rule-book. Take it as such please.
Fastballs. The bread and butter of pitching. From the 105 mile-per-hour bullets of Aroldis Chapman to the 84 mile-per-hour floaters of Jered Weaver, the fastball is the go-to pitch of every pitcher in baseball (Steven Wright and R.A. Dickey excluded).
It's the pitch from which all other pitches flow. A pitcher cannot survive if they cannot control their fastball. They cannot thrive in the major leagues, no matter the strength of their secondaries.
Likewise, very few pitchers can survive on their fastballs alone. Those lucky few, ironically, often are not the hard throwers one might imagine. In a world where Noah Syndergaard averages 98 miles-per-hour, his rotation mate Bartolo Colon throws a "fastball" at 87 miles per hour nearly 80 percent of the time, and gets great results with it.
So how is this possible? Why can Bartolo survive when Maikel Cleto sits at 99 miles per hour and he couldn't find a major-league contract if he had a map? We Tigers fans know this better than anyone: throwing gas is no guarantee of lasting success.
The Tigers' farm system is chock full of minor leaguers whose scouting report reads as follows "Hard throwing righty with a slider, inconsistent command." It's the Dave Dombrowski draft pick of choice. The system has produced results: Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya come to mind. But it has its unfinished products as well, such as Bruce Rondon and Angel Nesbitt. The point I'm making is that fastball velocity is not everything. Velocity is the most obvious, but not the most important element of a good fastball.
Fastballs come in several different shapes and varieties. Trying to find the holy trinity of fastball: velocity, command, and control is not easy. As both a player and a coach, as well as a student of the "art of pitching," I hope to put some illumination on the art of the fastball.
Fastballs often have buzzwords that are thrown around them. Words like heavy, explosive, electric, and so on and so on. They are tossed around willy-nilly, which is somewhat confusing and leads to them having little meaning.
Well, they are important. Roy Halladay threw a heavy sinker. Zumaya threw an electric fastball, and Carter Capps throws the most comically explosive fastball I've ever seen, thanks to his psycho delivery and ridiculous extension.
Each of these pitchers made their fastballs weapons that were lethal. Before we start breaking down the main fastballs (4 Seam, 2 seam, Sinker, Cut Fastball), lets delve into the terminology that gets attached to them.Heavy fastballs
A heavy fastball is a fastball that sinks. When someone states a fastball has good sink, it's because it breaks down. Batters usually hit the top of a heavy fastball, resulting in a lot of groundballs because the pitch stays off the sweet spot of the bat. Because the ball is hard to elevate, batters call it "heavy." Get it? Well, someone somewhere thought it was clever and it stuck.
It usually is attached to a sinker or a two-seam fastball, but any fastball can have "heavy" attached to it, so long as it sinks.
For a good view of what a heavy fastball does, check out this graph.
Red is a curve-ball, Green is a normal fastball at around 2,200 rotations per minute (RPM), blue is a sinker, thrown at around 1,900 RPM. This pitch is considered heavy because compared to a normal fastball, it drops.
I know, this information is hardly revolutionary and you probably deduced it yourself, but the reason a fastball sinks is because it has lower than normal rotations per minute.
Fastballs work within the effects of Magnus backspin. Backspin on a fastball creates lift force. Without going too heavy into the science, the more spin on a fastball, the longer it takes for it to drop. So, for a sinker to sink, or a fastball to be heavy, it needs to be thrown with less spin than a normal fastball.
As of 2016, the average spin rate of a major-league fastball is around 2,239 RPM. That's considered average. It's what hitters look for, a 2,239-ish RPM fastball will drop in accordance with that spin rate. So when you get a fastball at 1,800 RPM, it drops faster, or appears to sink. Ergo a sinkerball.
Check out this sinker from Chris Heston. It's subtle, and it breaks late, and it's on the corner. It came in at a little over 2,080 RPM. It's perfect.
So, for a fastball to sink, and be described as "heavy", it must have a lower spin rate (assuming it's thrown from a typical arm slot).Explosive fastballs
You often hear the phrase, "His fastball jumps at the hitters" or, "The fastball explodes out of his hand" or, "it sneaks up on hitters." What does that actually mean?
An explosive fastball is often referred to as a fastball that seems a lot faster or moves a lot more than it should. This is usually due to the release point by the pitcher being closer to home plate, the pitcher having a very quick delivery, or very quick release.
Let's look at a few examples of each of these.
Here is Carter Capps, King of "perceived velocity".
He throws up to 100 miles per hour, but he hurdles down the mound, releasing the ball nearly 18 inches closer to the plate than most pitchers. Every foot closer to the plate adds the impression of three miles per hour, so Carter Capps' 100 mile-per-hour pitch "explodes" out of his hand, and reaches the plate as fast as a pitch at nearly 105 miles per hour.
That's the definition of a perceived velocity masterpiece. According to Statcast, he threw the fastest perceived pitch last year at 104.4 miles per hour. That's better than anyone, Chapman included. As for quick motion, check out significantly slower-throwing Mark Buehrle.
Mark gets the ball, and gets it to the plate. He was extremely difficult to steal on, and he kept batters on their toes. The batter here is surprised, swings under and early, sending a pop up into foul territory. The pitch was at a blazing 85 miles per hour.
Last, the quick release and un-cocking of the arm. For that, we go to the fine pseudo-scientists at Sports Science. Skip to 1:30 for the quick arm release. Honestly though, Chapman can be used anywhere in this analysis, but might as well use him here.Electric fastballs
An electric fastball is easily the most nebulous of the terms. Electric fastballs, unlike the first two terms, are not readily definable. It's used to describe velocity-rich fastballs, or fastballs that move an exceptional amount.
Basically, if a pitcher throws gas or throws mysterious moving fastballs, they have an electric fastball. I spent a lot of time discussing this with a few of my college-age baseball friends, a few fellow pitchers, and my old coach. An "electric" fastball was a term we all agreed that was hard to define. My old catcher stated it best: "You know an electric fastball because it's a pitch that is even harder to catch than to hit."
But still, let's take a look at a few.
That's ridiculous. 99 miles per hour and it slides what seems like a foot to the arm side.
Lastly, the Mad Max fastball:
Disgusting. That's straight not fair. Notice the "flinch" the catcher has. Even he was surprised by the movement on that pitch.
ALRIGHTY! We have finished discussing the terminology surrounding fastballs. Before the comments start coming in, these terms are not exact and represent the views I have spent years of playing baseball to develop. They are not dicta, I am not an expert. I just hope this will help you guys understand the Art of Pitching.
With that in mind, lets discuss the different types of fastballs!
The "vanilla ice cream" of fastballs, the four-seamer is the most generic pitch, yet most important, in baseball. It's the first pitch you learn as a youngster, and it's the most common pitch in MLB.
Why is called a four-seamer? Well, as you throw it, the ball rotates across four seams. Ergo, four-seamer.
This pitch is deceptively simple to throw. Simply cross your fingers across the horseshoe of the baseball, place your thumb on the smooth side of the ball. and throw. Remember to keep a bit of space between your palm and the ball. The idea is that the less skin is on the ball, the quicker it'll pop out of the hand. No wrist action, no pressure, no big deal. Just let it roll off your finger tips.
Quick tip: When you practice this grip, take the ball and hold it palm up, facing the sky. Then place your palm flush with your arm. The ball should just fall out. If it doesn't, you are gripping it way too hard. If you grip a fastball too hard, you'll drive it into the ground or float it. That's not great. Pretend the ball is an egg. Ask Nuke Laloosh.
Now, every pitcher is different. Every pitcher throws it in their unique way. Some are straight as arrows, some dart and dance, some sink. As we've discussed, it depends greatly on the spin rate of the fastball, but a sinking fastball may not be a sinkerball. A cutting fastball may not be gripped like a cut fastball, and so on and so forth.
This is a short summary, since we've discussed and seen plenty of fastball GIFs. There is not a whole lot to this pitch, since there is so much to this pitch. Contradictory, but a fastball is everything. If you can command the fastball on the corners and down in the zone, you could be golden. If you have a high-spin fastball, you can live up in the zone. With raw power, you can blow hitters away.
It's a pitch that is simple, but can do everything.
Sinkerballs can be gripped similar to two-seam fastballs, but they are thrown differently. To be honest, there are tons of grips for sinkers. I threw mine as shown here -- ignore the slider and forkball, I had to dig to find my grip in photo form.
Here are a few more. Seriously though, there are tons of grips for a sinker.
Note: That dude is hairy like a wookie. This is also a grip for a two-seamer. Unlike most fastballs, there are tons of grips for this pitch.
When throwing a sinkerball, a couple things are important. First, make sure your fingers stay on top of the ball. If your fingers roll to the side during release, the ball will cut more than sink. That is bad. You don't want that. Grip the ball ever so slightly tighter than a normal fastball. My coach always stressed "Imagine the ball is jello, grip it hard enough so your fingers sink into the jello, but don't pierce the surface." Yeah, I thought he was full of it, but the advice was surprisingly good. Note: Don't go sticking your fingers in jello. That's disgusting.
When the ball releases, pronate slightly. This gives the ball slight run while still allowing it to sink. See my piece about change-ups to get a better understanding of pronation, this piece is getting a bit long. This is how most pitchers throw a sinker, however, as a side-armer I threw mine a bit differently.
Pitching sidearm was my natural way of throwing, so it was never a huge production. When I threw mine, I used the grip in the first picture. I would move my thumb to the left for lefties, right for righties. This created glove side run into the batters hands.
As the ball came out of my hand, I would let my fingers "catch" on the ball during release. This took additional spin off the ball without having to slow my arm down. I never threw exceptionally hard, so I lived on contact. That's the purpose of a sinker. Unlike almost every other pitch in baseball, if a sinker is thrown, in the perfect world it will be hit, and hit towards a defender.
Here is a couple of my favorite sinkers. Sinkerballers tend to not be super flashy, but some are pretty phenomenal to watch.
I love Justin Masterson. I made a point to watch his starts because he was a true sidewinder and he threw a sinker. The Indians had Masterson, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith at one point, all who threw elite sinkerball/two-seamers. They made baseball fun for the Indians, even though they are the Indians, and ergo suck. This pitch cuts towards the plate, then sinks perfectly to the outside corner. That is just beautiful.
The next is another, albeit more extreme, example of an unusual delivery coupled with a devastating sinker. Enter Brad Ziegler:
Again, notice the pattern. The corners. A sinkerballer lives on the corners. A batter has to have excellent balance at the plate to do anything to an outside-corner sinker besides ground it to the shortstop.
Sinkers are my favorite. They are not flashy, they are all function.
Like I've said, there is a bit of overlap between a two-seamer in terms of grips. However, they are not thrown the same at all.
To throw a two-seamer, grip the baseball at the point where the seams are closest. Place your thumb on the smooth side of the ball, with a slight gap between your palm and the ball, similar to a four-seamer.
When gripping the seams, apply light pressure. This takes practice to get, but you want it to pop out of the hand with ease, but unlike a sinker you don't want your fingers to catch on the ball. This means it flows out like a four-seamer, nice and easy but with more resistance.
The two-seamer is one of the more versatile pitches in baseball. It's a pitch that a lot of guys use to bust players in on the hands, which means the two-seamer makes runs towards same-handed batters. Guys will use it to induce weak contact for hitters that love to pull the ball.
A lot of times you'll see a lefty facing a righty (or vice versa), and a two-seamer comes inside, and they back away because it looks like the fastball is going to hit them, but it stays in, and they get a strike. It is a great way to get the hitters to move their feet in the box, and thus make them uncomfortable and get them off balance. Here is an example:
When you see a fastball with crazy movement, it's usually a cut fastball or a two-seamer. Lets take a look at a few.
Again, to the left handed batter that pitch looks like it's going to bust your kneecap, but it deadens and stays over the plate.
Now, the same-side batter. Again, we are using Brian Wilson. The man's two-seamer was gorgeous. Look at the flailing half swing. Look at the glove, and look at where the pitch ends up.
Here is one of my favorites. The great Mariano Rivera. People talk about his cut fastball constantly, but he paired his cut fastball with a devastating two-seamer. Check out the difference between the two, and imagine how hellish that would be to hit.
Lastly, fellow Yankee Masahiro Tanaka. His two-seamer is unexceptional, but this is as a good a look as you are going to get.
Alrighty. I need everyone to read this, read this carefully. Read it carefully and repeat it.
A CUTTER AND A CUT FASTBALL ARE DIFFERENT.
A CUTTER AND A CUT FASTBALL ARE DIFFERENT.
Once more, with feeling.
A CUTTER AND A CUT FASTBALL ARE DIFFERENT.
"Deep breath." Sorry. As both a coach and a competitor, it is my great pet peeve to hear little kids asking to throw cutters, parents bug me about the great progress they have at home with their kids "cutters." No kid should throw a cutter, and the majority that I see that do throw the harder, horizontal slider-type cutter that is very very very bad for young arms.
That's my rant. But listen, that famous "cutter" that Mo featured was a cut fastball. Cutters and cut fastballs are different, I'll speak more to that someday, but not in this piece. It's already very very long. Kudos if you made it this far.
You cannot talk cut fastballs without talking Mo. Here's the thing: people far smarter and far more eloquent have talked about Mo's cut fastball for years. The above article does a great job on describing the grip of Mo's cut fastball.
Here are a few more:
That's Mo's cutter. Here is another look.
As you can see, there are several different grips. Try 'em, and find what feels comfortable. To throw a cut fastball (this sounds simple but like most things in baseball, it's harder than it looks) hold like a four-seamer, but hold it slightly off-center, and grip the ball with slightly more pressure on the outside of the ball, like a slider but gentler.
Simple, yet hard to perfect. As the article notes, Mariano Rivera more or less wills his cut fastball to cut. Some people just have a natural feel for certain pitches, must be nice.
And my personal favorite, Mark Melacon:
And there we have it! A simple guide to fastballs. This was a labor of love and time, if you liked it please comment and click the REC button. It's awfully nice, and it pads my ego. And make sure to check out my first post on changeups if you haven't already.
Thanks everyone. And most importantly, GOOOOO TIGERS!