Screwball Pitchers

Something got me thinking about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ great left-hander Fernando Valenzuela this morning.  Actually, it was the fact that the Washington Nationals just signed pitcher Luis Ayala.

Ayala is from Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico.  The Pacific coast of Sinaloa is something of a baseball hotbed.  I misremembered that Fernando was from Los Mochis — he’s from nearby Navojoa, about 50 miles away — Teddy Higuera, who was pretty much the American League’s answer to Fernando Valenzuela, was from Los Mochis.

Those who remember the 1981 season know full well how Fernando took the National League by storm that year.  An alleged 20 year old rookie (in hindsight, I’m convinced he was really at least two years older), Fernando opened the season with eight consecutive complete-game wins, in which he threw five shutouts and allowed a total of only four runs.  A superstar was born in five weeks’ time.

As a Mexican player in Los Angeles, Fernando had all the star power of Joe Dimaggio breaking in with the New York Yankees in 1936, and he had Dimaggio’s quiet kind of charisma, most notably the way he looked heavenward during his motion immediately before throwing the ball toward the plate.

Another thing appealing about Fernando was that he looked nothing like a great athlete.  He wasn’t particularly handsome, he was short (5’10”) and he had a big pot-belly — as a twelve year of old San Francisco Giants fan, I dismissively referred to Fernando at the time as “that fat Mexican kid.”  He really fed the myth or dream that anyone could be a great baseball player if they were just good enough.

Needless to say, Fernando never again pitched as well as he did in his first eight major league starts — no pitcher could — but he went on to have some great seasons for the Dodgers, helping them win the 1981 World Series after the strike, and winning 19 games in 1982 and 21 games in 1986.

Fernando’s most famous pitch was, of course, his screwball, which as thrown by the left-handed Valenzuela, completely broke down right-handed hitters.

Thoughts of Fernando naturally got me thinking about screwball pitchers in baseball history and why there haven’t been more of them, given how devastating the pitch can be.  I found this wikipedia article which lists some of the most famous screwball pitchers in baseball history.

The main reasons the screwball isn’t more commonly thrown is that it is hard to command and hard to make the pitch break consistently.  There has also been a long-held belief in baseball that the pitch is hard on a pitcher’s arm.  The wikipedia article contains an unsubstantiated statement that “contrary to popular belief, the screwball is not particularly stressful on a pitcher’s arm.”  I’m not so sure.

The first great screwball artist was New York Giants’ Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson, who called his version the “fadeaway”.  In his book Pitching in a Pinch, Mathewson said that many people had asked him why he didn’t throw the pitch more often since it was so effective.  His response was that throwing it took too much out of his arm: “Pitching it ten or twelve times in a game kills my arm, so I save it for the pinches [critical situations].”

Now, Mathewson almost certainly had some sportswriter ghost-write the book for him, and the sportswriter may have taken some liberties.  However, Mathewson was an intelligent and educated man (he famously went to Bucknell University, where he played on both the football and baseball teams and was also Class President), and I doubt that he didn’t read the book and verify its accuracy before it was published.

“Colby Jack” Coombs, a former major league ace and long-time Duke University baseball coach, in his classic instructional book Baseball: Individual Play and Team Strategy first published in 1938, advised against teaching young pitchers to throw the screwball because the motion of the pitch was “contrary to nature.”

Another of baseball history’s great screwball pitchers (and probably the greatest in terms of the importance of the pitch to his dominance) Carl Hubbell, famously had a “crooked” or “twisted” left arm that was attributed to his repeated throwing of the pitch.  Hubbell almost certainly had a crooked or twisted arm, as contemporaneous news reports by sportswriters who saw Hubbell pitch constantly referred to this fact.  I seem to recall even seeing photographs of Hubbell’s permanently twisted arm in books I read about him as a kid.

However, what’s unclear is whether throwing the screwball is what made Hubbell’s arm crooked, or whether he had some congenital condition or youthful injury which ultimately gave him a better ability to throw an effective screwball, much in the same way that Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown’s loss of most of a finger to a feed chopper on his family’s farm as a child ultimately allowed him to throw a uniquely effective curveball.

At any rate, Hubbell pitched for 16 major league seasons starting at age 25 and wrapping up at age 40, without any indication of arm problems until after he turned 35.  It’s worth noting that Hubbell didn’t make the major leagues sooner because he was originally a member of the Detroit Tigers’ organization and major league player-manager Ty Cobb believed that throwing the screwball would ruin his arm.

It’s also worth noting that Hubbell threw two different variations on his screwball, a side-arm delivery that broke down and away from righted-handed batters and a second over-the-top delivery that broke straight down like a good over-hand curve.

Fernando Valenzuela, and to a lesser extent Teddy Higuera, brought the screwball back into prominence in the 1980’s. Teddy Higuera tore his rotator cuff in his seventh major league season.  However, he was already 33 years old at that point and had been pitching for years.  Valenzuela’s arm also began to give out in his late 20’s or early 30’s (depending on his real age).  However, Valenzuela threw between 251 and 285 innings for six consecutive major league seasons before his injury problems began.  In short, there’s no way of knowing whether the screwball shortened their careers, at least in comparison to general overwork and also throwing curveballs and sliders.

[As an aside, I’ve always wondered whether Valenzuela and Higuera are related.  There has been no mention of any relationship in any of the articles I’ve read about the two.  However, aside from the fact that they are two left-handed screwball pitchers with similar body types who grew up fifty miles apart in Mexico, one of Higuera’s parents has the last name of Valenzuela — I can’t be sure which parent because Latino ballplayers are sometimes known by their mothers’ family names in the U.S. because the mother’s family name comes last per Spanish convention.  As a final weird coincidence, Fernando struck Teddy out in the fifth inning of the 1986 All-Star Game, giving Fernando five consecutive strikeouts tying the record set by Carl Hubbell in the 1934 All-Star Game.  You can’t make this stuff up.]

Other relatively recent screwball pitchers include Mike Cuellar, Mike Marshall, Tug McGraw and Enrique RomoBaseball Reference’s page on the screwball claims that Jim Mecir of the 2007 Florida Marlins [sic: Mecir last pitched for the Marlins in 2005] was the last major leaguer to throw the screwball.  Further, according to the Baseball Reference piece, the demise of the screwball is due to the rise of the circle change-up, which has similar movement with much less stress on the arm.  In fact, another on-line source suggests that before the 1980’s many pitches labeled screwballs may have been in fact circle changes.  This is almost certainly true, because pitches were often named based on the movement of the pitch once it left the pitcher’s hand rather than on the grip or the throwing motion.

The wikipedia page lists other alleged recent screwballers including Pedro Martinez and Paul Byrd.  However, what they threw may have been circle changes, variations on the circle change or some other kind of sinker ball.  Dallas Braden claims to have thrown a screwball to Gabe Kapler as part of an epic 12-pitch at-bat during his 2010 perfect game, after more or less having given up the pitch in the minor leagues after an arm injury and developing an effective change-up.

Reputable sources (Fangraphs and the Hardball Times) say that Hector Santiago and Daniel Herrera threw screwballs in the major leagues in recent years, which Santiago at least has confirmed.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals

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