You’ve spent countless hours on the field, honing your skills and refining your game. Now it’s time to up the ante and master one of the most beguiling pitches in baseball: the curveball.
A well-executed curveball can be a game-changer, leaving even the most experienced hitters flailing at the plate. In this guide, we’ll delve into the intricate art of throwing a curveball, drawing from the wisdom of major league legends and offering insights on grip, mechanics, and technique. So, tighten your laces, dust off your cleats, and let’s get started on the path to curveball mastery.
To throw an effective curveball, there are five main elements you need to focus on.
The Curveball Grip
Current curveball orthodoxy tells you to hold the ball with your middle and index fingers along the seam, creating a firm yet relaxed grip. Your thumb should rest on the opposite seam underneath the ball, providing support and control. The grip is essential for generating the right spin and movement on the pitch.
There will never be one grip that will work for everyone. You should start with one grip and slowly modify it until you are getting the speed, spin and break you need to throw it consistently where you’re aiming.
One of the greatest curveball pitchers in history, Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, explains how he grips his.
Arm angle and wrist position
Maintain a consistent arm angle and wrist position throughout your delivery. Your wrist should be slightly cocked, allowing you to snap it down as you release the ball, generating the necessary topspin.
Curveball Release Point
Find the optimal release point for your curveball, which is typically later than that of a fastball. Releasing the ball too early or too late can result in a “hanging” curveball, which is easier for the batter to hit. Practice your release point until you can consistently produce the desired break.
Proper follow-through is crucial for both the effectiveness and the health of your arm. As you release the ball, allow your arm to continue its natural motion, finishing low and across your body. This will help generate the necessary spin and reduce the risk of arm injuries.
To make your curveball truly effective, you’ll want to maintain the same arm speed and delivery as your fastball. This makes it difficult for the batter to distinguish between the two pitches, increasing the likelihood of a swing and miss or a weak contact.
Clayton Kershaw’s Curveball
According to Baseball Savant, Kershaw’s pitch usage since 2015 during regular season games looks like this:
His average use of the curveball since 2015 is 16.6% with a wOBA of just .171, ranking 3rd among pitchers with at least 1000 curveballs thrown during that span. This regular season the usage was 18.8%, which is the highest in his career. Opposing hitters posted a .228 wOBA against the pitch.
Throughout much of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw has faced endless comparisons to Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. The two left-handers have become close and share a similarity as being regarded as the best pitchers of their generation.
Kershaw marveled at the size Koufax’s hands and how that lent to his ability to throw multiple versions of a curveball. The future Hall of Famer recalled needing to explain to Koufax how he couldn’t simply throw his curve in the same fashion:
“Have you ever seen Sandy wrap his hands around a baseball? He’s like, ‘Hey, you should really try this with your curveball.’ And his middle finger and thumb are literally touching on the other side of the baseball. I’m like, ‘Sandy, I can’t do that. My hands are normal size. I can’t do that.’ That big of a hand can make a curveball do some crazy things.
“So he would say, ‘I get my curveball to break in two directions. I’m like, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Sometimes, I take my curveball and try to over rotate it to make it break away from a right-handed batter. And when I throw my normal one, I can break it in to a right-handed batter.’ I was like, ‘Sandy, nobody can do that.’
“The way that he talks about his curveball and manipulated his curveball is truly only what Sandy could do, I think.”
Sandy Koufax’s Curveball
Koufax had huge hands, Don Drysdale called them “paws.” When throwing a curve, Koufax’s thumb and middle finger touched on the other side of the baseball. This gave the pitch extra spin.
Led by Koufax and Drysdale, the Dodgers made it to the 1963 World Series against the New York Yankees. Koufax pitched game one. The scouting report on Mickey Mantle read, Do not throw him a curveball. He’ll crush it. In the first inning, Koufax struck out Mantle throwing nothing but fastballs. On Mantle’s second plate appearance, Koufax threw two quick fastball strikes. Dodgers catcher John Roseboro signaled for another heater but Koufax shook him off. He wanted to try his curveball, despite the warning. Koufax threw the curve and at the last second the bottom dropped out of the pitch. Mantle flinched and the umpire called, “strike three.” Mantle hesitated, turned to Roseboro and said, “How is anybody supposed to hit that shit?” The Dodgers won the Series in four games with Koufax winning two.
Koufax, retired almost 20 years and in his 40s, was pitching batting practice to the Dodgers (whom he often helped coach) between post-season series in the mid-1980s. This was the great-hitting Dodger line-up with Sax, Garvey, Baker, Cey, and others. Koufax is just throwing easy minor-league 45-year-old man fastballs for BP, letting the hitters groove their swings. One of the hitters calls for the famous curveball. This Koufax usually didn’t throw, lest it aggravate his elbow. But this hitter wanted to see the thing, see if he could hit it, so Koufax indulges him.
This is a major league hitter who knows what pitch is coming, batting against a man in his mid-40s.
Curve comes in, drops like a stone — a swing and a miss.
Hitter calls for another. Same result.
Several more; the same.
By now the hitter’s teammates, watching, are in hysterics. They’re howling. The batter gives up, walks off, tells his buddies, Fine then, you try it. And one by one they do. This great Dodger line-up comes up, every hitter knowing what pitch he’s getting, and no one can connect. Koufax is 45 or so — and with one pitch, pre-announced, he is unhittable.
No wonder Mantle said what he said.
As the story goes, manager Lasorda walked out to the mound and, using the pretext he wanted to protect Koufax’s arm, asked him to stop — but to Koufax he said, Cut it out already, I don’t want my hitters mentally destroyed just before a post-season series because they can’t hit a one-pitch man in his 40s.