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The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball
Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels was sitting at a restaurant table in Glendale, Ariz., in March, holding an orange in his left hand. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger, then spread his remaining fingers around the fruit with half an inch between each one. He was demonstrating how he throws his screwball, which is the best in baseball mostly because nobody else has one.
The secret, he said, is to exert no pressure with the pinkie or ring finger. As he moved his arm forward in a slow-motion simulation, he pushed hard with his middle finger on the inside of the orange until much of his hand was beneath it, creating a clockwise spin. “Like driving on your right wheels going around a curve,” he said.
Earlier that day, in a spring-training game, Santiago, a 26-year-old southpaw from Newark in his fourth season, threw a screwball to the All-Star outfielder Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers. His previous pitch, a fastball, hit 94 m.p.h. The screwball approached the plate at 76. The difference in velocity alone would be difficult for a hitter to process, but the clockwise spin on the screwball also caused it to drop precipitously and veer to the left, away from the right-handed Gomez rather than toward him, as a curveball would. Gomez swung mightily and missed. “That pitch was filthy,” he told me later. “I was looking for it. I had it. And it disappeared. Put that guy on ice, man. He’s going to win a lot of games.”
A pitcher’s typical menu includes a fastball, a curveball and a changeup as the meat and potatoes, with perhaps a slider, cut fastball or sinker as a side. The screwball is another dish entirely. Those who serve one have typically been looked upon as oddities, custodians of a quirky art beyond the realm of conventional pitching. Over time, the word itself has taken on the characteristics of both the pitch and those who throw it: erratic, irrational or illogical, unexpected. Unlike the knuckleball, which is easy to throw but hard to master, the screwball requires special expertise just to get it to the plate. The successful screwball pitcher must overcome an awkward sensation that feels like tightening a pickle jar while simultaneously thrusting the wrist forward with extreme velocity. Yet the list of master practitioners includes some of baseball’s greats: Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal.
In 1974, Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League’s Cy Young Award by relying on the screwball. Tug McGraw used it to get to three World Series as a reliever with the Mets and Phillies. In 1984, Detroit’s screwballer, Willie Hernandez, was both the American League’s top pitcher and Most Valuable Player. The last great practitioner was Fernando Valenzuela, most famously a Dodger, who threw a wide assortment of pitches, none more prominent — or effective — than his screwball.
Today few, if any, minor leaguers are known to employ the pitch. College coaches claim they haven’t seen it in years. Youths are warned away from it because of a vague notion that it ruins arms. “Pitchers have given it up,” says Don Baylor, the former player and manager, who now works with Angels hitters. “Coaches don’t even talk about it. It’s not in the equation.”
Many of baseball’s best hitters have never seen a screwball. This spring, I spent time in nearly a dozen clubhouses asking about the pitch. “Maybe in Wiffle ball,” David Freese, the Angels’ third baseman, said. “But I’ve never sat in a hitters’ meeting and heard, ‘This guy’s got a screwball.’ It doesn’t come up. I’m not sure I even know exactly what it is.”Photo
As a result, the pitch has taken on somewhat mythical properties. “I don’t think it’s physically possible,” the Giants’ Buster Posey, the 2012 National League M.V.P., told me one morning. “I just don’t believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don’t.”
Posey’s clubhouse locker faced the corner where many of the team’s pitchers dress, including Tim Hudson. The veteran fastballer had overlapped in Oakland with Jim Mecir, a right-handed journeyman who threw screwballs from 1995 to 2005. “I didn’t think I’d ever see one,” he volunteered. “I thought screwballs were just really, really good changeups. Then Mecir threw one, and it broke like a curve in reverse. That’s when I understood.”
Madison Bumgarner, a starting pitcher, gave a disbelieving snort. That prompted Jeremy Affeldt to come to Hudson’s defense. “I played with Danny Herrera in Cincinnati,” Affeldt said. Herrera was the last big-leaguer before Santiago to employ the pitch regularly. Affeldt recalled him coming in with the bases loaded and the Phillies’ massive Ryan Howard at bat. With two strikes, Herrera floated a screwball. “Howard was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Affeldt said. “He didn’t know what to do. Struck out.” Affeldt reached for his phone to search for a video of the pitch.
Bumgarner remained unconvinced. “If anyone actually could do it, they’d only last about three pitches,” he said.
“Hurts your shoulder,” Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young winner, said as he grabbed his glove and walked off. Bumgarner followed him.
“Doesn’t exist,” he said in Affeldt’s direction.
“I was there!” Affeldt said, scrolling furiously. “I saw it!”
The apotheosis of the screwball in modern baseball history took place on Oct. 19, 1981, when Valenzuela, then a 20-year-old rookie, faced the Expos in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series. “I’m going to throw mostly screwballs tomorrow,” Valenzuela told the coach Manny Mota over dinner. “Just watch.”Photo
Though no records exist to confirm it, Valenzuela probably threw more screwballs that day than most ballparks have seen in the past decade. He allowed three hits over eight and two-thirds innings, beat the Expos, 2-1, and lifted the Dodgers to the World Series, which they won over the Yankees. “It was working, so I threw it over and over,” he told me. “It was one of my best games.”
Valenzuela learned the pitch two years earlier from Bobby Castillo, a reliever in the midst of an otherwise-forgettable career. “It took me a while,” Valenzuela said. “But it ended up being my best pitch.” That season he won his first eight decisions and ultimately became the only rookie to win a Cy Young Award. Valenzuela’s success for most of the ’80s helped keep the screwball on the map. Willie Hernandez’s M.V.P. season followed. So did a perfect game in 1988 by the occasional screwballer Tom Browning of Cincinnati. You could spot the pitch well into this century, but over time it died out. Four months into the season, it’s safe to say that Santiago is the only pitcher who has thrown the screwball in a game this year. “I can’t remember the last time I saw one,” says Tim McCarver, the former catcher and a longtime announcer.
The screwball’s decline can be attributed partly to the emergence of other deceptive off-speed pitches: the circle change, the cutter, the split-finger. (Though not one of these is a serviceable replacement for the screwball, which enables pitchers to throw a ball that breaks away from opposite-handed hitters.) A complete explanation is more complicated, if not entirely logical. The late ’60s and early ’70s, when half the teams in baseball might have had a screwballer on their staffs, was the era of squeeze bunts, of hit-and-runs, of lollipop curves meant to entice ground balls. A preponderance of games ended in scores like 4-3 or 3-2. Today, by contrast, big-league lineups are packed with players who can hit home runs, and nearly every pitcher looks to deny them with strikeouts. In this battle of heavy artillery, there’s no room for the cavalry. “Power has become the name of the game,” says Alan Dunn, the pitching coach at L.S.U., which had four pitchers chosen in last year’s amateur draft. “You’re looking for dudes who are going to come in throwing 96, 97, and just power their way through.”
A screwball can make a hitter look silly, but it is not especially a strikeout pitch. With its unpredictable downward break, it yields ground balls. “You get a lot of easy, ugly outs,” says Mark Gubicza, who spent 13 seasons throwing sliders for the Royals. “The ball starts right there, you think you’ve got it, but it swerves, and you just get a piece of it. That’s not power. But it’s effective.”
In a power culture, the screwball’s potency has been forgotten. Strikeout pitchers usually get the scholarship offers and wind up in pro ball. It’s only when a pitcher fails to become the next Nolan Ryan that he starts looking for ways to keep a roster spot. He might try throwing sidearm, adding a cut fastball, even a knuckleball. If an area of opportunity for the screwball exists in today’s game, it is in these interstices between success and failure. “You need to find somebody in the minors who has all the intangibles, a great kid, just a little short on talent, not quite going to make it,” says Rick Waits, the Mariners’ pitching coach. “And you go to him and say: ‘You need one more pitch. Just an edge. And here it is.’ ”
“That,” Hector Santiago said when I related Waits’s explanation, “describes me to a T.”
Without the screwball, according to Joe Moeller, an advance scout with the Miami Marlins, Santiago is “a below-average big-league pitcher.” I was sitting with Moeller and other scouts one March afternoon, watching Santiago throw. Moeller seemed surprised that someone with a pretty good fastball, spotty control and not much else would begin the season in a contending team’s starting rotation.
Then he saw Santiago break off a pitch that kicked so severely that the batter, Logan Schafer, asked the catcher, Hank Conger, what it was. Moeller was equally impressed. He had not seen Santiago’s screwball before, and he nearly jumped from his seat. “If he can throw it like that,” he said, “that’s definitely what we call a ‘plus pitch.’ Put that in the mix — now he’s compelling.”
It’s safe to say Santiago is the only pitcher to throw the screwball this year. ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw one,’ Tim McCarver says.
Santiago’s career was languishing when he started throwing the screwball. After junior college in Florida, he signed with the White Sox. In January 2009, while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he met Ángel Miranda, who spent four years with the Brewers (1993 to 1997) and was still pitching more than a decade later, bouncing around various leagues, getting professional hitters out. When Santiago asked how, Miranda showed him the screwball.
Santiago spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons fiddling with his screwball, never deploying it in a game. In 2011, he was assigned to a third straight season in the Class A Carolina League. “I was like, I’m good, but I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I had good numbers, nobody was knocking me around. But I needed something to get me over that hump.”
The screwball has a history of helping pitchers do just that. When Carl Hubbell was released by the Tigers in 1928, he went to a minor-league team in Beaumont, Tex., perfected the screwball, then won 253 games for the Giants. Warren Spahn began using the pitch in 1956, at 34, with a career that appeared to be winding down. He recorded six more 20-victory seasons for the Braves. After going 4-19 from 1965 to 1967, Tug McGraw remade himself as a screwballer and pitched until 1984. “The screwball has saved a lot of pitchers,” says Ron Swoboda, a former teammate of McGraw’s. “When Tug found it, he found gold.”
Santiago’s arc was nearly as drastic. Within two months in 2011, he went from Class A to Class AA to the majors. He would throw only five or six screwballs a game, but once batters were looking for it, his other pitches became more effective. “I had righties buckling,” he says. “They’d be out in front or wouldn’t even swing. They’d never seen anything like it.” He went 4-1 with a 3.33 E.R.A. for the White Sox in 2012, finishing 10 games. Last season, he became a starter. He struggled with control and won just four of 13 decisions, but logged a better-than-respectable 3.56 E.R.A.
It was fortunate for Santiago that his coaches even let him dabble in the screwball, with its reputation for destroying arms. Pitchers represent a considerable investment — $500,000 to $215 million in guaranteed salary, plus the costs of training and coaching — and injury is an ongoing concern. They’re typically handled as delicately as racehorses, especially with the current epidemic of arm and shoulder injuries.
“The word on the street is that the screwball is hard on the arm,” says Don Cooper, Chicago’s pitching coach. “But listen, there’s no documentation on that. Maybe that’s why a lot of people don’t throw it, but I believe no pitch is any more dangerous than any other if you have a good delivery. If you have a bad delivery, every pitch is freakin’ dangerous.”
Among baseball lifers, though, Cooper’s is decidedly a minority opinion. Lurid stories about the pitch are commonplace. “We’d be on the bus and see a guy out the window whose arm was turned out,” McCarver said, “and we’d say: ‘Yup. Old screwballer.’ ”Photo
Jerry Dipoto, the Angels’ general manager, told me that Carl Hubbell used to visit the Giants’ training camp after his retirement. “Legend has it he’d walk in and his arm was backward,” he said. “He couldn’t get it to come back around to the appropriate position because of all the years of pronating from throwing the pitch.”
Just how a screwball causes injury was open to debate. “Too hard on the shoulder,” insisted Arizona’s manager, Kirk Gibson. “The elbow,” said the former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. Even Santiago acknowledged the possibility: “They told me it’s bad for my wrist.” He keeps throwing the pitch, he said, “because you don’t hear much about pitchers hurting their wrists.”
Never mind all those pitchers who kept using it into their late 30s and 40s, or that Valenzuela, at 53, maintains he can throw it today. When I spoke to players and coaches about the screwball, the expectation of certain injury was never far from the conversation.
Nevertheless, Dipoto traded his starting first baseman in 2013, Mark Trumbo, for Santiago. It helped that Mike Scioscia, the Angels’ manager, was the catcher for much of Valenzuela’s tenure with the Dodgers. Scioscia watched him make 255 consecutive starts without missing a turn and throw 20 complete games in a season.
Santiago was thrilled that his new manager had a connection to Valenzuela, the screwball’s patron saint. In 2011, after he started throwing the pitch in exhibition games, Santiago was working with other prospects at the Angels’ minor-league facility in Arizona when he recognized someone watching him from a golf cart. “It was Fernando,” he said. “He’d heard someone was throwing it and come to see. I couldn’t believe it.” A coach summoned Santiago away for a discussion. He couldn’t finish it fast enough. He wanted to throw his screwball for Valenzuela, to discuss technique; he wanted to revel in their shared spiritual tie, their membership in the same strange monastic order.
But like many religious icons, Valenzuela proved evanescent. “By the time I got back,” Santiago said, “he was gone.”
After months of canvassing orthopedists, I was convinced that no existing research could settle the question of whether throwing a screwball hurt the arm. But Dr. Paul Sethi, a Connecticut orthopedist, was willing to help generate some new data. Sethi is a disciple of Dr. Frank Jobe, the man who did an ulnar collateral graft in Tommy John’s elbow in 1974 and so created the most famous baseball-medical connection since Lou Gehrig’s disease. I met Sethi at the Center for Motion Analysis in Farmington, Conn., in a 108-foot-long room as bright as an operating theater. A dozen cameras were mounted on the walls. A tattooed 26-year-old named Matt Bartolomei stood on a portable pitcher’s mound while technicians adhered sensors to his body.
If an area of opportunity for the screwball exists in today’s game, it is in the interstices between success and failure.
For the past 12 years, a team led by Dr. Carl Nissen, a surgeon, has been doing research into the stresses inherent in pitching. At one point, Major League Baseball gave the center a grant to research why so many pitchers were being injured. Because the results contravened accepted wisdom — that certain pitches are more harmful than others, for example — Nissen believes that M.L.B. is unlikely to fund further studies there. “We were myth-busting,” Nissen said. “Beliefs handed down over time with no science behind them. It’s not the curveball that’s damaging to the elbow, as everyone says. It’s the fastball, thrown again and again over time. Pure physics.”
I, too, believed I had a myth ready to be busted. But it was difficult to find a screwballer willing to come to Farmington and get all calipered up. I wanted Santiago, but the Angels had no games scheduled in the vicinity until later in the season. Also, Santiago started poorly. The screwball was working well, but nearly everything else was problematic: his delivery, his pitch placement, his hyperintensity. He lost his first six decisions, and Scioscia demoted him to the bullpen. I could not imagine he’d be in the mood for scientific inquiry.
I tried several former big leaguers who had dabbled with the pitch, some as far back as the 1980s, but none would devote a day to debunking. Finally I found Bartolomei. He was a screwballer in college — one of the last, seemingly, before the current generation decided to ignore the pitch entirely.
Matthew Solomito, a biomedical engineer who with Nissen leads the research team, asked Bartolomei to throw pitches as the cameras rolled. Later, on slow-motion film, the ball looked like a radio-controlled plane that gets a sudden change in flight plan. “It’s breaking out!” Sethi shouted. “Look at that!”
Nissen narrated a pitch, start to finish. “Now the ball is almost out of his hand,” he said. “His fingers are directly behind it, so he has definitely changed his grip.” Yet by that point, the data indicated, the peak stress on both elbow and shoulder had passed. “So by the time a screwball becomes a screwball,” he concluded, “an injury has either happened or not. The screwball has nothing to do with it.”
The force exerted on Bartolomei’s elbow while throwing the screwball was almost identical to that of the fastball and below that of the curveball. Shoulder stresses were similar. “In fact,” Sethi said, “the screwball doesn’t exceed the fastball in any parameter.” He cautioned that the results were hardly definitive, especially given the data set of one. “But looking at the data compared to the normative data kind of makes me tingly,” Sethi said.
If he and Nissen could confirm the conclusions, Sethi believed they might rescue the screwball from near-extinction. While assisting Jobe in Los Angeles, he worked with Dodgers pitchers. He liked the idea of contributing to their cause. I was less certain, though, that a doctor could revive the flatlining screwball. For a pitch to be used regularly by major leaguers, or even Little Leaguers, it needed a stronger selling point than mere safety.
“If I make the All-Star team this year, a lot of people will start throwing it,” Santiago had told me. It didn’t happen. On May 21, he was optioned to Salt Lake City. He returned soon after, but lost his first start to drop to 0-7, baseball’s worst record. He’d even temporarily stopped throwing screwballs. “Working on some mechanics,” he texted me. As the season passed the midway point at the beginning of July, the Angels were at the top of the wild-card standings. Despite some strong performances recently that dropped his E.R.A. to just above four runs a game, however, Santiago had hardly been a major contributor.
Still, it seemed clear to me that the pitch has been abandoned by baseball without cause. In an era in which athletes routinely punish their bodies, legally and illegally, to gain competitive advantage, here is an apparently safe, permissible weapon in plain sight. “Major League Baseball is a funny little club,” says Bob Sorrentino, a pitching guru who served as a personal coach for Craig Breslow of the Red Sox, among others. “There are people who absolutely won’t do things, no matter how much they might make sense.”
My 13-year-old son, Teddy, pitches on a competitive travel team that will play 60 games this season. He throws a curve that he holds like a football, and a knuckle curve that his coach wants all his pitchers to learn. We had shied away from true breaking balls for fear of injury. But according to Nissen, what I need to monitor is how many pitches Teddy throws, not what they are.
So one night recently I took an orange from the refrigerator and knocked on Teddy’s door. “Let me show you something,” I began.