Trick Pitches in Baseball Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Trick Pitches in Baseball

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Every baseball fan knows that Sandy Koufax had a great curveball. Not many people realise that he also had one special move he never used in a baseball game. He could stand on the mound, throw the ball 60 feet and six inches, make it stop mid-air, and return to his hand. He called this special move 'throwing the ball up in the air', and it would have been illegal in a game. Trick pitches, however, are, for the most part, legal.

Trick Pitches

Trick pitches are non-standard (ie, not fastball, slider, sinker, splitter, change-up, or curveball) pitches made in baseball. They're meant to be unexpected and unpredictable. Many times they will be used exclusively as out pitches (pitches meant to get strike three and, therefore, the out) but some pitchers have become so adept at using them that they will use little else. These pitches are both entertaining for the fans and effective for getting batters out. Like other pitches, their use is entirely based on controlling the baseball's spin as it flies through the air, so with a little practice, anyone can learn them.

The Knuckleball

Pirate slugger Willie Stargell once said that, 'Hitting a knuckleball is like eating jello with chopsticks.' The knuckleball, also known as a butterflyball, is a fantastic pitch. It's easy on the arm and, well-pitched, is almost impossible to hit because of its erratic flight. Due to the fact that it's thrown without spin, the laces create turbulence, which, in turn, causes the ball to dive, dart and flutter through the air. Furthermore, as it's a relatively slow (60 - 70mph) pitch, it has more time to be buffeted by crossbreezes that change its direction even more. However, this unpredictability also makes the knuckleball difficult to throw for strikes as it must be thrown to an area, namely that of home plate, rather than a spot.

Throwing the knuckleball is easy. The main goal is simply to stop all spin on the ball. Most pitchers do this by pressing their fingernails into the surface of the ball on or near the seams. The placement of the fingers is irrelevant, really, as long as the ball can easily be 'popped' off their tips. They then throw the ball towards the plate with no twisting of the wrist or arm. Some people recommend pushing directly forward like throwing a punch, but this can cause unnecessary strain on both the elbow and shoulder. Catapults are a good analogy for throwing a knuckleball as their arms come straight over the top with no flex.

The Eephus Pitch

Another trick pitch is the eephus pitch developed by Rip Sewell in the 1940s. Though there's some speculation that the word 'eephus' derived from the sound most batters made swinging and missing, it actually comes from a southern US word of African origin meaning a 'power over someone'. It's essentially a lobbed ball with a high (10 - 12 feet) arc meant to drop through the strike zone. The theory behind it explains that, because it drops through more vertically while the bat passes horizontally, the batter will have less time to make solid contact. Furthermore, because it goes so slowly, the batter has to generate most of the power to get a decent hit. In fact, only one person, Ted Williams, hit home run off a Rip Sewell eephus, and he took a running swing.

Basically, throw the eephus pitch however you feel comfortable. Somehow, the ball should travel from your hand 60 feet, 6 inches and drop over the plate. Many players find that letting the ball roll off the fingers early on a noodle-armed fastball throw works well. Others describe it as 'throwing like a girl'. Still others find that pitching with the opposite hand (ie throwing left-handed as a right-handed pitcher) can teach much about the mechanics.

The Screwball

Unlike the knuckleball and eephus pitch, the screwball is extremely hard on the arm. This is meant as a warning for the young, underdeveloped arms of little leaguers. Please do not attempt this pitch until you get approval from a doctor. Most pitchers who do use the screwball use it only sparingly as an out pitch. The name screwball comes both from the pitching motion and from the fact that it acts like a 'screwy' fastball. Instead of flying relatively straight like a fastball, it breaks, or curves, usually in a downward direction toward the pitching arm (ie, to the right for a right-hander, left for southpaws). In most cases, a screwball can be used most effectively against batters of the opposite handedness. However, it is hard to hide the screwball motion of the arm, and some batters are skilled enough to predict the motion.

To throw the screwball, use a curveball grip putting the index and middle fingers together between the seams where they are closest together. Throw the ball as you would a fastball, but rotate the arm, wrist, and hand inward. This gives the ball a rotation opposite that of a curveball. It is this twisting motion that puts great strain on the elbow and shoulder. If you have trouble getting a decent break, try spreading your fingers around one seam then twisting them like opening a doorknob. This will increase the spin rate as the ball leaves the hand.

The Spitball

The spitball and its variations, The Vaseline ball, the emeryball, the scuffball, the mudball, etc, are illegal under most organised baseball rules. However, illegal in this case means simply, don't get caught. The spit in spitball comes from the fact that saliva or some other substance is applied to the side of the ball before it is thrown. This substance is meant to reduce spin, causing the ball to move opposite that side1. The substance used in the spitball can be used before any type of pitch with varying results, but for best results, it should be applied to fastballs. The fastball will then break with a complete unexpectedness at a high rate of speed, fooling the batter.

There are many theories about what substances to apply to the ball and where to keep them. Essentially, anything that will detract from the overall spheroid nature of the baseball will be effective. The key here is secrecy. The spit (or its cousin, sweat) is easy enough to procure, as long as the umpire doesn't see you expectorating2 on the baseball. Vaseline can be hidden at the belt line or under the cap. The scuffball and emeryball are produced by scratching the cover of the ball using a small file, emery board, or nail. These implements are often hidden in the glove between two of the fingers or within the padding. The mudball uses not only the spin-reducing substance, but has the added bonus of making the ball harder to see (especially at twilight). Furthermore, mud is easily found on the pitcher's mound on rainy days.

The Fielders

A final note must be made about the trick pitcher's teammates, especially the catcher. When the pitcher throws a knuckleball, for example, all players must be on their toes, as a squarely hit one can, and often does, knuckle after being hit. That is, it continues its erratic flight. Eephus pitches and screwballs have a tendency to be hit sharply downward, so infielders need to be prepared to block balls skipping towards the outfield. However, eephus pitches may also be hit in the air to the no-man's land between the infielders and outfielders. Because of this possibility, outfielders need to be ready to come in on the ball quickly to make the catch. Fielders should also realise that the spitball and its variants tend to keep their odd flight styles after being hit, especially with more viscous applications and permanent scuffing.

More important though, is a trick pitcher's necessary reliance on his catcher. Backstops, as they are sometimes known, work with pitchers constantly for practice and to develop strategy. Having consistent battery mates, pairing a pitcher with one catcher for every outing, can help a great deal. For example, knuckleballers and eephus pitchers must be paired with catchers ready, willing and able to block balls in the dirt. For screwball pitchers, the catcher must possess the baseball strategy to know when to call for the pitch. Using it too much will not only lose its surprise but also hurt the arm. Spitball catchers should do everything they can in helping their pitcher not be caught. This may be as simple as wiping the saliva or vaseline off on the uniform or as complex as dealing with nosy umpires in unscrupulous ways. Whatever the job, the catcher may in fact be the trick pitcher's best friend.

1For an explanation of why this should happen, check out our entry on Bernoulli's principle.2To expectorate means to cough up or spit out phlegm.

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