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Among all the aspects of baseball’s unique vernacular, the names of pitches might be the most peculiar. After all, what the heck is a knuckleball? A splitter? Is there a difference between a curveball vs. breaking ball?
The term “breaking ball” applies to a number of pitches, including a curveball ~ a type of pitch named for its curving action as it passes the batter and home plate on its way to the catcher. So a curveball is one out of a number of types of breaking balls.
Breaking balls are pitches that do not fly (mostly) straight all the way to home plate. Breaking pitches like curveballs are spun hard by pitchers at the point of release, and tossed usually at a slightly slower speed than fastballs, or pitches cut from fastballs like cutters or splitters.
For this reason, curveballs and other breaking pitches are called “off-speed” offerings. These pitches do not travel at the speed of a ball thrown hard without a tight lateral spin ~ e.g. fastballs. They are off the speed of regular fastballs.
A Look at Breaking Balls in Baseball
Breaking pitches date back to the earliest days of professional baseball, especially once pitchers started throwing overhand, which for Major League Baseball started in 1884. Prior to that, pitchers threw the ball to home plate in a manner like tossing horseshoes, or, underhand.
While it’s possible to make underhanded pitches curve or break, those movements are not as profound as when baseballs are thrown overhand, or basically releasing the ball at waist-level or higher. With the overhand motion, pitchers started learning that they could snap the ball hard at release to make the pitch do particular things.
Pitchers through baseball’s history have tried new ways to fool batters to either miss the pitch, or not strike the ball well. Just throwing a ball as hard as you can without any sideways spin might work for pitchers who can toss balls at a high velocity, making it hard for a batter to time a swing.
But balls thrown very fast that move while in mid-air can be even harder to hit. Therefore, pro pitchers over the years have experimented, and invented a number of different types of pitches, whether breaking, off-speed, or otherwise.
Among the very first was the curveball.
Curveballs in Baseball: Baffling Batters for a Century and More
Of all the pitch names in baseball, the curveball may be the term that best describes the type of toss. It’s simply a pitch that curves on its flight to home plate. However, there are twists.
Hitting a baseball thrown at you at a high speed with a round bat is the single most difficult action to perform in all of sports. The concentration and timing needed is tremendous, all the while ignoring fears that the pitch may strike you.
When a pitcher releases the ball, the batter has literally a split second to make the decision to swing, or not. Once the swing commences, the batter uses his arms and especially hands to guide the bat barrel as best as he can to strike the ball in flight.
This is easier if, from the moment the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand all the way to the catcher, the ball travels dead straight, like a frozen rope. A batter’s swing begins pretty much at the moment the ball is released ~ batters don’t just wait until the last split second to swing. There’s stride, hip twisting, and momentum, involved ~ a whole lot of body movement at the same time the pitcher is moving to throw the ball.
The batter usually starts the swing process early in the pitch, just after its release from the pitcher’s hand. In his brain, he sees the ball and starts directing the arms and hands to get the bat head (barrel) through a certain point in the strike zone.
Therein lies the problem with curveballs … since the ball will not be traveling dead straight, where exactly will it cross the plate ~ if ever?
The Trick(s) of Curveballs
There are 2 primary ways a curveball fools a hitter. The first is to make the batter think the ball is either coming right at him, or flying too high for the strike zone. An inexperienced batter might freeze, or even jump back away from the plate, as the ball curves right back to the plate into the catcher’s mitt.
The other way to trick batters is changing velocity. As noted with “off-speed” pitches above, curveballs come slower to the plate. Sometimes by quite a bit of miles per hour, sometimes not so much. But it’s usually enough to be “off” from the speed of a fastball to throw off a hitter’s timing and/or balance.
Good pitchers will hardly change how they let go of certain pitches, to better conceal what’s coming. They try to maintain the same arm speed and release angle every throw, not to give anything away.
How Do Curveballs ‘Break’?
Newcomers to baseball may wonder, how do they make baseballs move in flight? Any normal person would throw a stone or ball and notice the straight trajectory. The difference with baseballs lies in the seams that patch together 2 pieces of leather or horsehide to cover the ball.
The seams are raised a tiny bit from the cover material, just enough to catch air molecules during flight. Seams also carry weight, again not a lot, but enough. If a pitched ball is spun very hard, a bulk of the seams could slip to one side of the ball, catching the air and pulling the ball in that direction.
How a pitch is released can change the dynamic of how the ball acts as it approaches the batter. Changeups and palm balls are spun hard more vertically, or up and down, with intent for the ball to break suddenly downward ~ as opposed to the more sideways action of a curveball, and especially very like a slider.
Can Fastballs ‘Break’?
Fastballs are not called breaking pitches, and certainly not off-speed pitches. However, that does not mean that all fastballs do not move in-flight.
Pitchers can grip fastballs a certain way, or snap the wrist a little later than with a curveball, to create “action” at the tail end of a pitch. These can be called “cutters,” or, for those that tail quickly downward, split-finger fastballs (or “splitters”).
Balls from these pitches don’t “break” slowly ~ like waves onto a beach ~ but instead rather suddenly and sometimes violently, just an inch or two at the very last moment.
Because the movement occurs so very late on a pitch, hitters in mid-swing can do little about it except continue finishing the swing. Cutters and splitters can be truly devastating pitches for hitters.
This is why cutter specialists like Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera broke so many bats of left-handed hitters. Rivera’s splitter broke sharply at the very end to the left, or toward a left-handed hitter. Much of the time when the batter made contact, the ball struck too low on the wood bat, or actually on the bat handle, often cracking or breaking it.
The splitter is different because it drops straight down like a ball rolling off a table. That drop is sharp at the very end of the pitch, as opposed to bending right from the pitcher’s hand like a curveball. So, again, the batter is already swinging and his only hope often is to try to stop the swing.
You see a lot of check swings (half swings, or swings stopped mid-way) on splitters and cutters, because it’s too late to adjust the barrel to strike it well, and those pitches often end up just out of the strike zone.
How Batters Deal with Curveballs and Breaking Pitches
Hitters need a lot of training to learn to hit breaking pitches consistently. It’s a reason why eyesight is probably the single most important physical attribute a baseball hitter can have. They need to see the spin of the ball immediately after it leaves the pitcher’s fingers.
Hitters must determine which type of pitch is coming, as soon as possible.
This involves the seams, once again, but also how the ball leaves the hand, and sometimes its trajectory coming off the fingers.
The seams can cause a red dot or small circle to appear on the ball, and this is typical for a slider. The seams are red and the ball is white, and spun in certain ways the redness bunches together to form the appearance of dots or circles to the batter’s eyes.
Also, fastballs come at you end-over-end so really there’s hardly a pattern to discern. But breaking pitches often show a lateral kind of a spin, telling the batters it’s been snapped hard to create a break.
Sometimes big looping curveballs come out of the pitcher’s hand starting very high, but the spin causes them to break downward faster than normal. The spin, the trajectory, and the speed all help the batter decide what’s coming and when and where to swing.
Good hitters learn to not swing at breaking pitches (to “let them go”) that typically end up out of the strike zone. Others might learn to take breaking pitches “the other way,” that is, waiting longer than normal and letting the bat barrel lag through the strike zone to hit the ball late and toward the opposite direction as the batter.
For a right-handed batter, that means driving the ball to the right side of the infield, toward right- or right-center field. Vice-versa for lefties. But opposite-field hitting is not easily learned.
It takes hours and hours of practice to learn to hit breaking pitches consistently. Major league batters who struggle with this don’t tend to last long in the majors. Pro pitchers figure that out pretty quickly, and before you know it batters known to not hit breaking pitches well will see nothing but breaking pitches.
Question: Why do they call them ‘breaking’ balls?
Answer: There are two trains of thought as to why bending or moving pitches are called “breaking” balls. The first is to describe the ball’s movement in flight, like the breaking waves approaching a beach; or slow, sideways, moving. Or, breaking away from the norm, that is, a straight fastball.
The other is the “breaking of the wrist” required for the pitcher to create the supreme spin needed for the ball to grip the air and push the ball to move.
Q.: How many types of breaking balls are there?
A.: Probably no set number, as there are hybrids, and some pitchers name their own particular tosses (“Mr. Splittie” for a splitter, and “Uncle Charlie” for a curve coming to mind). But here’s a brief list:
- Knuckle curve
Then there are variations of pitches, like the “12-6” curveball, “backdoor” slider, etc. The “slurve” is a hybrid of a curveball and slider. The 12-6 refers to numbers on a clock, so that curve would start at the 12 and break straight up and down to land at the 6 at the bottom of a clock. Backdoor curves or sliders start by appearing way outside, or wide of the strike zone away from the batter, only to curve hard to “sneak in the back door” of the strike zone while the batter holds off swinging.
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