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Must-click link: the vanishing screwball

Jul 10, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT

Screw ball

Screwballers are all but extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. Hector Santiago, my friend, is all that’s left of their religion.

Bruce Schoenfeld of the New York Times Magazine investigates the screwballers today. He talks to Santiago, past practitioners of the dark, screwballing art and tries to find out why the pitch is almost entirely a relic of history these days.

He also reminds us that the screwball made and resurrected a whole host of pitching careers:

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.”

Will anyone else find gold like that? It seems doubtful, as there there is now a widespread belief that the screwball is hard on the arm and thus opens pitchers up to injuries. But is this belief well-founded or is it, like so many other baseball beliefs, based on nothing more than gut feeling and received wisdom?

Schoenfeld investigated and got a pretty good answer. Click through to read the article and find out if there is an actual medical reason why we see so few screwballers these days.

  1. dowhatifeellike - Jul 10, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    In my teens I spent a couple weeks working on one. Even then I could tell it was putting way too much strain on my arm. It’s just not natural (or even comfortable) to turn your wrist in that direction while throwing overhand. Much easier to do it with an underhanded delivery.

    • chinahand11 - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:19 PM

      I tried it now and then when I was a teenager. Got a good break on it, too (at about 30 mph). But it stressed my arm from the first pitch. And I wasn’t a pitcher anyway.

    • SocraticGadfly - Jul 10, 2014 at 6:21 PM

      With the variety of pitches today, a pitcher with, say, four decent pitches but none of them great could probably benefit from adding a scroogie. Because it wouldn’t be an “out” pitch, unlike with a Hubbell or Spahn, it wouldn’t have to be thrown as often, and not always with as much torque. I mean, if you had a decent two-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider of some sort and either a curve or a change, adding a scroogie gives you a good mix.

      Hell, if Jamie Moyer had thrown one, he might still be around.

    • tc634 - Jul 10, 2014 at 9:13 PM

      Dontrelle Willis pls

  2. hk62 - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:00 PM

    Splitter is easier to throw and usually has more action than a screw ball thrown after say 40 pitches by a starter and 20 pitches by a reliever. If you can throw the split, you have no need for the screwball. And the elbow action, while hard to do than say a slider, causes less wear and tear – its a space thing in your arm, it was over my head (not a doctor). While interesting that its disappearing, someone will be throwing one again soon – that’s what’s so great about baseball. (Left handers that are below 3/4 slot throw their fast balls that way – watch Mr. Sale pitch (and his hand at release).

    • SocraticGadfly - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:39 PM

      Jayson Stark needs to read this part:

      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.

      On an Insider piece, from the portion I could read for free, he seems to be blaming the splitter for Tanaka’s arm problems.

      • hk62 - Jul 10, 2014 at 6:11 PM

        Sliders get the most blame for arm trouble – especially elbow – troubles, due to combination of speed and torque. The split finger should be more about finger pressure and less about elbow torque – but teaching finger pressure is VERY difficult – its almost like some pitchers get it automatically and others will never get it no matter how much you break it down. I can see the splitter being a shoulder injury cause though, because you really want a lateral plane from the arm towards the glove side with the downward movement AND the correct finger pressure – Clemens split should be the model for every pitcher, but he had huge shoulders to take up that torque.

      • yahmule - Jul 10, 2014 at 6:22 PM

        I think it might be how the pitch is taught. Roger Craig had all the Giants throwing splitters several years ago and they had a barrage of arm issues.

  3. Jason @ IIATMS - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:03 PM

    Agreed, I’ve tried to throw it and the torque in the opposite direction just isn’t right.

  4. infieldhit - Jul 10, 2014 at 5:42 PM

    The ability to throw a heater is insignificant next to the power of the scroogie.

  5. 22yearsagotoday - Jul 10, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    I remember the days when some pitchers threw the screwball. It could be a great pitch and definitely enhance a pitcher’s repertoire. The Mets reliever Tug McGraw threw a nasty one way back when.

  6. bhlobos - Jul 10, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    Pitchers get so much movement from their 2-seam fastball, why throw a stressful screwball? Also, a lot of pitchers get that same action from their circle change… as a Mariner fan, watching Felix’s change reminds me a screwball, especially with the speed he throws it at. I mean, who has a fastball at 93-95 and a change at 90-92!?! The down and in action to righties is incredible.

    • bolweevils2 - Jul 11, 2014 at 12:59 PM

      But that’s the point. Is it actually a “stressful screwball”, or is it no more stressful than other pitches?

  7. jfk69 - Jul 10, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    Arm issues a problem. Can’t throw a screwgee. Sign up now.
    The FOLLY FLOATERS time has arrived.

  8. dethbytripledecap - Jul 10, 2014 at 8:30 PM

    Palm ball?

  9. mavajo - Jul 10, 2014 at 9:42 PM

    All you guys talking about arm stress and pressure must not have read the actual article. Hooked up to monitors and tested in a lab, the throwing motion for a screwball was found to be no more stressful to the arm than when throwing a fastball. If it was killing your arm to throw it, you were probably using poor form. I can make a bowling ball spin something wild – but I know I’ve got bad form, so it destroys my hand/wrist/arm when I do it. You may have successfully thrown a screwball; but it doesn’t mean you were doing it right. A guy that does it at a competitive level was monitored while throwing one, and no exceptional stress on his arm was observed. This injury thing is just baseball hokum. We have more arm injuries now than ever. Pitchers throw harder now than ever. Coincidence? No. Throwing a fastball is brutally stressful on the arm – more than any other pitch.

    • gloccamorra - Jul 11, 2014 at 12:04 AM

      Yup. That’s why mysteries of long standing endure, nobody reads the research, but people keep repeating what they’ve heard as gospel. Baseball is the sport that has institutionalized the practice.

      The same might be said for the knuckler and my favorite pitch to throw in Little League, the expectoration pitch. They said it was outlawed because it was dangerous, but then they grandfathered in pitchers who threw it before the rule came in!

      The truth is they wanted more offense, and hadn’t yet realized the dead ball was responsible. They just didn’t want to go back to the 1890s when Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton hit .403, and finished FIFTH in batting average!

      That may be why the scroogie is shunned. It’ll kill off what offense exists in the current era of pitching dominance, and cause a backlash in favor of offense. In 1987, Tony Gwynn won the batting title hitting .370, and they enlarged the strike zone by including the “black”, the strip around the plate. The next year, Tony Gwynn won the batting title by hitting only .313.

      If the scroogie, knuckler, and even the expectoration pitch come back, what will they do to restore hitting? Eliminate the mound and make pitchers throw from the flat?

      • schrutebeetfarms - Jul 11, 2014 at 1:35 PM

        What is an expectoration pitch?

  10. kevinsterne - Jul 10, 2014 at 11:57 PM

    Really insightful article. I’d like to read one on the knuckleball

    • gloccamorra - Jul 11, 2014 at 12:10 AM

      The disappearance of the knuckler is another story, but it has nothing to do with hurting a pitcher’s arm. What REALLY has killed off the knuckle ball is that it’s not only un-hittable, it’s un-catchable too.

  11. cshearing - Jul 11, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    Maybe the pitch is better on the older, worn arm than the young arm? All I see here are stories of people that tried it as kids and found it stressful on the arm. The stories of pitchers using it successfully for years seem to be mostly older guys.

    Plus, with the pitch practically non-existent and arm troubles still everywhere, I am doubtful that this pitch is really that much worse.

    I am personally of the opinion that it is the use of the curve, slider, and 90+ mph heater at a young age that is the root cause of the bulk of issues we see these days. Kids trying to impress major league teams at 17. Stories now of prospects getting their TJ surgery “out of the way”. Maybe it’s just that the science is better at detection now, but it seems odd.

    • bolweevils2 - Jul 11, 2014 at 1:02 PM

      I think it’s best for a guy that finds he isn’t going to make it anyway, so why not give the scroogie a try? Even if it does hurt your arm, so what? You weren’t going to make it in pro ball without the scroogie anyway, so you’ve lost nothing.

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