Tom Lohr is an avid baseball fan and has visited every Major League Baseball park . . . twice.
The Pitch Batters Cannot Hit
One of the least understood and most underrated pitches seems to be a thing of the past. The screwball, despite being able befuddle even the most prolific hitters, simply isn't part of a modern day MLB pitcher's arsenal. You probably have a better chance of spotting Sasquatch than you would a screwball being tossed from the mound.
There are several reasons this strikeout weapon has been largely dismantled. The largest reason is that the screwball is a difficult pitch to master. It is not a direction your arm instinctively wants to go, and it takes a counter intuitive move to get the pitch to work correctly. Secondly, there is a widely believed myth that the screwball will cause injury to a pitcher's arm. At the rate MLB pitcher's are needing Tommy John surgery these days, it is no wonder that even the slightest mention of a pitch landing someone on the DL (yeah, DL, not the IL) sends shivers down their spine. Actually, it is throwing fastballs that puts the most strain on a player's arm, not breaking pitches, which includes the screwball. But superstitions and myths are stubborn in the big leagues, and convincing someone to do something they believe will negatively impact their career is next to impossible.
What Is a Screwball?
We all have a screwball in our family. That uncle that is convinced 9-11 was planned by the government, or insists that cricket is actually a sport. Many have called me a screwball for believing that the Pittsburgh Pirates will win a World Series before the century is out. But quirks aside, being called a screwball is a moniker derived from the screwball pitch. The pitch's flight is so unconventional, that is has been deemed “screwy.”
While there are nuances, the screwball can best be explained as a pitch like a curveball, but breaks in the opposite direction. A curveball from a right-handed pitcher will break down and from right to left, and from left to right for a left-handed pitcher. A screwball is thrown with opposite spin, and therefore breaks in the opposite direction of a curveball. A good screwball in a hurler's array of pitches, when coupled with a curveball, allows him to toss a pitch that jams the batter no matter which side of the plate they are batting from.
Where Have They All Gone?
Being a difficult pitch to throw, along with the myth it causes injury, has pretty much made the screwball a relic of the past. Perhaps it is because we treat pitchers so gingerly these days. During the heyday of the screwball, many pitchers were on a four-man rotation, threw more innings per game, and completed more games. It seems that even though today's pitchers are in better physical condition, they are not quite as tough. That might explain the explosion in Tommy John surgery procedures as well.
Like the screwball itself, all of the great screwball pitchers have been put out to pasture. It was truly a sight to behold if you are old enough to have seen Fernando Valenzuela play. If not, then you don't know what MLB is missing, but it IS missing an exciting pitch. Fernando was probably the last pitcher to use the screwball as his bread and butter pitch, but there were several exceptional players that mastered it and made it nearly unhittable. Here are the top 10 in MLB history.
1. Christy Mathewson
Everything has an origin, and although Christy is claimed to have learned his “fadeaway” pitch from others, he was the first hurler to make it an effective weapon. That fadeaway would later be known as the screwball. Christy is often forgotten as his playing days were during the first quarter of the 20th century, but his mastery, control and use of the pitch earned him the modern day moniker as “Father of the Screwball.”
How good was Christy and his screwball? During his sixteen years with the New York Giants (and a very brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds), Mathewson won 373 games, struck out 2,502 batters and owned a minuscule 2.13 ERA. He also won the pitching triple crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA) twice.
He was also known as a clean cut Christian player during an era when boozing and womanizing were most ballplayers' hobbies. His piousness and demeanor earned him many fans in all MLB cities. After his playing career, he served in the chemical corps of the US Army during World War One. During his service, he was accidentally gassed and suffered significant lung damage. As a result, he developed tuberculosis and died at age 45.
2. Tug McGraw
Tug got off to a slow start in the majors. After a couple of seasons of mediocre performance, he hurt his arm lifting weights while serving in the US Marine Corp Reserve. His post-injury performance landed him in the instruction league. That's where he met Ralph Terry. You remember Ralph, he was the pitcher who gave up Bill Mazeroski's legendary walk off home run in game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Ralph was old and washed up by the time he met Tug. Tug was trying to jumpstart an early career and Ralph was attempting to learn the knuckleball in order to extend a rapidly ending career. It was during this chance meeting the Ralph Terry taught Tug McGraw the screwball.
While it took Tug a while to perfect it, he took his screwy pitch, and on the advice of Gil Hodges, gave up chasing a spot in a starting rotation and settled on being a full time relief pitcher. It was out of the bullpen that Tug made his mark in Major League Baseball. He rode that pitch to two All-Star team selections, 180 saves, a 3.14 ERA and 1,104 strikeouts. Twenty years after his playing days were over, Tug succumbed to brain cancer. A few years later, a handful of his ashes were spread on the pitcher's mound at the Philadelphia Phillies ballpark by his country music superstar son Tim McGraw.
3. Carl Hubbell
Ty Cobb, who ironically served in the chemical corps with Christy Mathewson, didn't think much of Carl when he saw him. Cobb was a player-manager for the Detroit Tigers and was unimpressed. For one thing, Hubbell threw a screwball, and Ty was convinced it would ruin a pitcher's arm. As a result, the Tigers let Carl go. His release by Detroit set the table for Carl's 15-year stint with the New York Giants. During that time he racked up 253 wins, 1,677 strikeouts along with a 2.98 ERA.
The screwball that Ty Cobb had such disdain for also got Hubbell selected to nine All-Star teams and won him two Most Valuable Player awards. Ty was a great hitter, but apparently he didn't know squat about pitching. Do you know baseball greats Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin? Besides being legendary players they have one thing in common: they were all struck out by Carl Hubbell....in succession, during the 1934 All-Star Game.
4. Juan Marichal
Juan was a man of many pitches, all of which he used effectively. One of his deadliest was his screwball. Not only did he own one of the coolest nicknames in all of baseball (The Dominican Dandy), but he also had one of the most impressive deliveries of all time. His high kick in his windup put his leg in the near vertical position. If you watched film of 1000 pitchers, you could pick out two by their super high leg kick delivery: Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal. That would be a pitching duel to see wouldn't it? Spahn vs Marichal.
Well, you won't be disappointed. Spahn and Marichal faced off in July, 1963 which as is often referred to as “The Greatest Game Every Played.” The two teams were basically shutdown by Spahn and Marichal until Wille Mays finally put the game to bed in the 16th inning. What makes that so great? Marichal pitched all 16 innings, and Spahn (who was 42 at the time) pitched 15 1/3 innings, a feat that had not happened before that game, or since. Still think pitchers weren't tougher back in the day? How good was Marichal's screwball? He won more games in the 1960s than any other pitcher in baseball.
5. Jim Brewer
One of the lesser known and less flamboyant screwball pitchers was Jim Brewer. Brewer was urged to learn the pitch by none other than Warren Spahn. Primarily a reliever, he spent most of his career with the Dodgers. Other than his nasty screwball, his is better known for his altercation with Billy Martin when Martin was a player for the Reds and Brewer was starting out with the Cubs. Brewer brushed Martin back and Billy threw his bat at him. As Brewer tried to give Martin back his bat, Billy clocked Brewer, breaking Jim's cheekbone that required two surgeries to correct.
Jim's screwball was so effective against right handed hitters, that opposing managers would prefer the lefty-lefty pitcher/batter matchup when he was pitching. Brewer ended his career with a not too shabby 3.07 ERA along with 133 saves, 810 strikeouts, and a 1972 All-Star team selection.
6. Fernando Valenzuela
If you were alive in the 1980s, then you know what Fernandomania was. Spending the bulk and best years of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fernando was beloved by fans of every team. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, and sporting a undeniably unathletic physique, Fernando could do no wrong in the first half of the 80s. The screwball was his go-to pitch, and he dominated batters with it.
How good was Fernando? Well, his likeliness adorned a Wheaties box. You don't get more famous than that. And he was tagged with the ultra-cool nickname “El Toro.” He is the only pitcher in Major League Baseball history to with both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award in the same season. But those are not the only trophies in his showcase, we also won the Silver Slugger award twice, a Gold Glove, made the All-Star team twice, won a World Series and pitched a no-hitter. During his 1986 All-Star game appearance, he struck out five batters in a row. A feat only accomplished him and Carl Hubbell, another screwball pitcher.
He bounced around the league after the Dodgers worn out his arm. Those seasons ballooned some of his ERA numbers, but he still finished baseball with 173 wins and over 2,000 strikeouts while sporting a respectable 3.54 ERA. Not certain if those numbers will ever get Fernando in the MLB Hall of Fame, but he has been inducted into the Mexican League Hall of Fame. If you didn't get to experience Fernandomania in person, you can still get a slight taste of it. Valenzuela is currently a broadcaster on the Dodgers Spanish radio broadcast.
7. Warren Spahn
While Fernando may have had a cool nickname, Warren's was “hooks,” named for the shape of his nose after being battered by an errant baseball. Valenzuela may have a flashy nickname, but you can bet your bottom he'd rather have Spahn's stats. Warren graced the mound for over 20 seasons (while missing two for military service). During that time he accumulated 363 wins, 2,583 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.09. His screwball earned him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was also an All-Star for 14 seasons, the most of any pitcher in the 20th century, won the Cy Young award twice, and pitched two no-hitters. If his feats on the mound are not awe inspiring enough for you, he also holds the National League record for home runs hit by a left handed pitcher. Oh, and he was in that game against the Giants when he pitched into the 16th inning and throwing over 200 pitches...at the tender age of 42.
8. Jim Mecir
Jim spent 11 seasons in the big leagues. A reliever his entire career, Mecir hurled 29 wins, 450 strikeouts, and had a 3.77 ERA. He was also one of the last of the screwball pitchers. His screwball had an especially wicked movement due to his unorthodox sidearm delivery. Jim's sidearm pitching was not by accident. He was born with two club feet and required numerous surgeries just so he could walk. He ended up with one leg about an inch shorter than the other. Overcoming such a disability to make it to the majors is an inspiring feat. In 2003, he was the recipient of the Tony Conigliaro Award, given annually to the player that most effectively overcomes adversity to succeed in baseball.
Jim was also one of the featured players selected by Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball. With little money to spend, Beane chose Mecir based on his ability to toss a mean screwball that was devastating to left handed hitters.
9. Mike Cuellar
What is cooler than having an awesome nickname? Having an awesome nickname AND being part of the answer to a expert level baseball trivia question. Mike was called “Crazy Horse” while pitching for the 60s and 70s Orioles powerhouse. He is one fourth of the answer to the question: who were the pitchers for the last team rotation to have four 20-game winners? Since it's killing you, Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally were the other three (the year was 1971). Mike didn't win 20 games just once, he did it four times. If those tidbits don't make you a Mike Cuellar fan, he also served in the Cuban army (pre-Castro).
He was also the first pitcher from Latin America to win the Cy Young award. He was co-winner in 1969 after a tie in voting, and is one of two pitchers to be the last to tie for that trophy. Cuellar's screwball earned him 185 victories and 1,632 strikeouts and a very respectable 3.14 ERA. Oh, he swung a pretty mean bat as well. He was the first player to hit a grand slam in a league championship game, and remains the only pitcher to hit a grand slam in a league championship game.
10. Luis Arroyo
Best known as the first Yankee player born in Puerto Rico, Luis had a mean screwball that made him one the best relief men of his time. Despite his short career, once he settled on becoming a bullpen pitcher instead of a starter, his screwball earn him two All-Star spots and he was the American League saves leader in 1961. While his stats were impressive during his peak, albeit few, years, he was also one of best screwballers in MLB history.
The Pitch That Needs a Comeback
The screwball is probably the least understood, least respected, and most feared pitch in the sport. Few could throw it, and even fewer could throw it effectively. Those who did master it were rewarded with memorable careers. It may be one of the screwiest pitches, and it takes a real screwball to through a screwball, but it remains the most underrated pitch in the sport; if you don't agree, screw you.