There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed lately in my area and seemingly is happening across the country as I speak with other pitching instructors.
When I start lessons with a new pitcher I will ask her what pitches she throws. For pitchers under the age of 14 my expectation is fastball, change, and maybe a drop ball.
These days, however, I have been shocked at how many, even the 10 year olds, will include a “screwball” in their list of pitches. Especially when I then watch them pitch and they struggle to throw their basic fastball with any velocity or semblance of accuracy.
Who in the world thinks teaching a screwball to a 10 year old (or a 12 or 13 year old for that matter) is a good idea? Particularly the screwball that requires the pitcher to contort her arm and wrist outward in a twisting motion that includes the “hitchhiker” finish?
There is simply no good reason to be doing that. For one thing, most kids at that age have rather weak proprioception (body awareness of self movement), which means they often struggle to lock in a single movement pattern.
So, since the way you throw a screwball is in direct opposition to the way you throw a fastball (especially with internal rotation mechanics but it’s even true of hello elbow pitchers) why would you introduce a way of throwing that will interfere with development of core mechanics? Pitchers who are trying to learn both will be splitting their time between two opposing movements, pretty much ensuring they will master neither.
Then coaches and parents wonder why the poor kid can’t throw two strikes in a row in a game.
Just as important is the health and safety aspect of twisting your forearm and elbow against the way they’re designed to work. As my friend and fellow pitching coach Keeley Byrnes of Key Fundamentals points out, “Boys at that age are cautioned against throwing curve balls with a twisting action because of the stress it places on their elbow joints. Why would you encourage a softball pitcher to do the same thing?”
Keeley also points out that most 10 year olds don’t hit very well anyway, so developing a screwball at that age is unnecessary. You can get many hitters out by throwing a fastball over the plate with decent velocity (which means it’s not arcing in).
Tony Riello, a pitching coach, trainer, and licensed doctor of chiropractic, is also concerned about the effect throwing the twisty screwball can have on other body parts. He says, “To be that spread out left to then force the arm and shoulder right seems not healthy for either the back or the shoulder,” he says.
Then there’s the fact that in 99% of the cases a screwball isn’t really a screwball. It’s just a fastball that runs in on a hitter.
Why do I say that? Because if you look at the spin on 99% of so-called screwballs, especially among 10 year olds but even at the collegiate level, they don’t have the type of spin that would make them break. They have “bullet” spin, i.e., their axis of spin is facing the same direction as the direction of travel.
For a screwball to actually be a screwball the axis of spin would need to be on top of the ball, with spin direction going toward the throwing hand side. Just as a curve spins away from the throwing hand side.
So if you’re throwing a pitch that isn’t going to break anyway, why not just learn to throw an inside fastball instead? If you want it to run in a little more, stride out more to the glove side then let it run itself back in.
But again, you’re now giving that young pitcher who’s just trying to learn to throw the ball over the plate two different mechanics (stride straight, stride out) to use, which means she’s probably going to be half as effective on either one.
Oh, and that hitchhiker move that’s supposedly the “key” to the screwball and places all the stress on the elbow? It happens well after the ball is out of the pitcher’s hand, so it has no impact on the spin of the pitch whatsoever. Zero. None. Nada.
Finally, and perhaps most important, once a young pitcher can throw with decent velocity and locate her pitches (or at least throw 70% strikes) there are simply better pitches for her to learn first.
After the basic fastball, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most quality pitching coaches), the second pitch that should be learned is a changeup that can be thrown with the same arm and body speed as the fastball but resulting in a 10-15 mph speed differential. Throwing both the fastball and change at the right speeds for 70% strikes should be enough to keep the typical 10- or 12-year old pitcher busy for a while.
Next you would want to add a drop ball. The mechanics of a properly taught drop ball are very similar to the fastball. In fact, I like to say they are fraternal twins.
Making a ball drop at the right spot, especially given so many young hitters’ desire to stand up as they swing, will get you a lot more outs, either as strikeouts or groundouts. A good drop ball will still translate into more groundouts as you get older too – just ask Cat Osterman.
From there it’s a little less certain. You can go either rise ball or curve ball. I usually make the decision based on the pitcher’s tendencies.
A well-thrown rise ball is still an extremely effective pitch, even though it doesn’t actually break up. And a well-thrown curve will actually break either off the plate (traditional curve) or back onto it (backdoor curve). Either way it moves – unlike the screwball which mostly travels on the same line.
I would save the screwball for last – unless you happen to play in an area where slappers are predominant in the lineup. Which in the era of $500 bats and quality, year-round hitting instruction is about as scarce as screwballs that actually change direction.
There are simply better pitches to learn. And if you do work on a screwball, there are better ways to learn it than trying to twist your wrist and forearm off in a contorted move that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
The bottom line is that, for the love of Gaia, there is no good reason to be teaching a screwball to a 10 year old – or any pitcher who hasn’t mastered her fastball and changeup first. Let’s make sure we’re giving our young pitchers the actual tools they need to succeed – and avoid those that can lead to injury and perhaps a career cut short.