Look at the numbers for Robert Coello‘s third pitch and you might not get it. It’s a forkball. It gets a below-average swinging-strike rate for a breaking pitch. It’s a ball half the time. It looks flawed. But then you watch Coello pitch, and this happens.
That pitch will make you sit up and take notice. The Athletics announcers, deep in the snooze that is a double-digit deficit in the ninth inning of a September game, wondered lightly if it was a palm ball or a split finger. Then they returned to the business of calling a laugher.
You still might need more information before you really appreciate this pitch. Coello calls it a forkball, but he says he holds the ball a little deeper in his hand than an ordinary forkballs. Well, a lot deeper:
Shoving the ball deep into the hand makes the pitch a no-seam wonder — and the results are hard to classify. They’ve shown up in PITCHf/x as curves and changeups because the break is unpredictable. “It has different effects,” Coello told me. “It all depends on how it comes out.” Sometimes, he says, the pitch has a “knuckle effect.” Other times, it’ll have “a little less movement and it will go left or straight down.” Coello threw one this year that moved double-digits to his arm side (that one’s pictured below). And some had virtually no horizontal movement. He threw one that had double-digit vertical movement. He threw many that didn’t dip but still faded dramatically. Let’s call it a forkleball. That’s the nickname that’s fit to print.
Whichever way it breaks, the forkleball is an attention grabber. Do catchers say anything when they catch the pitch? “Every time I throw it, actually,” Coello says.
“I have never seen a grip like his, with the results of what we see this pitch do,” Mike Scioscia told Jeff Fletcher about Coello’s forkball right before his pitching coach said the reliever was “unique in today’s game.”
That’s a noteworthy moniker to throw on a pitch Coello admits he initially didn’t take too seriously. He used to be a catcher, and like any position player in high school, he used to fool around with a knuckleball. “I was just messing around, because I couldn’t throw a knuckleball,” he says. “I would joke around with it and I finally got a grip that was able to have that knuckle effect.” When the Angels moved him from behind the plate to the mound, he rediscovered his joke pitch.
But now we can be more serious and return to some of the mediocre per-pitch numbers on the forkleball. Even if you add in all his changeups and forkballs, Coello’s version of the pitch gets about a 10% whiff rate, which is below your standard ~15% whiff rate for better breaking pitches. It’s a ball almost half the time, which is also worse than the average ~40% ball rate. Once it’s been put in play, it’s been a hit half the time.
Yet it does crazy things. Nate Freiman might be able to help us out some. He saw the pitch — thought it came in like a knuckleball, around 79 mph — and was helpless. He didn’t swing. He did say, twice in one sentence, that “it was a good pitch” — that he didn’t know what he’d do if he saw it again. And so here’s the pitch Nate Freiman saw on the left. And then the very next pitch on the right.
One of the difficulties of per-pitch numbers is that pitches exist in arsenals. R.A. Dickey‘s 83 mph fastball is a top-30 fastball in the game since 2010, and that’s because of his knuckleball. In a similar way, Coello’s fastball gains life from his forkleball. He gets twice the whiffs of a regular four-seamer on his fastball. In fact, given a minimum of 10 whiffs on the season, Coello’s four-seam fastball has the seventh-best swinging-strike rate among its peers. On that list in front of him are some big fastballs: Aroldis Chapman (third) and Burch Smith (fifth) average in the high 90s. But also on the list are Darren O’Day (second) and his 86 mph fastball, and Louis Coleman (first) and his 90 mph fastball. Both guys throw sliders almost more than their fastballs. Coello averages just a bit more than 90 mph on his fastball.
We can see why Coello’s forkleball helps his fastball when we look at them next to each other. The breaker comes out of his hand looking like a four-seamer; anyone who has seen that pitch has to consider the possibility the bottom will drop out of future fastballs. You see Freiman, swinging under a high 89 mph fastball on the outside corner. But really you see Freiman swinging under a fastball that’s high and outside just after a forkleball dropped out of the sky onto the inner half.
Two things become important to Coello’s success with the pitch: consistency and his ability to throw it for strikes. They go together, really. Coello and his catcher Hank Conger aren’t so sure these are worries, at least not now. Coello thinks he just has to stay on top of the pitch, like his fastball. As for walks? “I don’t walk people with my forkball,” Coello says. Conger calls the pitch his “put-away pitch” but thinks the Coello is in the zone with it “pretty consistently.” Seen in this light, the arsenal becomes almost traditional. Get ahead with the fastball, use the breaking pitches to finish the at-bat. Coello agrees: “Just throwing my pitches, four-seamer, curveball, forkball.”
But consistency is still the toughest part with pitches like this. Grab a seam and you have a good idea which way the ball is going to break. Throw a no-seamer and you’re hoping for the right movement, and a strike if the batter doesn’t swing. R.A. Dickey wondered how easy it was for Coello to hold the ball and throw it for strikes when we talked about the Angels reliever earlier this season. When asked if there was room for a no-spin-forkleball pitcher in the knuckleball fraternity, Dickey laughed and said he wanted to see the grip. And some more GIFs.
Catching the pitch also presents a challenge, as you can see from the ball that trickled away from the Angels’ John Hester in the above clip. Hank Conger admitted it was tough, but pointed out the team had a knuckleball mitt just for Coello. Along with Chris Iannetta, the two have worked on receiving the ball late in order to wait for the pitch’s last move. Coello has noticed, saying that the two “have been good lately, staying deep with the ball and receiving it well.”
The former catcher knows how tough it is to catch his pitch. I had to ask him: Would you, if you still were a catcher, want to catch your own pitch? “No,” he said, “I’m a pitcher now.” Coello then flashed what looked like a thankful smile. He knows. The forkleball is part of his arsenal that needs to be used at the right times, and when it is, it’s a beast in his back pocket.
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