The Year in the Eephus

On Monday, our very own Jeff Sullivan wrote about the return of the Koji Uehara curveball. You see, Uehara doesn’t really throw a curveball. He only threw three last season. He’s thrown two this season. This fascinated me. Pitchers have set repertoires and, for the most part, they typically don’t deviate from them. What I wanted to do was put together a list of some of baseball’s most rare pitches. I set to the leaderboards to find starting pitchers with an unusually low percentage of curveballs, sliders, splitters or changeups, but the results didn’t really please me. Turns out not many guys are like Uehara, throwing a certain pitch just a couple of times. Either they’ve thrown a pitch 25-30 times already this season or they don’t throw it at all.

That is, unless we’re talking about the eephus.

What follows, mostly, are not pure “eephi” in the true sense of the word, as there haven’t been too many true eephus pitches since perhaps El Duque’s in the early 2000’s. But when we think eephus, we think really slow, high-arcing pitches. What I’ve done, thanks to the help of BaseballSavant, is identify all curveballs throw less than 60mph this season. “Slow curves” are generally those under 70. When the speed starts with a 5, that’s when you’re really getting unique.

This season, there have been 31 curveballs thrown less than 60mph, but there’s some caveats here. Not all eephi are made the same. For example, the pitch thrown by Hector Santiago listed at 46mph is clearly some sort of PITCHf/x glitch, as it was actually a 93mph fastball that got smoked to right field. Down to 30.

Then there’s pitches like this:

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Besides that being, perhaps, my favorite pitch of the season thus far, it’s not really what we’re looking for. Collin McHugh tried to throw a regular old curveball, lost his footing, threw it really slow and high and still was able to work the count full on Matt Joyce, who does not appear amused. This was not an conscious eephus pitch, it simply became one. Same with Alfredo Simon‘s. That leaves us with 28.

Take away the three pitches from R.A. Dickey that are just slow, weird knuckleballs that don’t count and we’re left with 25 eephus-type curveballs from six different pitchers. Let’s dive in.

Randy Wolf

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This seems like a good place to start for a few reasons. First, a slow curve from Randy Wolf is nothing new. This was his second of the season. He actually engaged in a midseason competition with then-teammate Zack Greinke when they were on the Brewers as to who could throw the slowest curveball. Greinke won, at 53mph. This one by Wolf went 57. But that’s not the only reason this is interesting.

Our previous experience with Wolf and the slow curve was a silly competition between two friends. This one is about strategy. Really, all slow curves involve some strategy in trying to keep the hitter off balance, but this one involved a different type of strategy. The hitter was Charlie Morton, who is a pitcher. With no outs and a man on first, Morton was likely going to bunt. Wolf knew that. By throwing a 57mph looping curve, he earned himself about a three-step head start on the bunt with the intention of getting the lead runner at second. It was a good bunt, so he wasn’t able to go to second, but the thought was there.

Paul Maholm

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Aside from being called a ball, this is pretty much what a pitcher is trying to accomplish with a pitch like this. Paul Maholm got ahead 0-1 on Garrett Jones and decided to flip a 58mph curve in for his 58th pitch of the day. It just barely missed inside, but Jones thought it was coming for his head. He uncomfortably spins away from the pitch, meaning it did its job. It changed Jones’ eye level, it changed speeds and it made him a little uncomfortable. Eephus pitches aren’t supposed to go for swinging strike threes, they’re supposed to mess with the hitter a little bit and keep them off balance. That’s what this did.

Jeremy Guthrie

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The bases were loaded with just one out in a tie game and Jeremy Guthrie opted to go with the eephus to a left-handed hitter – and a good left-handed hitter at that, in Brian McCann. Usually, the eephus pitch doesn’t get put in play because the hitter isn’t expecting it, but when it does, it’s typically hit in the air and oftentimes pretty far, making this a pretty risky pitch selection. Nevertheless, Guthrie seemingly accomplishes his task, getting McCann to take a weird, off-balance swing and foul it off. Guthrie was hoping this would mess with McCann’s timing and he could blow a fastball by him on the next pitch. The next pitch became a bases-clearing double.

Zack Greinke

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Whattya know! Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf may both be on new teams since they were teammates in Milwaukee, but that hasn’t stopped them each from throwing eephus pitches to varying levels of success. This is one of three eephus pitches that Greinke has thrown this year but the only one that netted him two outs.

He uses the same strategy as Wolf in throwing the pitch to get a running head start on a sac bunt attempt, but the genius of this play doesn’t end there. Look at the way Greinke fields the bunt and watch what you can of baserunner George Kottaras at second base. The way Greinke fields this pitch, he makes it look like the ball might drop. Kottaras doesn’t know what to do and is caught in no-man’s land between second and third. At the last second, Greinke snags the shallow pop and fires to second for a fantastic double play that all started with an eephus pitch.

Yu Darvish

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You probably knew this one was coming eventually. It’s no secret that, included in Yu Darvish‘s 812 pitch arsenal is a slow curve. He doesn’t throw it often, but his five curveballs less than 60mph this season are second-most in the MLB. But Darvish is unique in the way he uses his. Wolf and Greinke both threw theirs against pitchers preparing to sac bunt. Most other guys use it as a change-of-pace pitch, either in the first pitch of an at-bat or to get to two strikes. Darvish uses his as an out pitch. Four of Darvish’s five eephus pitches this season have come with two strikes. Only five of the other 28 pitches identified in this study came with two strikes. There are a lot of ways in which Yu Darvish is unlike other pitchers. This is one very small, weird way.

Henderson Alvarez

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At last, our hero. As our Mike Petriello noted back in May, Henderson Alvarez is absolutely fascinating. There are several legitimate reasons Petriello brings up as to what makes Alvarez so fascinating, and this isn’t even one of them. Alvarez has thrown the eephus more than any other pitcher in baseball by more than double the count, with 11 under his belt already. He’s also the only pitcher this season to register a swinging strike on a pitch less than 60mph, which is just a thing of beauty. Poor, poor Luis Valbuena.

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Thing about Alvarez is, not only does he throw sub-60mph pitches more than anyone else, he also guns his fastball up to 98. The very next pitch after this embarrassing swing-and-miss by Luis Valbuena was a 96mph heater. Valbuena took a similar-looking cut and did not miss.

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Alvarez throws a 58mph eephus, gets a swinging strike, adds 38mph of velocity on the very next pitch and the only thing that keeps it in the park is Chicago wind. Go figure.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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Owen Watson
Member
2 years 1 month ago

Something I love: the Valbuena shimmy
Something I don’t: the lack of Valbuena bat flip

Great stuff, August!

mike
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

the shimmy was glorious

Bryce
Member
Bryce
2 years 1 month ago

Marvelous!

Eephus
Guest
Eephus
2 years 1 month ago

No offense but none of these are eephus pitches as you noted, but your statement ‘when we think of eephus, we think of treally, really slow curveballs’ is patently untrue unless you propose to speak for all of us. Those are just obnoxiously slow curveballs. The eephus uses gravity, not break. I think the article works just as well without bastardizing the definition of the eephus.

Dave LaRoche
Guest
Dave LaRoche
2 years 1 month ago

Rip Sewell’s “true” eephus would peak at 20 feet. I once saw Bob Walk throw something similar to Gary Sheffield, since nothing else Walk threw could get Sheffield out.

These remind me more of Vicente Padilla’s slow pitches, which Vin Scully called “soap bubbles”. If the term is good enough for Vin, it’s good enough for me.

Tim
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

These are all slow curves that behave mostly normal, I thought the Eephus was slower much higher in its arc, and would be coming straight down over the plate, I don’t think there have been any true eephus throwers in decades, although Burhle threw one or two over the years. Look at the pitch Ted Williams mashed in the all star game while charging the mound its a little more pronounced.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
2 years 1 month ago

I feel like El Duque (or maybe his brother) threw a pitch that was under 50 mph several years ago.

David
Guest
David
2 years 1 month ago

Ok eephus.

Joe
Guest
Joe
2 years 1 month ago

PitchFX seems to think that Odrisamer Despaigne has thrown almost 70 eephuses this year, is that just a flaw in their algorithm?

Kevin M
Guest
Kevin M
2 years 1 month ago

Vicente threw a couple of those a week that I saw him pitch a few years back. I just remember thinking “what the hell is that?” The second one got a swinging strike so it had to have been intentional.

Kevin M
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

*Vicente Padilla

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