Meet Brent Honeywell, top Rays prospect and one of the last screwballers in baseball
Back in 1898, a recent high school grad named Christy Mathewson was passing the summer before college pitching for a local Pennsylvania semipro team. It was there that he met Dave Williams, a teammate whose repertoire included an unorthodox offering. He called it a "fadeaway," a pitch that broke the opposite way of a curveball -- from inside to outside when thrown by a right-handed pitcher to a left-handed batter.
Williams eventually taught the fadeaway to Mathewson, and as Big Six became a star with the Giants, the pitch -- now called a screwball -- took Major League Baseball by storm. Warren Spahn resurrected his career with it. Carl Hubbell rode it all the way to the Hall of Fame. Fernando Valenzuela's sparked a nationwide phenomenon.
And yet, in 2016, the pitch has all but vanished from the upper levels of professional baseball. Both Hector Santiago and Alfredo Simon currently have it in their arsenal at the big league level, but they use it less than one percent of the time. Beyond that, you have to go back to former Reds reliever Danny Herrera, who last pitched in a game in 2011, and journeyman righty Jim Mecir, who retired in 2005. But one player is trying to bring the screwball back: He's Rays Minor Leaguer Brent Honeywell, and it's helped make him MLB Pipeline's No. 43 prospect.
Tampa drafted the righty out of Tennessee's Walters State Community College in the second round back in 2014, and all he's done since is rocket up the rankings. He's now the No. 2 prospect in the Rays' system, and while he'll likely begin this season in Double-A, at this rate Honeywell figures to make an appearance in the big league rotation as soon as 2017 ... when he'll be just 22 years old.
Learning his screwball was less a tactical move than a family inheritance -- Honeywell's father Brent learned it from his cousin, Mike Marshall, the righty who rode his screwball to a Cy Young Award with the Dodgers in 1974. And when the younger Honeywell was old enough, it was his turn.
"They turned it over to me [when I was 13], and it took me a couple of years to really master the pitch," he told MLB.com's Bill Chastain.
He's eager to make an important distinction, though: A "screwball" refers to a very specific pitch. It's not a changeup with heavy tail, or a forkball -- it's literally a curveball in reverse. (You can watch John Smoltz break down the mechanics here.) And that's exactly how Honeywell throws it, with the grip and arm slot of a right-handed curve but the rotation of a left-handed one:
What that means in practice? Good luck:
To get a better idea of just how funky that movement is, compare Honeywell's screwball with a traditional curveball:
The pitch isn't just a gimmick for Honeywell to occasionally dust off, either -- according to most scouts, it's his best offspeed offering, and MLB Pipeline gave it a grade of 65 on the 20-80 scale. He pairs it with a fastball that can get up into the mid-90s, and that combination helped him post a 3.19 ERA and an 8.93 K/9 over two levels of the Minors last season.
Still, there remain plenty of screwball skeptics -- it's long had a reputation for being rough on arms, and Buster Posey even claimed that the pitch didn't exist back in 2014. Honeywell's response to all that? "Just give me a couple of years."