Here's a really cool story about pitch design in the social media age. It's the story of how a Major League pitcher learned a nasty new pitch … after the season already started ... from Twitter.
Jake Diekman throws a slider. It's generally been the same slider: good down-breaking action, but not much sweeping horizontal movement.
That was the slider Diekman was throwing on Opening Day. The A's lefty only threw a couple of them in his relief outing against the Angels, but they looked like your ordinary Diekman sliders.
After that game on July 24, if you looked at Diekman's horizontal slider movement by season, you would have seen this:
2017: 7.4 inches
2018: 7.0 inches
2019: 5.9 inches
2020: 6.6 inches
Everything totally normal. And then it wasn't.
The next day, July 25, Rob Friedman, aka @PitchingNinja, did what he does multiple times a day, every day: He tweeted a clip of a nasty pitch. Not even a new pitch. It was one that Friedman tweets all the time, because it's one of the prettiest pitches in baseball: Chaz Roe's slider.
Roe, like Diekman, throws a slider. Roe, unlike Diekman, throws a Frisbee slider. The Rays right-hander gets more horizontal slider break than any pitcher in baseball. Last season, he averaged 22.8 inches of break -- a full three inches more movement than anybody else. Plus, Roe's slider is Twitter eye candy -- a combination of the sheer amount of movement and right-hander-friendly TV camera angles that make its bend look like a Wiffle ball's.
Like thousands of others scrolling their Twitter feeds, Diekman saw the Roe clip. But he's one of the few who could actually do something with it. Diekman tweeted at PitchingNinja: "Can we get the grip? Thanks ahead of time Mr. Ninja!"
Diekman knows how his slider differs from Roe's -- that he has more vertical movement (last season, Diekman's slider got +4.9 inches of drop vs. an average slider; Roe's got +3.7 inches vs. average), but that Roe's has an unparalleled 22-plus inches of horizontal break.
"I really like the shape of his slider," Diekman said. "I kind of want mine to break down a little bit more vertically. But the shape of his is stupid. It breaks so much. So if I can do that …"
Roe's slider also reminded Diekman of how he used to throw his own slider in Kansas City, back before the Royals dealt him to the A's last July. The only thing was … he'd forgotten the grip.
"I just completely had a brain fart and I forgot how I gripped it," Diekman said. "So I just asked Mr. Ninja for it, and he gave it to me."
Friedman responded to Diekman's request with a link to Roe's slider grip from a Dropbox collection he maintains of all his nastiest pitcher GIFs. One of the folders within the Dropbox is specifically devoted to pitch grips of every type, with clips of current and former Major Leaguers explaining how they throw different pitch types. One of the sliders in the slider grips folder is Roe's.
"Now, let me know when you throw it, and I'll be sure to get it," Friedman tweeted at Diekman, with a thumbs-up emoji.
Apparently, pitcher forgetfulness is more common than you'd think. That's another benefit of PitchingNinja -- his Dropbox and Twitter feed are an archive where a pitcher can go not just to learn something new, but to rediscover what he's lost.
"Ask a pitcher, they'll forget how they grip -- where they put their thumb, where they put their index finger -- you forget everything," Diekman said. "A ball's seam will be different and won't feel right, and it'll make you go to like some other part of the ball and you'll completely forget how you threw it. Happens all the time. ... Or to me. Or just myself. But I'm pretty sure every other pitcher does it."
The video from PitchingNinja's Dropbox shows a hoodie and flip-flop-wearing Roe sitting in the Rays dugout, holding up a baseball for the camera. Diekman used that video and started playing around with Roe's grip. It clicked right away.
"Once I held it and played catch with it for a day," Diekman said, "I was like, 'All right, this is basically it. So I'll just take it in [to a game].'"
One day later, on July 26, Diekman pitched again. And his slider was different.
Diekman threw eight sliders in that second outing against the Angels. He averaged 10.8 inches of horizontal break. So, in the span of three days, Diekman went from throwing his same old vertical-breaking slider, to getting the grip of the most sweeping slider in MLB, to immediately adding four inches of horizontal movement.
Friedman, true to his word, tweeted this.
A fan tagged Diekman, asking, "Was this the new slider you were asking about yesterday?"
Diekman responded, "It surely was."
The story only gets better. Diekman has been throwing all Roe-inspired sliders since. And with every game he pitches, Diekman's slider movement looks more like Roe's.
Here's a game-by-game timeline of Diekman's average horizontal slider break.
July 24 (old slider): 6.6 inches
July 25: Asks PitchingNinja for Roe's grip
July 26 (new slider) 10.8 inches
July 27: 14.4 inches
Aug. 1: 15.8 inches
Aug. 2: 13.0 inches
So now if you look at Diekman's horizontal slider movement by season, it looks like this:
2017: 7.4 inches (+0.7 inches vs. avg.)
2018: 7.0 inches (-0.2 inches vs. avg.)
2019: 5.9 inches (-0.1 inches vs. avg.)
2020: 13.3 inches (+5.3 inches vs. avg.)
Yes, Diekman has more than doubled his slider break from last season to this season. His slider movement has gone from hovering around league average to over five inches above average. That is a huge increase. And wanting to add that horizontal movement makes too much sense for Diekman -- just ask PitchingNinja.
"I think that was kind of the missing piece for him, is adding that little extra horizontal movement," Friedman said of Diekman. "Because now it's something that nobody ever sees."
Now, Diekman has new sweeping movement coming from an already extreme arm angle. Diekman throws from the second-widest horizontal release point in the league -- on average, he lets the ball go from 3.69 feet toward the first-base side of the rubber, with only Josh Hader more extreme.
Add horizontal movement to a pitch coming from that arm angle, especially after Diekman pumps in 95-plus mph heat, and you get a slider that'll make hitters extremely uncomfortable, à la Chris Sale or Andrew Miller.
"His slider is filthy, especially because of his arm slot," Friedman said. "He's totally a crossfire guy. That makes it pretty impossible to hit because he's coming from such an extreme angle. So if he added more horizontal movement, it's really not very fair."
Figuring out how to absorb Roe's righty slider grip as a lefty was the easy part for Diekman. The challenge was implementing Roe's slider through his own extreme crossfire delivery while still preserving the way Roe delivers the pitch.
"You can get video of Chaz Roe and mirror it and all of a sudden he's throwing left-handed. So that's not that hard," Diekman said. "The biggest thing is, you've got to find out where you want to actually physically start the pitch to make it end a certain way."
He's done a seamless job so far. Since adapting Roe's slider into his repertoire, Diekman has gotten strikeouts on sliders with tracked horizontal movement of 19.2 inches, 15.6 inches and 14.4 inches, plus called or swinging strikes with break of 19.2 inches, 18.0 inches, 15.6 inches, 14.4 inches, 14.4 inches, 13.2 inches and 12.0 inches. Oh, and he hasn't given up a run all season.
"The horizontal movement is what Diekman could benefit from," Friedman said. "It really depends on what you've got, and how [another pitcher's version of the pitch] supplements it."
Roe's Frisbee still spins wider than Diekman's (and also every single other pitcher's), but those Diekman movement numbers are getting a lot more Roe-esque. It's crazy to look at the movement now compared to the movement before. Diekman isn't the first Major Leaguer to see a nasty pitch on @PitchingNinja and make it his own. He won't be the last. But it's amazing to see such clear, tangible results appear so fast.
Jake Diekman got Chaz Roe's slider grip from PitchingNinja on Twitter; a week later he looks like a lefty Chaz Roe.
"Roe throws a Frisbee, and Diekman throws -- I mean, like, Diekman's is filthy," Friedman said. "It'll end up being a lot of backfoot sliders and just unhittable stuff. I love what he's done."
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.