Speed limit? Baseball's slowest pitches

Looking back at the most befuddling eephuses, screwballs and more

June 22nd, 2020

Velocity is everywhere in modern baseball, fostered in the amateur ranks, enhanced through high-speed cameras and advanced training techniques and flashed on scoreboard graphics after every pitch. But let’s never forget how silly a little change of pace can make a hitter look.

Slower-than-slow pitches have given some moundsmen 15 minutes of fame, and they’ve extended the careers of others. Let’s take a look back at the slo-mo pitches that would have made Bugs Bunny proud.

Eephus division

Rip Sewell
Sewell was not the first pitcher to hurl a ball straight up to the heavens -- that, according to baseball historians John Thorn and John Holway, would be 1890s pitcher Bill Phillips -- but Phillips’ skyball lay dormant until Sewell blew the dust off. Maurice Van Robays, Sewell’s Pirates teammate, explained that the word “eephus” (possibly from the Hebrew word “efes,” or zero) meant it was “a nothing pitch.” Whatever it was, the eephus mostly worked; it helped Sewell pitch nearly a decade longer with his new toy and notch back-to-back 21-win seasons in 1943-44. One of the only times it didn’t work was when Ted Williams launched it into the stratosphere in the ‘46 All-Star Game (but it took three straight eephuses for Teddy Ballgame to connect).

Dave LaRoche
LaRoche made two All-Star Games, racked up 126 saves and fathered a pair of Major League infielders, but he’s most famous for a pitch that maybe clocked 30 mph. LaRoche created this big looper in 1980 while he was bored in the Angels’ bullpen, and the “LaLob” became a sensation after he joined the Yankees. Its most famous use came against Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas, who spun himself into the ground after swinging through it for strike three on Sept. 9, 1981.

“Every time I’d get an out with it, I’d turn around and look at our infielders,” LaRoche later told the New York Times, “and Bucky [Dent], Willie Randolph and [Graig] Nettles would have their gloves up laughing. But I had to keep a straight face.”

Steve Hamilton
LaRoche wasn’t the first pitcher to send an eephus into the Bronx sky. Hamilton was a 6-foot-6 former NBA player who found a second career as a big league southpaw reliever, and in 1970 he debuted a pitch soon known as the “Folly Floater” that sent Indians first baseman Tony Horton crawling to the dugout. The “Folly Floater” was popular in New York, but not so much once Hamilton was traded to the Giants: a National League umpire ruled it illegal, angrily explaining that the Senior Circuit was “no halfway league.”

Screwball division

Christy Mathewson
Matty learned his famous “fadeaway” pitch in the summer following his prep school graduation (or, perhaps, from Negro Leagues legend Rube Foster), but he didn’t think much of it until it baffled hitters at his tryout for the New York Giants. Mathewson saved the pitch -- which broke the reverse direction of a curveball -- for a game’s biggest moments, but it was devastating once unleashed.

Carl Hubbell
Mathewson twisted his screwball from the right hand, while Hubbell’s scroogie came from the left. It mangled Hubbell’s arm so that his left palm bent outwards after his playing days, but there’s no disputing the heights to which that screwball took him. Hubbell won two National League MVP awards, struck out five of the game’s greatest sluggers in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game (almost exclusively with screwballs) and later won 24 straight games.

Fernando Valenzuela
Valenzuela is the last starting pitcher to successfully make the screwball a featured part of his arsenal, and “Fernandomania” wouldn’t have happened without it. The southpaw leaned heavily on his scroogie while winning his first eight starts, triumphing in the decisive Game 5 of the 1981 NLCS and becoming the only rookie to win the Cy Young Award weeks later. Hubbell told reporters that Valenzeula’s screwball was the best one he had seen since his own.

Knuckleball division

Phil Niekro
Niekro once joked to this author that he had no idea how he got into the Hall of Fame with the junk he threw, but hitters had a different perspective. And when Niekro sequenced one of the greatest knuckleballs of all time with an eephus? Well, that just wasn’t fair.

"The thing that I feel sort of guilty about,” Niekro once told Sports Illustrated, “is that with every other pitch, you try to make the ball do something, spin it to make it curve or sink or sail. All I try to do is make the ball do nothing."

Hoyt Wilhelm
“Old Sarge” had a devastating knuckler (his career-adjusted 147 ERA+ ranks among the top 10 marks in history) that allowed him to be extremely durable (1,070 appearances, sixth all-time). The knuckleball was seen as something of a trick pitch that aging hurlers used to try to stay in the game before Wilhelm made it his primary weapon of choice.

Tim Wakefield
Wakefield began his career as an infielder in the Pirates’ farm system, only making an impression after his Class A manager saw him fooling around with a knuckler while playing catch. As much as Wakefield wanted to play the infield, that knuckleball became his meal ticket.

Curveball division

Barry Zito
There haven’t been many more gorgeous pitches thrown in the 21st century than Zito’s big hook. The pitch started up above a batter's head, and to opposing hitters it must have felt like trying to hit a single droplet in a waterfall. Alex Rodriguez once said of the pitch, “You might as well not even look for it, because you're not going to hit it."

Zack Greinke
There was a time last year when it looked like Greinke wouldn’t give up a single hit on his lollipop slow curve. Greinke wasn’t shy about using it in 2019, especially with two strikes, and opponents finished 6-for-46 with 16 strikeouts when he flipped in a sub-70 mph hook.

Vicente Padilla
Inspiring Vin Scully to nickname one of your pitches is quite an honor (just ask Clayton Kershaw), and so Padilla had to feel some pride knowing Scully named his mid-50s curveball the “soap bubble.” Padilla used his soap bubble early and often to keep a rotation spot with Los Angeles in 2010, his last full season as a starting pitcher.

Yu Darvish
It shouldn’t surprise that Darvish, whose arsenal includes up to 10 pitches, dusts off an extremely slow, 50- to 60-mph hook from time to time. Statcast and pitch F/X have combined to track only 15 slow curves across Darvish’s career (and again, that’s separating them from his standard and knuckle curves), but ask Torii Hunter about its ability to buckle one’s knees, head and shoulders at the same time. Or Dave LaRoche's son, Adam, who got a taste of his dad's old medicine when Darvish struck him out looking on a 59 mph dandy.

Changeup division

Fernando Abad
Abad’s “super changeup” once put Rangers star Adrián Beltré on one knee -- and not to launch one of his famous home runs. Fluttering as low as 59 mph and coming in up to 35 mph slower than his fastball, Abad’s super change has frozen a lot of hitters in place.

Aníbal Sánchez
Sánchez’s beautifully named “La Mariposa” changeup (“the butterfly” in English) floats toward home plate as slow as 60 mph and flutters softly off the ends of hitters’ bats for an easy groundout -- or, sometimes, past those bats altogether. Sánchez has resurrected his career in recent years by taking a lot off his pitches, and “La Mariposa” is the most aesthetically pleasing weapon in his new arsenal.

Fastball division

Jamie Moyer
MLB pitchers only got faster during Moyer’s 25-year career, but he pressed on with a fastball that sometimes struggled to cross 80 mph. Somehow Moyer’s cutting and sinking fastballs stayed effective as he pitched into his late 40s, and maybe no pitcher has done more with less.