LAKELAND, Fla. — Although locating a hard and lively fastball is the ticket the majors, the slider often determines how successful a pitcher becomes and if he stays at that level.
The slider put Max Scherzer over the top, and it’s the pitch Rick Porcello needs to command consistently in order to become a rotation mainstay.
The slider provides Al Alburquerque the opportunity to become something special, and it’s the pitch that helped make Justin Verlander borderline illegal.
What makes it a put-away pitch?
“It’s so hard to pick up the spin on it and differentiate it from the fastball,” Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones said. “It comes in looking like a fastball, then it changes its plane, going down and across.
“Most guys’ fastballs are in the 90s (mph), while most guys’ sliders are 84 to 87 (mph). It’s a hard pitch that has late movement.”
Scherzer explained why it’s harder to pick up than a curveball.
“The flight path a curve takes is entirely different from a fastball,” Scherzer said. “The slider comes out at the same angle as a fastball, and to a hitter, it looks like a fastball.”
The origin of the slider, sometimes called the “nickel curve,” is debated.
It’s most generally credited to Hall of Fame pitcher Charles Albert “Chief” Bender, the Ojibwa tribe member who got 193 of his 212 victories for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1903 to 1914. But it didn’t become a truly prominent pitch until the 1960s.
Bob Gibson, Rollie Fingers, Steve Carlton, Sparky Lyle, Ron Guidry, David Cone, John Smoltz, Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano, Johan Santana, Brad Lidge and Clayton Kershaw are among the most outstanding slider practitioners. It’s the pitch that Guidry learned from Lyle and used significantly in his 25-3 season of 1978.
Scherzer could be on his way to joining that list. He became one of the American League’s premier pitchers in 2012, going 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA and finishing second in majors with 231 strikeouts.
“The slider was a big part of Max’s success last year,” Jones said.
Scherzer made the jump from 8 strikeouts per nine innings in 2011 to 11.1 — the highest total since Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs had 11.3 per nine in 2003. Scherzer went from being a good strikeout pitcher to a great one.
“I began executing the slider last year and not making mistakes with it,” Scherzer said. “I was able to locate it with intent, and it was the big reason why I was able to have the type of run I had.”
He tinkered with the pitch in high school, made improvements at Missouri and fine tuned it each year in pro ball. Then Scherzer found the grip adjustment that made all the difference.
“I adjusted my fingertips to put more pressure on the ball and tilted my thumb in more,” Scherzer said. “The slider is in between the fastball and curve in terms of the amount of torque.
“I found the right grip in spring training, and found consistency a couple months after that.”
His turnaround can be traced to a point precisely two months into the season. Scherzer was 5-4 with a 5.88 ERA on June 6, and 11-3 with a 2.92 ERA the rest of the way.
But as good as Scherzer’s slider is, he doesn’t even have the best one on the team.
“Alburquerque’s — that could be the best slider in the game right now,” Scherzer said. “Lidge had the best one before that.”
Jones nodded in agreement.
“Alburquerque’s got one of the best sliders I have ever seen,” said Jones, who pitched for the Oakland A’s from 1980-84. “He gets more funny swings on his slider than anyone else.”
Alburquerque — healthy after missing all but eight games last season following elbow surgery — has an incredible 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.59 ERA in 56 2/3 innings pitched for the Tigers.
“Sometimes after a strikeout, hitters will give me credit,” Alburquerque said. “They’ll say, ‘It’s nasty; it looks just like a fastball.’”
Tigers catcher Alex Avila said, “It drops so dramatically that it looks more like a splitter than a slider.”
Alburquerque’s pitching coach on the Aguilas Dominican Winter League team, Fernando Hernandez, taught him the pitch in 2010.
“Fernando showed me a splitter and I tried to throw it, but it came out like a slider,” Alburquerque said. “The first day I used it, I struck out four of seven batters I faced.
“I said, ‘OK, I am throwing this pitch.’”
Alburquerque had found his ticket to the majors, arriving in Detroit one year later.
Verlander began “messing around” with the slider at Old Dominion University and credited Jones with finally getting him over the hump on it.
“It gave me one more thing to use,” said Verlander, who has perhaps the best curve and fastball in the majors and a quality change-up. “And I’m not afraid to throw the slider in a fastball count.
“I can freeze ‘em with a curve, but I throw the slider like a fastball, out of the same plane.”
It’s deceptive, and Verlander used his entire repertoire to win the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award.
Jones said that starter Anibal Sanchez is another Tiger with “a pretty good” slider, and Alburquerque pointed to reliever Brayan Villarreal as having a quality slider.
Porcello didn’t throw the slider until his rookie year, 2009, and said he’s focusing on that pitch rather than the curve.
“I want to master one of them before trying to throw two breaking balls,” Porcello said. “I’ve thrown plenty of good sliders and plenty not so good.
“It’s not a matter of the grip for me. It comes back to the delivery and landing balance — getting my head on target.”
Jones, who learned the pitch in junior high from his father, said no two grips on the slider are the same. He stresses experimenting with the grip until a pitcher finds one with which he can snap off quality sliders.
The middle and index fingers are kept together (except in Alburquerque’s hybrid split grip) and adjusted to various positions on the seams of a ball.
Some believe the slider places undo stress on the elbow. Does it?
“If thrown properly — no,” Jones said. “But any pitch that is not a fastball brings a little excess stress, even if thrown properly.”