Slow curveball separates Wolf from the pack
MILWAUKEE — As the baseball left Randy Wolf's left hand in the sixth inning of the Milwaukee Brewers' Aug. 9 game against the Reds, batter Brandon Phillips could tell almost immediately that there was something different about this pitch.
The ball spun so quickly, yet seemed to be moving so slowly through the air — a pitch seemingly caught in slow motion. It elevated above his head, in a territory very few pitches ever reach before finding the strike zone. But as it spun closer and closer to the plate, the bottom dropped out and it drifted through the strike zone. The pitch fell slower than any curveball Phillips had ever seen.
Finally, the pitch reached the plate. A ball. But the Brewers' dugout looked over to the video screen that revealed the speed of Wolf's throw.
Forty-nine miles per hour.
"You don't get to see that every day," closer John Axford said later.
"I don't know if he needs to throw it that slow," pitching coach Rick Kranitz added. "That's slow. Really slow."
In fact, Wolf's pitch is likely the slowest pitch in baseball this entire season, and possibly longer before that — statistics on slow pitches aren't regularly recorded. He is one of the last of a dying breed of curveball throwers who are even capable of hurling what many refer to as "the Eephus pitch", named in the 1940s by Pirates teammates of Eephus-thrower Rip Sewell.
Since that time, though, the pitch has slowly faded from consciousness — becoming purely a novelty to some. Even Wolf, who was released by the Brewers on Wednesday and is hoping to extend his 14-year major league career with a contender, may not get a chance to throw another this year.
But Wolf argues fervently that there's still a place for a curveball that would seem more suited for beer league softball than major league baseball. For years before he learned the art of the slow curve, Wolf had avoided his curveball at times due to its inconsistencies. Masquerading as a thrower of faster curveballs, his command was off. In 2001, though, Wolf watched Rockies pitcher Brian Bohannon throw the curve differently than he'd ever thrown it. So he tried to emulate Bohannon, attempting to navigate the complex problem of maintaining arm speed while throwing the pitch as much as 20 mph slower than a normal curve.
Soon enough, Wolf had become one of the game's best slow curve artists. And still, it remains a complex, mysterious art form.
"When you throw one that slow, it takes a lot of trust to throw it," Wolf said, dissecting his pitch like an artist explains his masterpiece. "It's a pitch that you have to have confidence to throw. Even if you throw it for a strike, you'll hear giggles in the crowd because it's like, ‘Really? 50 mph?' But to me, I think it actually plays a part. It's not just a novelty pitch. It can work. It throws off the hitters timing, and it's definitely something they're never looking for."
No batter is expecting a pitch that slow because very few of them have ever seen something like it. Offset with a fastball as the next pitch, Wolf estimates that his speed has, at one point or another, changed by 40 mph from one pitch to the next—an almost unprecedented number in the major leagues.
So why don't more pitchers throw so slow? There's a simple enough answer: They can't.
Brewers pitcher Marco Estrada has tried to emulate Wolf's slow curve, he says, but ultimately failed. They were nothing more than "glorified lobs," he said, as he admitted he was unable to master the right release point without losing the element of surprise. And Axford is the same. He's never tried very hard to perfect the slow curve, but he seems to already know that it's not for him.
"I wouldn't know how to slow it down," Axford said. "Would I use a different grip? I don't know. Certain people just have that touch. They can go through the motions the same way, and just right at the last second at the top, slow it down so the hitter can't tell. I'm sure I would just go through the motions slowly, and they could tell in a second. That's the difference, being able to go through the motions the same way and just be able to halt your arm up top and flip it up there."
And that's what makes the slow curveball such a peculiar art form; only a select few pitchers can master it. It's a pitch that takes a lot of faith, as many players overthrow it or lose the necessary arm speed to hide the identity of the pitch.
But Brewers manager Ron Roenicke knows how effective it can be when thrown correctly. He admitted that during his playing career, he "had no chance" against the handful of Eephus pitches he watched cross the plate. There's a certain sense of admiration in his voice though, as he discussed the intricacies of throwing such a strange pitch.
"It's a feel thing," Roenicke said. "You've got to be really relaxed and confident throwing it because if you're a little tense and you throw that pitch, it's not getting close."
With that kind of intricacy in a single pitch, the slow curve has come to define those who throw it, like artists defined by their most unique piece of work. Now, as hard as he might try, Wolf knows he can't throw a mid-80s or high-70s curveball, just as Estrada and Axford can't replicate his Eephus pitch.
But as the slowest pitch of his entire career crossed the plate, as Phillips watched in a mix of confusion and curiosity, Wolf couldn't help but smile. He knows the slow curve will never get the respect it may deserve. At a position where speed is lauded and hard throwers rule, Wolf had thrown a pitch with velocity equivalent to that of a softball duffer. But he's grown to appreciate his super slow curveball unlike he ever thought he would.
"When you strike out on a 96-mph fastball, people kind of get it," Wolf said. "But when you strike out on a 56-mph curveball, people are like, ‘Really? You struck out on that? My 14-year-old son throws harder than 56.' That's the part about it that I think brings people to laugh about it. You're throwing a pitch that, mile-per-hour-wise, junior high kids can throw.
"But, hey, it works."
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