A breaking ball is defined as a pitch that creates movement with sharp spin induced from the wrist. But all of the similarities end there. Almost all breaking balls fall into the slider or curveball, but there is a lot of slurviness in between and each pitcher defines their pitches differently. There are different components to a breaking ball and they parallel those of the fastball. There is velocity or hardness, deception, command, movement, and breaking out from movement, shape. Many of the components of a breaking ball are inherent to a pitcher based on their arm, wrist, and delivery.
Velocity in relation to a breaking ball is not a cut and dry with big velocity equaling success. The most obvious implication of velocity is that the faster the pitch the less time the batter has to adjust to the pitch. The trade off to velocity is that it can often come with less movement. This is due to the physics of a thrown baseball, in order to get sharp movement on a hard breaking ball, the pitcher must impart more rotation on to the pitch.
Velocity leads into the shape and movement of the breaking ball, shape I define as the overall path of the pitch and movement is how it goes along that path. Shape is what will tell what kind of pitch it is, a slider tends to break more away from a same sided hitter and a curveball has more vertical movement. The best of both pitches will have movement along both planes. A slider that just breaks horizontally will stay in the bat path a lot longer, especially to an opposing batter. These sliders tend to be called frisbees and their owners will have large platoon splits. With more two plane movement a pitcher can use the slider to break down and away from a same sided hitter and can start on the inside corner to an opposite handed batter and break it in on their feet. Curveballs because of thier vertical movement do a lot more to change the eye level of the hitter. Adding horizontal movement allows a pitcher to start it inside to a same handed batter and have it break into the zone, or have it break out of the zone for a chase pitch.
Beyond the overall path of the ball a big thing with movement is where is the break. The most effective breaking balls have late sharp movement, this gives the batter the least amount of time to adjust to the pitch. A slider with a long sweeping motion will break right into the bat path while giving the hitter plenty of time to adjust. A loopy curveball will be slow enough that a hitter can time it up to hit out like a BP fastball. The key is to have either a pitch that looks like an unhittable pitch that becomes a strike or a pitch that looks like a strike that ends up unhittable. The more it looks like its first incarnation that more effective it will be.
With fastball deception you are looking for a pitch that the pitcher hides or releases weird so that it takes a while to pick up location and pitch type. With a breaking ball the deception is less about funky mechanics and more about whether the pitch looks the same out of the hand as a fastball. Many minor leaguers will throw their breaking ball from a different arm slot than their fastball and changeup, this will work in the minors, but a major leaguer will recognize it in game or in the scouting report and will be ready for it. Another tell tale sign is that some pitchers will release their breaking ball with a different arm speed than their other pitches, this again will be exploited in the majors. An ideal breaking ball will come out of the hand looking the same but with lesser velocity and more movement than the fastball, because of the spin the pitch will have less natural deception than a changeup but it should be combated by more movement on the back end.
The last piece of the puzzle is command. As is true with any pitch, if you are never able to throw it for a strike, hitters will eventually stop swinging at it. A pitcher does not necessarily have to have pinpoint control to be effective, if their is the threat of a strike the hitter will be forced to read the spin and movement of the pitch, this small time spent, can help the chances of poor contact on a swing. What can separate a pitcher and improve their ceiling is true breaking ball command. A breaking ball can be a real weapon if a pitcher can drop it in for a quality strike on one pitch and then start in the zone and bury it on the next pitch. The hitter must then always contend with each pitch because it either looks like or it will be a strike. This can allow a pitcher to get strikeouts to end ABs as well as use their breaking ball as a set up pitch for their other offerings.
Rather than argue who has the best breaking balls, here are the plus breaking balls in the system.
- Shane Watson
- Jesse Biddle
- Severino Gonzalez
- Austin Wright
- Ethan Martin
- Jay Johnson
- Adam Morgan