Chris Welch, General Manager, RBI Baseball Academy
A very common question for Babe Ruth/Senior/Junior League pitchers that come into my bullpen this time of the year for a lesson is “Can you teach me a Curveball? I really NEED one”. While players 12 and under typically don’t make the mistake of asking me to teach them a breaking ball, players 13 -14 will very commonly ask me to teach them a breaking ball in the middle of their season.
When a pitcher asks me this question I will proceed to ask them a number of questions about their current arsenal of pitches then I’ll ask them a few questions about their performance so far this season. Every now and then the pitcher and I will determine that it’s in fact time to learn (or start to learn) a breaking ball. However, 99% of the time I am asked to teach a pitcher a curveball/slider in the middle of the season I am quickly discussing many other topics having NOTHING to do with the breaking ball.
The reason for my quick change of topics is pretty simple, most 13 and 14 year old pitchers that tell me they NEED a breaking ball are simply trying to make up for the fact that their other pitches (fastball, changeup) aren’t working for them. If a player WANTS a curveball during their season, that’s a different story. But a pitch like the curveball and/or the slider is almost always best to be left until the off-season to start learning. But let’s get back to the fact that pitchers are far too often trying to “become” good pitchers with a curveball/slider instead of trying to become a better pitcher by better utilizing the fastball. I will never tell anyone that a breaking ball can’t be an extremely effective pitch when thrown properly. I am also a pitching coach that believes when trained properly a 13 or 14 year old can learn how to throw a breaking ball in moderation. But do you NEED one????
The word NEED to me states that without it, you can’t survive. If a junior high school pitcher NEEDS a curveball to pitch effectively, he NEEDS to rethink his train of thought. The number one thing pitchers at this age NEED is their fastball. They need to learn how to control it, they need to learn how to throw it in a manner that will limit their risk of injury, and they need to learn how to maximize its velocity. Almost every single time I hear “I NEED a curveball” my next questions is, “How’s your accuracy with the fastball” and almost every time I ask the question I get the same answer “Good”. Then when I ask them how many walks they threw in the last game the answer is almost always more than 2 per inning. Not very “good” in my opinion. Even if that player isn’t walking a lot of batters they are far too often pitching deep into too many counts and not keeping their pitch counts down. Most organizations at this age have implemented pitch counts for pitchers and far too often pitchers are having the 30 pitch innings that will inevitably be the downfall of their pitching appearances. I dive deeper into this topic in my article Looking Deeper into Pitch Counts but pitchers are having too many 30-40+ pitch innings (yes, partly attributed to poor defense) and they are lacking the ability to get out of innings by using their fastball.
If you are a 7th or 8th grade pitcher and you cannot go on a mound and win without a breaking ball, you need to work on your fastball first and then a changeup second. Even by having a changeup though, you should still focus primarily on your fastball. Having a changeup is a great way for (when trained properly) for a pitcher to maintain proper mechanics and keep their individual inning pitch counts down. A changeup is a VERY difficult pitch to throw well for most players and I strongly advise learning this pitch prior to ever experimenting with the breaking ball. It will make you a much better pitcher in the long run.
So please, if you are a 13 or 14 year old baseball pitcher (or the parent of one), don’t ask your pitching coach or instructor to teach you a curveball or a slider until you are confident that you can go out to the mound and win a game with just your fastball. Maybe adding a changeup is a great way of reassuring your ability to win, but if you are going to be successful as you get older, acquiring the confidence in your fastball is priority number 1. This doesn’t mean you have to throw the hardest, or be “perfect” with your location. Any velocity can be effective and nobody is perfect on the mound with accuracy. However, a 13 or 14 year old player should be 100% confident that they can WIN by simply throwing their fastball at that age. It is the single best way of helping you become the pitcher you want to be in high school and potentially after high school.
If you have any questions on this, please don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com. Thanks and always remember to practice perfectly!