Learning to hit the curve ball is a process and it comes in stages. The first stage is pitch recognition. The second stage is willingness to swing. The third stage is prediction. The final stage is jumping all over the hanger.
During the earliest stages of hitting development, young hitters encounter mainly fastballs, pitches that are delivered with a relatively straight trajectory and little deviation in movement. The challenge is to optimize bat speed to match the pitch velocity and develop a swing path that’s on plane with the delivery. As a consequence of repetition, the hitter is passively conditioned to visually anticipate the back spin rotation that characterizes the fast ball—counter clockwise when viewed from the side. Ultimately the hitter owes his initial success to a stimulation-response process: his eyes see the ball and without thinking the muscle memory takes over and produces a productive swing.
The curve ball, however, introduces into the young hitter’s environment a number of visual variables that are different from those of the fastball. The brain, failing to recognize these new and unfamiliar visual stimuli, switches to a stimulation-operation-response process—its pauses to take the time to search its memory banks for any similar experiences. As a result the batter involuntarily freezes.
Recognition of the curve ball requires the brain to see, experience, and create files for five specific pitch related stimuli: release point, trajectory, change in speed, rotation, and action in the zone.
Most pitchers release the curve ball from a slightly higher point than the fastball release to which the batter is accustomed. This slight deviation is enough to disguise recognition and circumvent the conditioned response upon which muscle memory relies.
The curve ball often approaches the plate at a higher eye level than that of the fastball and then at the point that gravity overcomes forward thrust the ball drops to a lower plane. More so than righties, lefties exploit this change by throwing what’s called a looping curve. The deviation in eye levels often causes the inexperienced batter to give up on the pitch.
The curve ball is thrown with the same arm speed as the fast ball, but the wrist action that takes place at release results in less pitch velocity. Ultimately the hitter reacts not to the ball but to the arm speed and commits too soon. The swing – if it occurs – is reduced to a swipe, push, or reach.
The curve ball is thrown with a rotation opposite that of the fastball. The ball has over spin—clockwise when viewed from the side. The brain is momentarily confused by the unexpected rotation which again interrupts the conditioned response.
The curve ball when thrown properly has action late in the zone referred to as “bottoming out” or “dropping off the table”. This action results in the ball suddenly changing plane—up to down—and sliding left or right depending on a left handed or right handed pitcher.
The more the hitter is exposed to the curve ball, the more efficient he will become at recognizing it closer to the release point which will allow him to make the necessary adjustments in the timing and path of his swing to optimize for contact.
In terms of proximity and recognition, the rotation of the curve ball as it approaches the plate creates a visual phenomenon generally described as a spinning circle in the middle of the ball. However, since the ball makes only about 12-15 rotations over that distance, this recognition is more one of observation than of any practical use; by the time the batter makes conscious notice of the spin, his decision to swing or not as already been made. Nevertheless, learning to see the circle is a necessary part of the recognition process.
Willingness to swing
Invariably in his earliest encounters with the curve ball, the hitter in retrospect—and this often but moments after letting the curve go by—will acknowledge how hittable the pitch was had he recognized it in time and put himself in position to affect a productive swing.
With exposure to the curve ball, and through the process of trial and error, the hitter will progress to the point where he is willing to swing at the curve. Initially, this willingness will be reactive, which is to say delayed due to late recognition that (1) the pitch is a curve, and (2) that it is either going to be a strike or presents as hittable. However, late recognition results in the hitter committing to his swing earlier than is effective for productive contact. This breakdown in timing is characterized by the body’s weight coming forward too soon, the hands dropping prematurely from the launch point, a loss in the angle of the bat, and a swing path that is not on plane and without optimum velocity.
Contact—if made—results in topped groundballs that have little to no velocity, or pop-ups with little to no elevation or distance.
The latter stages of this progression tend to produce swings that are either modified to fit the trajectory of the curve ball, characterized by a swing path that is deep and looped, or in which the hands drift forward into the hitting zone and then attempt to accelerate too far advanced to produce effective bat speed.
Both stages of this progression are absolute necessities in terms of trial and error, and without which the hitter will not effectively develop an efficient approach to hitting the curve. Through trial and error the hitter will learn not to modify his normal swing path when swinging at the curve.
A majority of MLB hitters acknowledge that they guess hit, which is to say they make predictions. The ability to predict the probability that the pitcher is going to throw the curve contributes significantly to the hitter’s success. Simply stated, by guessing correctly the hitter will be able to identify the rotation of the ball early enough to predict how it will enter the hitting zone and then launch his swing path accordingly.
At the amateur levels where the curve first becomes part of the hitting environment, it is often thrown when the pitcher has the count decidedly in his favor. In fact the 0-2 count is so highly predictable that it’s become cliché. At the MLB level, the curve remains the dominant strategy once the pitcher has the count in his favor. For example, hitters have an average of .108 against Clayton Kershaw when he’s up 0-2. A significant majority of these outs come on curve balls.
Less obvious patterns are discernible through observation. Pitchers tend to stay with whatever works. By paying attention to how a pitcher, or a pitching staff in general, sequences pitches in a hitter’s previous at-bats and to the other batters in the lineup a hitter can reasonably predict the probability of a specific pitch.
Pitchers have a tendency to either employ the curve ball as an out pitch, as a setup pitch to get back to the fastball, or early in the count to catch the batter off guard.
A pitcher that uses the curve as an out pitch will use it with two strikes as a swing and miss pitch, as a deceptive pitch for a called strike three, or to induce defensive contact.
A pitcher that uses the curve as a setup pitch is less concerned with throwing the pitch for a strike. It is more a show-me pitch intended to change the batter’s eye level, shift the batter’s zone, or slow his bat. The objective is to setup the batter for the fastball to follow.
A pitcher that uses the curve ball early in the count will throw a get-me over. This is a curve ball that takes a big part of the plate and under most circumstances would present as hittable. However, most hitters are willing to take the first pitch or are looking for the fastball, so the pitcher gets away with it and is immediately up in the count. He may come back to the curve later in the at-bat with a conscious effort to produce tighter action closer to the hitting zone and expand the plate or bounce the pitch to get the hitter to chase.
Jumping the hanger
A hanging curve ball is one that has rotation but no action. It is the result of the pitcher getting his hand underneath the ball—palm up—at release. Most curve balls that hang are up in the zone. A hanging curve ball that is up need not be a strike to be worthy of the swing. Pitches that are up are easier to lift.
Hit curve balls that are up. Lay off curve balls that are down.
A hitter that has passed through the first three steps of the progression will recognize the hanging curve ball without conscious effort and will react instinctively—stimulation-response. His swing will be explosive, his balance ideally centered, his swing path on plane, and his contact squared and effortless.
A hitter that has come to this point will have mastered the curve ball.
That said, a curve ball that is well thrown meets all the criteria for which the pitcher strives to master his game: it changes the batter’s eye level, it acts like a change of pace, it changes planes, and it has action late in the zone. Regardless as to accuracy of prediction or level of mastery, the best the batter can do is hope it’s not a strike—because he’s not hitting it.