From Juan Marichal to Mike Norris to Fernandomania; the Rise & Fall of the Screwball

John Hickey

When Mike Norris won 22 games for the Oakland A’s in 1980, he threw the best screwball in baseball.

That was mostly because almost no one else threw one.

By 1981, when Dodgers' rookie Fernando Valenzuela was making Fernandomania a national passion, suddenly there was a battle for whose screwball was best.

It’s been four decades, and there hasn’t been a battle over the screwball like that since. The screwball has morphed into that back-of-the-closet pitch that gets pulled out mostly when a pitcher is desperate and willing to do anything to stay in the Major Leagues. Even then, most pitchers won’t touch it.

It’s a pitch that breaks backward. If you’re right-handed, the pitch moves as if you were left-handed. If you’re left-handed, it moves as if you were right-handed. It’s a pitch that can mess with hitter’s minds and miss hitter’s bats.

That being the case, Norris doesn’t understand why the pitch doesn’t get more love. He was growing up in San Francisco when Juan Marichal was at the top of the rotation, and Marichal had a killer screwball.

Norris used to get a bleacher seat at Candlestick, then sneak around to the boxes behind home plate at Candlestick for the second half of the game. For most of his starts, Marichal would still be in the game, and “Juan Marichal was my idol,” Norris said.

“I’d watch him throw that pitch, and it would just blow me away,” he added “Seeing him throw his screwball is how I developed mine. When he threw it, he made it look so easy, and hitters couldn’t do anything with it.”

Norris kept toying with the screwball right through his baseball career at San Francisco’s Balboa High. In his senior year, 1972, Major League players went on strike for 13 days in April. Marichal, looking for a place to throw to keep in shape, suddenly was approachable.

“He went to the ballpark we practiced at so he could get his work in,” Norris said. “He had his Giants’ uniform on, and I look down and he’s got that leg kick going, and I go, `Coach, that’s Juan Marichal.’ I wanted to talk to him so bad.

“I went to run down and my coach grabbed me and said, `No, let him get his work in. When he’s through, then you can talk to him.’ And I did. He said he wasn’t going to teach me, but he was going to show me how to hold it. I retained that grip when I went to City College of San Francisco. And I started messing around with it, and oh my lord, I was unhittable.”

Norris made the screwball work. Valenzuela made it work. But only a handful of pitchers have thrown it since – the Tigers’ Hector Santiago throws it now, but not as much as he used to when he pitched for the Angels. Tampa Bay’s Oliver Drake throws one on occasion and Brent Honeywell, who is supposed to make the Rays’ roster this season, if there is a season, throws it a lot.

But mostly it’s a lost pitch. Why is that?

“The game is currently infatuated with maximizing velocity ahead of pitchability,” Bryan Price, the former Cincinnati Reds manager, said. Price, a lefty who pitched at Cal and spent six years pitching in the minor leagues, never threw the screwball, but as a pitching coach – he’s currently in that role with the Phillies – he’s seen guys try to throw it. “For the time being, it appears that the industry will be recruiting and developing power arms.

“The screwball itself requires a greatly modified arm action and hand position can be really challenging. And there are likely very few coaches who would feel comfortable and confident in their ability to teach the pitch, myself included.”

Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin had his 10-year playing career end in 1994 as a catcher, and he almost never handled a screwball, although he admits to flailing at Valenzuela’s.

“I caught Aurelio Lopez in Detroit my rookie year,” Melvin said. “He had a very good one.”

Melvin says he understand why the pitch is out of favor.

“The pronating motion is not conducive to good health,” he said. “It’s a violent motion.”

That can be true. Old time screwball specialist Carl Hubbell’s left arm famously became disfigured from throwing it. The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray once described Hubbell’s left arm looking “as if he put it on in the dark.”

Others like Christy Matthewson, Warren Spahn and Marichal were able to have lengthy and mostly injury-free Hall of Fame careers while throwing it.

Just getting permission to throw the screwball can be difficult. Norris recalls when he was in Class-A ball, Bill Posdell, who was a roving minor league instructor for the Athletics, came by. He wanted to see what Norris had. Everything was fine until Norris broke off a few screwballs.

“First I’m bringing up the four-seam fastball pretty good,” Norris said. “And he asked if I had a breaking pitch, and I threw some curves, and they were pretty good. Then he asked if I had a changeup, and I said I did, but I said it without conviction. And I threw a screwball, and the thing must have gone 90 mph, and it’s breaking like hell. And he was like `Stop. No. No. No. You can’t throw that any more.’

“Rene Lachemann was the manager at the time and he and Posdell got together, and after that I had to put it on the shelf.”

By 1975 Norris’ fastball would get him to the big leagues – for three starts in which he didn’t allow an earned run. Then he blew out his right shoulder. When he came back in 1976, he wasn’t the same. He was desperate, and eventually he reached into his past for the screwball.

“I went down to Venezuela for winter ball, and I started throwing it again,” he said. “I took it to spring training. When Billy Martin showed up (in 1980), he and (pitching coach) Art Fowler were trying to teach us the dry spitter. But I could never get the damn thing to work.

“(Catcher) Jeff Newman was would call for the dry spitter, and I’d throw the screwball. And it would break something like the dry spitter. So, I got to keep throwing it. Billy would call for it, and I’d throw the screwball instead. And Billy never knew I was throwing a screwball. He’d turn over in his grave to know that now. But the screwball turned out to be my best pitch.”

Norris went 22-9 with a 2.53 ERA and 24 complete games, finishing second in the Cy Young race. Down the coast, Valenzuela played an eventful final few weeks of the season with the Dodgers, breaking out his screwball to go 2-0 with one save while not allowing an earned run in 17.2 innings. A year later, he’d be Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award winner in a strike-shortened season.

“It’s a great pitch to get a ground ball or a swing and a miss,” Norris said of the screwball, which he threw at three different speeds. “And while I was having my great year, here comes Fernando Valenzuela. Look at the effect that he had with that pitch. He had one of the best ever.

“(The Dodgers’) Mike Marshall thew a good one, and so did (the Orioles’) Mike Cuellar. If you have good velocity and a screwball, you’re going to be good.”

So why does no one throw the screwball anymore? In part it’s because pitchers have gone to other options, including the cutter, the split-finger and the circle changeup.

Norris says it’s because right-handed pitchers are used to having their right palm finish up going toward the first-base bag. For a right-hander to throw a screwball, the palm will wind up heading toward third base. It can feel unnatural.

“Most guys don’t throw it because they can’t,” Norris said. “It’s too hard, it’s a gift. You have to have a wrist that works for it. You have to turn your whole wrist and shoulder toward the third base bag. It’s not something everybody can do.”

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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