The longest-lasting relationship in baseball is between the pitcher and the baseball.
From Little League to retirement, most Major League pitchers have a baseball as an extension of his body.
He doesn’t just have the ball with him on the mound on game days. He’ll have it in the outfield, throwing daily. He’ll have it in the bullpen between games. As often as not, just sitting on the bench in the dugout or the bullpen, he’ll be fiddling with a ball in his hand.
And if you think they don’t fool around with a baseball in the offseason, you just don’t know many pitchers.
That being the case, you would think the ball and the pitcher would be always in sync. Ask a pitcher, however, and you’ll find that’s problematic
In fact, the pursue of the perfect grip is an ongoing quest of Sisyphus, ever elusive.
Just ask A’s starter Chris Bassitt, who has been fighting this ongoing grip battle for more than half a decade.
“Back in 2014, I had a cookie-cutter thing that I threw to lefties, and I got a ton of outs with it,” Bassitt says. “Then I was traded over here (from the White Sox in the same deal that brought Marcus Semien to Oakland), and I just never had it. To this day, I don’t have it. I don’t know how I threw it. I don’t know my mindset of how I did it and what grip I had.
“I think my so-called slider/cutter (he throws now) is the close I’ve had since 2014. But you see guys (with this grip issue) all the time, and I always make fun of them a little bit.”
Bassitt can do that because he’s one of the group. So is Oakland starter Mike Fiers.
“In 2018, it kind of happened with me and my changeup,” Fiers says. “And it was just my thumb placement, this little thing where the ball wasn’t having the normal drop. And where it was going away from a lefty was just kind of going straight. And that’s not how that pitch should work.
Oakland lefty reliever Jake Diekman’s career seems to be one of finding a grip, losing it, then finding it again.
Just how is it that a pitcher loses the grip on a ball when the ball is so central to what he does?
Ask any pitcher, and they’ll say they forget how they gripped, where they put their thumb, where they put their index finger,” Diekman says. “You forget everything.”
J.B. Wendelken did. The A’s reliever says “we all do; we always forget stuff.”
“You have to reassure yourself. Nine times out of 10, I’m grabbing my curveball and I’m looking at it to make sure I’m holding it right, even though I grip it every day. Nine times out of 10 it’s right. But when it’s not there, I can understand when you could lose the feel for it.”
So, what’s to do?
Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson has a digital trick he offers his guys when a forgotten grip becomes an issue with one of his guys.
“It’s pretty common,” Emerson says. “One of the first things I do in spring training is I tell the guys to take pictures. You’ve all get cell phones; take pictures of your grip … when you feel good about a pitch and gripping it in your hand.
“As we keep gathering the information with these devices, it should be a lot easier to remember this grip or to remember that grip.”
He’s got Bassitt sold.
“I promise you if I figure out that cutter thing again, I will be taking video,” Bassitt says. “I will be taking pictures. I’ll be taking gosh darn everything. When that day comes, I’m going to have everything.”
In fact, he says he might mix in a little Roy Halladay, too.
Roy Halladay, the longtime Blue Jays and Phillies pitcher who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2019, was much more low-tech. Former A’s starter Jon Lester says Halladay would get his perfect grip, then get a pen or pencil and trace the grip. Lester said the plan worked well of Halladay but Lester himself couldn’t ever recreate a grip that way.
“I’ve seen guys literally trace their fingers on a baseball,” he says. “It’s just like reference. If I lose my mind and don’t remember how I grip this thing, I can kind of look at these and somewhat have an idea. I think that’s very real.
“I’ve dealt with it; I lost one of the best pitches I ever had in my career. I’m very close to getting it back. It’s taken six years almost.”
Diekman, having basically given up on finding his old grip on his slider, went on social media to see if he could figure out how Chaz Roe threw his. Diekman put it out there on Twitter, and wound up getting connected with the @pitchingninja, a pitching fanatic named Rob Friedman, who analyzes pitches as a passion.
Diekman got video of Roe throwing the pitch for Tampa Bay from Friedman on July 25, then asked for the grip. Friedman was able to deliver that, too, and he’s added about four inches of horizontal break to his slider even though Roe throws right-handed and Diekman is a lefty.
Roe's pitch was enough similar to the slider Diekman used to throw the first half of 2019 in Kansas City, before he got dealt to Oakland. He wanted it back, but he'd forgotten the grip.
"I just completely had a brain fart," Diekman says. "So, I just asked Mr. Ninja for it, and he gave it to me."
It’s no coincidence that Diekman hasn’t allowed a run this season heading into Friday’s series opener across the Bay against the Giants.
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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