NEARLY 150 YEARS after William Arthur (Candy) Cummings invented the curveball, A's lefty Barry Zito has come closer than any of his peers to perfecting it. Zito's nose-to-toes breaker is so admired--and so feared--that it earned him more than four times as many votes as any other pitcher in this week's "best curveball" SI PLAYERS poll. "My dad [Joe, a classical musician] and I picked it up out of a book when I was seven," he says. "He caught me in the backyard.... Then I threw to a mattress with a painted strike zone on it."
Zito, who is 14-12 this year and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2002, grips the ball with his index and middle fingers straddling the seam (inset). "I want to get on top of the ball," he says. "When I release it, I force those two fingers down hard. That creates the torque on the seams, which causes rotation and spin. I also don't want to get my arm angle too high because that will take away the ball's bite--I want to maintain a three-quarter arm slot."
Hitters say all that spin on a 69- to 74-mile-per-hour pitch can be devastating. "I have never seen anything like it," says Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who leads active players with 66 plate appearances against Zito. (He's hitting .203.) "It's such a high one, and it drops three to four feet. You might as well not even look for it because you're not going to hit it."
Having relied on the bender as his out pitch since Little League, Zito has developed a two-out, two-strike routine. When he snaps off a curve that feels just right, he often starts moving toward the dugout after releasing the pitch. By the time strike three is recorded, Zito is several steps off the mound. That's an unpleasant sight for big league hitters, but even scarier is Zito's own impression of his curve: "I still don't feel like I've mastered it," he says. --Ben Reiter