A discussion between Milwaukee Brewers’ TV announcers Brian Anderson and Bill Schroeder during Friday night’s victory by Washington at Miller Park prompted a larger contemplation: In an age when pitching seems to have regained an upper hand in the game, whatever happened to the screwball as a pitching weapon? Its last foremost practitioners through the 1970s seemed to have gone the way of the dodo bird.
In their 2004 book, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Rob Neyer and Bill James analyzed every form of pitch. For the screwball, Neyer ranks Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell as its top delivery man and fellow Cooperstown honoree Christy Mathewson third. Neyer’s Top 10 list spans the 20th Century, at least up to the 1970s. Cuban-born starters Mike Cuellar and Luis Tiant and that doctor of kinesiology, reliever Mike Marshall, were among the last well-known and most successful screwball artists.
Even veteran pitchers like Warren Spahn, the southpaw with the most wins all-time, turned to the screwgie as means of extending their repertoire and their careers. Neyer writes that pitching philosophy changed about how torturous throwing the screwball could be on the arm and cites Hubbell’s left wing as appearing nearly deformed as a result. And yet it was a highly successful tool for a pitching arsenal that did not require velocity alone. The turn-out motion of the wrist to create the “fadeaway” effect is viewed as unnatural for the arm.
It was supposedly supplanted by variations of the forkball and splitter as being less strenuous on the arm, but much like the hook shot in basketball, the screwball’s “fadeaway” from the scene entirely remains a mystery. Daniel Ray Herrera, a diminutive lefty who was up with Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and the Mets from 2008-2011, learned the screwball in college and has probably been the last major leaguer to throw it. Marshall, who still holds the major league record for season appearances by a pitcher at 106 games and won the 1974 Cy Young Award as the closer for the Dodgers while throwing the screwball 39% of the time, remained an advocate of it. He also appeared in 94 games in 1973 for the Expos and 90 games at age 36 for the Twins in 1979, so how taxing was the screwball on his arm?
Neyer wrapped up his book segment about the screwball that if you see one, relish it, because you may never see it again. The question remains, why?