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Recent Blogs


Will a New Slider Unlock a Breakout Season for Devin Smeltzer

If you look up Devin Smeltzer’s slider use in 2019, you’ll find that Statcast says he threw 30 sliders last year.

He recorded no swinging strikes.

This was a problem.
Image courtesy of © Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Smeltzer has a unique set of skills that combats his lack of velocity. His fastball rarely cracks 90 which puts him in the 6th percentile for velo among MLB pitchers.

The lefty, however, can seriously spin it.

His fastball comes in at a 2,400 rpm. The curveball twirls up to the plate at 2,700 rpm. He can also kill the spin on his changeup to get an above average amount of vertical drop.

The slider? It was a nothing pitch. The ugly duckling to his three other quality offerings.

It backed up a lot, hanging for a moment in the zone, or it would dive well beyond the strike zone, leaving hitters to just watch it skip in the dirt.

While Smeltzer’s three-pitch mix worked for him in 2019, having a legitimate slider could be a massive leap forward. The Twins’ pitching analysts like Josh Kalk have long known the benefits of having a slider. Thrown properly, it looks like a fastball longer before darting.

In 2008 Kalk wrote about what makes sliders so effective.

“[B]ecause curves tend to produce a larger hump, a fast-reacting hitter has slightly more time in which to put on the brakes (or alter his swing) when he realizes that the pitch is not a fastball,” Kalk wrote. “Because sliders tend to stay hidden much further down the line, a batter who is fooled in the information-gathering stage has much less time to recover.”

Over 10 years ago, long before “tunneling” had even entered the standard baseball lexicon, Kalk had discovered that curveballs can pop out of the pitcher’s tunnel to give hitters a hint that something is up. This is one reason why the team has encouraged some pitchers to develop a slider.

Trevor May to transition to a new slider in 2019 after he played around with a new grip that resulted in better tunneling and more movement. Tyler Duffey also added velocity to his curveball and created a pitch that had more slider-like qualities. Taylor Rogers’ emergence as a late innings force is likewise due to embracing the slider mentality.

Curveballs are out, sliders are in.

In order to improve his slider, Smeltzer says he targeted three metrics on his Rapsodo: Spin rate, spin axis, and velocity.

“I knew what my spin, axis and velo on it needed to be,” Smeltzer says regarding his pitch design targets. “So if I had two of the three that wasn’t it. I had to keep tweaking it.”

He tinkered with different grips until he found the one that helped him attain those numbers consistently.

“It finally started to click and I really stuck with the grip, it’s pretty unconventional grip but through a lot of talks it just made sense from a physical standpoint of the ball’s got one direction of where to go with how I’m throwing it and it’s out. Again, I just throw it like a fastball and let the grip work.”

The unconventional part is that Smeltzer throws his slider off of a one finger grip. Standard sliders are typically thrown using both the index and middle finger applying pressure to the ball but Smeltzer discovered that the middle-finger dominant release was not working.

“In the past, I’ve gotten very middle finger dominant and it makes the pitch not as aggressive and it becomes loopy and very inconsistent because that finger, pressure-wise, isn’t a strength for that pitch for me,” Smeltzer explains.

Smeltzer continues his pitch design tutorial to the Zoom viewers.

“So with this grip here,” he says as he creates a “C” out of his index and thumb, “I’m pressing between these two and when I’m throwing it like a fastball and, because of physics, the ball can only come out this way when I’m coming through so it’s cutting through and kicking that gyro spin.”

What Smeltzer is saying is that he’s reducing that loopiness his former slider had. He said that he would often drop down to release that slider and get around the ball, tipping hitters off in the process. Now he can just rip it like he would his fastball and the grip does the work.


Why is this particular pitch important for his development?

Inconsistent and loopy results in hitters leaving the bat on the shoulder. The 24-year-old left-hander needed something with more action, a viable weapon -- particularly against lefties.

Smeltzer has pronounced reverse splits, demonstrating the ability to get right-handed hitters out at a much higher clip than left-handed ones. While his fastball and changeup combination performed well against righties, adding an aggressive slider to his mix would likely help him against those same-sided opponents, as well as keeping righties off-balance.

The Twins have created a cottage industry of getting pitchers to improve their slider offerings and see big gains. Devin Smeltzer might be the next on that list.

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11 Comments

If the slider doesn't help, those stirrup socks should get the job done.

Interesting read.You would never think of pitchers or teams talk about these things even about 5 years ago.I like that the team worked with him and hopefully the pitch will work well for him.Many teams years ago would say his slider is terrible just scrap it and go with the other pitches.Twins now are saying you have great spin, lets find a grip and arm slot that works for you.Makes sense to me to develop pitches that will help, instead of just saying lets stick with what ya got.This may be why Falve and company have managed in past to identify pitchers that others have not.Hope this continues for years to come.  

    • nicksaviking, DocBauer and Melissa like this
I recently heard Gleeman talking about this on his podcast. Very interesting. Very promising.

It could be the beard, different camera angle, etc. but Smeltzer also looks noticeably thicker to me. That can’t hurt.
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strumdatjaguar
Jul 15 2020 10:47 AM
I still think Smeltzer looks like one of the Hanson Brothers from Slapshot.
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nicksaviking
Jul 15 2020 11:15 AM

Excellent, my favorite pitch by a country mile. I look at any pitcher in a new and positive light if they figure out a way to miss more bats.

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sampleSizeOfOne
Jul 15 2020 11:45 AM
Huzzah for the nickel-curve.

I recall my pop sayin' that Ted Williams had said was one of the reasons no one would hit 400 again.

And the fact folk are still improvin' is a credit to the atmosphere and coaching.

Am i allowed to be excited about the Twins?
I've been impressed with Smeltzer thus far. Flat out, he knows how to pitch. And that can never be discounted. But when you have limited velocity, you need to be able to really work the batter. An improved slider does a lot to raise his bar.

I wouldn't bet against the kid, guts and instinct, especially if he finds a slider that works. But Thorpe and Dobnak have better pure stuff and Duran and Balazovic are on their way. I think he ends up fitting in best as a versatile pen arm who can give you 1-3 IP and spot start.
    • MN_ExPat and Melissa like this
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operation mindcrime
Jul 15 2020 07:15 PM
Helter Smeltzer!!!!!

Sliders have ALWAYS been amazing wipe out pitches. The problem is they put tremendous strain on the elbow which leads to injuries.

 

The Twins have two of the best examples in history.

1. Liriano: Damn near unhittable for 1/2 year (better than Santana in his prime good); 2006 I believe.....then injury and never that elite again

 

2. (For you older folkes) Scott Erickson in 1991... First half of the season,....absolutely unhittable....just dominating....then elbow problems and never the same....actually he was hanging on for dear life at the end of the 1991 season through the World Series.

 

Wicked slider is great, but sooner or later most pitchers pay a price.

    • Jacks02 likes this
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Parker Hageman
Jul 16 2020 09:48 AM
Sliders have ALWAYS been amazing wipe out pitches. The problem is they put tremendous strain on the elbow which leads to injuries.

 

 

I don't believe modern research necessarily supports this claim. 

 

It was once thought of as a pitch that caused injury to the UCL but more studies now conclude that high-velocity fastballs can be more capable of producing injuries. 

 

Driveline looked at multiple studies and used Motus to measure stress levels in the elbow and found that sliders did not induce any more stress. One study showed that youth pitchers had higher rates of elbow pain when throwing sliders but the thought was they had improper mechanics and throwing motion of the pitch. 

 

In regards to the two specific cases, I will say this about Erickson: He went from throwing 91 innings in college to being drafted and throwing another 78.2 in the Twins' system as a 21-year-old -- 169.2 innings combined -- in the same season. 

 

The next year the Twins had him through 214 innings between AA and the majors. 

 

No organization would do that to a pitcher anymore. I would bet that his injury had more to do with a workload issue than any one type of pitch. 

 

I do believe the method in which Smeltzer describes his slider flowing off of the finger rather than torquing the pitch is also likely less of a stress factor. 

 

 

    • DocBauer, D.C Twins, MN_ExPat and 1 other like this

 

I don't believe modern research necessarily supports this claim. 

 

It was once thought of as a pitch that caused injury to the UCL but more studies now conclude that high-velocity fastballs can be more capable of producing injuries. 

 

Driveline looked at multiple studies and used Motus to measure stress levels in the elbow and found that sliders did not induce any more stress. One study showed that youth pitchers had higher rates of elbow pain when throwing sliders but the thought was they had improper mechanics and throwing motion of the pitch. 

 

In regards to the two specific cases, I will say this about Erickson: He went from throwing 91 innings in college to being drafted and throwing another 78.2 in the Twins' system as a 21-year-old -- 169.2 innings combined -- in the same season. 

 

The next year the Twins had him through 214 innings between AA and the majors. 

 

No organization would do that to a pitcher anymore. I would bet that his injury had more to do with a workload issue than any one type of pitch. 

 

I do believe the method in which Smeltzer describes his slider flowing off of the finger rather than torquing the pitch is also likely less of a stress factor. 

Thanks Parker. Good info, though it is a very tough subject to study, with soooo many confounding variables (and the plus fastball and plus slider combo seems to be used together often so hard to evaluate the impact separately). 

 

I'm always more excited about the sustainability of pitchers like Santana and Viola with a plus plus change up....

    • MN_ExPat likes this

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