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November 15, 2006

Under The Knife

Matsuzaka and the Gyroball

by Will Carroll

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Blame Rob Neyer for sending me on this quest, and blame me for most of the confusion over the last few years regarding the gyroball. To answer the most popular questions: Yes, it exists; yes, Daisuke Matsuzaka throws it; yes, I can teach it. That's just half the story, and the rest is so much more interesting.

Since discovering the pitch back in 2003, I've been on something of a quest to figure it out. Guided by a Japanese text that I can only roughly translate as "The Secret of the Demon Pitch," and that I can't actually read, I have sought to both learn the pitch's nature and to understand the man who has come to embody the pitch, Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka is well known by now, the $51.1 million man purchased from Japan, now the presumptive savior of the Red Sox rotation. Grainy videos of his gyroball have been passed around the Web for years. His unhittable stuff was mostly legend until Matsuzaka made the best in the world look bad on his way to being the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Most of the video shown on YouTube is not of the gyroball; it's Matsuzaka's slider. The great diving slider you see isn't some secret pitch, it's just a really, REALLY good pitch.

After watching every game that Matsuzaka pitched in combination with discussions with some Japanese baseball men and scouts from both sides of the Pacific, it's pretty clear that Matsuzaka does throw the gyroball, but never, ever to a lefty. One of the best known gyroball videos shows Matsuzaka throwing a devastating slider to a lefty. Note that Matsuzaka's wrist "snaps" at the end before pronating over after release. Simply put, that's a very good slider in every way.

The wrist pronation is one of the more misunderstood parts of this delivery. In the book, the pronation of the wrist is never explicitly discussed, but is instead an assumed physical action. This is correct. Both Tom House and Mike Marshall--two guys not known to agree on much--do agree that proper pronation after the pitch is key to keeping the elbow healthy. For the gyro, the pronation comes after the pitch, as it does with most pitches; it comes before release on the screwball and the sinker. It also comes before release on the shuuto, a Japanese pitch that is the rough equivalent of the American sinker. If you remember your SATs, the analogy would go shuuto:sinker::slurve:slider. All breaking pitches are a matter of degree, so terms like these are all just for ease of description. In my initial article about the gyro, the pronation issue caused me to confuse the gyro and shuuto, which led me to then confuse thousands of readers.

So what does the gyroball do? According to Dr. Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois, the "pure gyroball" has a rifle spin that is perpendicular to the direction the ball is traveling. In essence, the ball spins clockwise (from the pitcher's perspective) while traveling from mound to home. This spin causes the pitch to drop more quickly than a normal fastball. Tilting the pitch to the side, so that the spin is somewhere to the right of perpendicular, causes the pitch to rise or at the very least not drop as quickly as a normal fastball. This video is the closest I have seen to a pure gyro. You'll notice that the ball drops rather than moving laterally.

Got all that? Good, because the second variation of the pure gyroball is what I've assumed was the gyroball until recently. The work of ESPN's Patrick Hruby and Dr. Nathan have led me to discover that the "gyroball with side force" is the pitch that I have been teaching. By tilting the axis of rotation slightly up, the ball now moves laterally, away from a right-handed hitter. By tilting it down, the ball moves in on a right-handed hitter. In the time I've taught the pitch, one of the strangest actions was that occasionally the ball would break in rather than out, something that I simply couldn't explain until now. This "side force" pitch should also break down, something that's not always seen. I think that the pitch is often thrown as something of a combo of the "side force" and "lift force" variations.

When thrown "properly," this variation on the pitch breaks hard away from a righthanded hitter. While I'll stand by my guesses that the pitch will break in feet rather than inches, Dr. Nathan's calculations that the pitch wouldn't break more than a normal slider interest me. I believe there may be some "optical illusion" to the pitch. Since it is normally thrown to initially travel towards the batter, the sharp break back to the plate may be throwing off our views. However, I have watched this pitch from every angle. I've stood in against it, and hate it every time. I have stood behind the catcher and behind the pitcher. I have even seen it thrown in games, and to me and others around me, the pitch appears to move more significantly than a slider.

The "gyroball with side force" needs a new name, so if you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them. I've been teaching this pitch to a small group of pitchers for a couple of years, though I don't evangelize the pitch. I find that most pitchers that throw it say that the pitch puts less stress on them than sliders do. I've worked with one minor-league pitcher who told me that it's as easy on his arm as a fastball. I am hoping that we can find out with high-speed video whether this is the case or not.

What's lost is that Dr. Himeno, the Japanese physicist that discovered the pitch, and his team have essentially created three, perhaps four pitches with their research and one grip. For pitchers with a great kinesthetic sense and the willingness to work on the pitch, the mechanics created by Himeno's supercomputer-based research have created a whole repertoire of pitches. I think it's more likely that in the short term we'll find that most pitchers will be as I believe Matsuzaka is now--working on the pitch, but not in complete control. When Matsuzaka told Jeff Passan of Yahoo that he hadn't perfected the pitch, I now believe that he meant that he could not control which variant he was actually throwing, rather than he did not throw the pitch at all. It holds that a pitch that cannot be controlled isn't thrown much, something born out by scouting data.

That's right. I believe now that Matsuzaka throws the gyroball, but does not know which variation is coming out of his hand when he does. That explains the wide variation in what is seen as a gyroball and how the pitch is evaluated. The Japanese culture prides itself on consistency and perfection, so Matsuzaka is likely to consider his non-mastery of the pitch as a negative. Now that he'll be in America (pending a contract), perhaps we will learn more from this great pitcher.

One final note on Matsuzaka: the gyroball is really irrelevant when discussing his talent. He has a plus fastball, plus breaking ball, and plus-plus change, which appears to be a forkball. He pitches aggressively with good velocity, movement, and command on all his pitches. He has an innate sense for keeping a batter off the ball, varying his pitches with no discernible sequence. While he tends to use the change as his out pitch, he'll use any pitch at any count in any situation to any batter. I compared Matsuzaka to Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson due to their demeanor on the mound and their body types, but Clay Davenport's statistical comparison to Roger Clemens surprised me. The more I think about it, though, the more it holds true. Both are fearless and when standing on the mound--they own the game. I have no idea if Matsuzaka can live up to the hype and this contract, but I can't wait to watch him try.

Related Content:  Shuuto,  Pronation

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