The Slider

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By Rich Daniels

Hitters hate it. Catchers love it. Pitching coaches fear it. The slider is a devastating force within baseball because it can be both unhittable and un-throwable. Throw the pitch the right way and hitters can only hope to foul it off. Throw it the wrong way and the intimate details of Tommy John surgery will visit upon you. The slider had a slow introduction into major league baseball but when it caught on, it was there to stay.

Throwing a slider requires powerful force exerted on one side of the ball to create a sideways rotation. To do so the pitcher must hold the ball a bit offset to one side and turn the laces so that the four seams point directly at the plate. The delivery of the slider is critical since the pitcher must keep the hand behind the ball through the release and snap the middle and index fingers straight down toward the ground, avoiding twisting the hand around the ball thus torquing the wrist and delivering the twisting force into the elbow and overloading the ligaments critical to manipulating the fingers. Over-stress those ligaments too often and tearing comes about quite quickly. Building the discipline required to deliver a pitch with sideways rotation created by lateral force applied is an arduous process that carries considerable risk of injury every step of the way.

From the batter's box, a good slider is a dagger to an at-bat. Almost never used as a set-up pitch, the slider is a devastating finisher. With just three-tenths of a second to decide if and where to swing, a hitter sees the initial trajectory and speed of the pitch looking like a fastball. Then about 15-20 feet from the plate the pitch darts to the side and downward altering both the vertical and horizontal planes so suddenly that there is almost no time adjust the path of the bat that is already in motion. The only tip-off that a slider is on the way is the sideways rotation of the ball creating a repetitive pattern of motion of the laces resulting in the image of a red dot at the center of the ball. Lose focus as a hitter for a fraction of a second and the slider will send you walking back to the bench talking to yourself.

George Blaeholder pitched for the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia A's and Cleveland Indians from 1925-1936 and is generally credited with the advent of the slider. His "nickel curve" as he called it helped an otherwise outmatched pitcher win 104 games over his career. But many have examined descriptions of how he gripped and delivered the pitch as well as accounts of how it moved and come to the conclusion that Blaeholder actually invented the cut-fastball and not the slider. A true innovator nonetheless.

Chief Bender played prior to Blaeholder pitching for the Philadelphia A's, Baltimore Terrapins and Philadelphia Phillies from 1903-1925 winning 212 games and compiling a career ERA of 2.46. Bender, from the descriptions of numerous contemporaries, threw an early version of the slider but did so sparingly. He never pitched exclusively as a starter highlighted by his 1913 season where he appeared in 48 games, finishing 24, winning 21, saving 13 and tossing 14 complete games. Such erratic usage required Bender to get hitters out with the least amount of exertion. Bender was never a big strikeout pitcher with a high total of 159 in 238.1 innings in 1906 but appears to have used his slider as a trick pitch rather than a finisher. Bender used the slider early in counts to induce weak contact rather than getting two strikes on the batter then finishing with it. His slider moved so much that it became called "The Bender", a name that later became confused with the modern-day curveball. 

The pitch didn't really catch on mostly due to a wave of negative criticism for throwing it. Hitters characterized pitchers as being weak and cowardly to resort to throwing such an unfair pitch. That negative sentiment lasted until World War II. GI's returning from duty in Japan brought with them the knowledge of a pitch thrown commonly on the island nation. The "slide pitch" as translated from Japanese delivered many young men from the minors to the big leagues and became known as the modern-day slider.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the power of the slider was what Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mel Harder used it to do in the late 1940's. Harder watched as a young outfielder struggled in a couple of brief call-ups prior to the war and noted how strong the player's arm was throwing from the outfield. That player returned to the Indians after three years of military service in World War II and Harder went to work on him. The fastball came easy and the curve rounded into shape fairly quickly. The hook was teaching the young hopeful the new pitch a lot of players had brought back with them form the war. The slider made this young fireballer a legitimate threat as a member of the Indians rotation. That player's name was Bob Lemon who went on to win 207 games for Cleveland and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Since then the slider has been deemed worth the risk by pitchers and coaches alike due to its potentially devastating effect. The Cardinals' Bob Gibson used a slider that was equally as powerful as his vaunted fastball and legendary tenacity. Steve Carlton utilized a slider so unhittable that he went 27-10 for a Phillies team that won only 49 total games in 1972. Carlton went on to win 329 career games and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994. Ron Guidry went from a solid pitcher to a 25 game winner in 1978 after learning the slider from teammate Sparky Lyle. Bobby Thigpen learned the slider at Mississippi State University and went on to set the single-season saves mark of 57 in 1990. 

Today the slider is a common weapon in the arsenal of modern-day pitchers. Roughly seven out of ten pitchers throw it. Most of them, however, learned the pitch later in their developmental years due to the stigma that rightfully accompanies it. Throw the slider the right way and you'll cripple hitters. Throw it the wrong way too many times and you'll be like the rest of us: buying a ticket to watch the guys who do throw it the right way. 

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