The first time I saw Dave LaRoche pitch was on the windswept home bullpen mound of the Las Vegas 51s. I’d seen him throw batting practice before, but that didn’t count. You don’t pitch batting practice. There is no skill to it, no struggle of wills. That’s an important distinction to understand, because even though Dave was winding up and lobbing the ball from the bullpen pitcher’s mound, it was still a pitch. It had a purpose for those who could divine it.
"Roachey" was in his 60s by the time the winds blew him to Las Vegas as the 51s pitching coach in ‘09. His playing career was over 26 years previous, but when one of your pitches is an eephus, you only get sweeter with time.
Roachey called it “The Lob,” and though the name was unoriginal, it said it all. He demonstrated its majesty for us, winding and unwinding down the mound, lead foot landing, hips rotating, chest out and then, instead of a hand catapulting through the delivery with firm fingers to snap a spinning white blur into flight, out popped the baseball, floating like an elephant tied to a balloon.
The Lob was so slow, the perpetual gale in Las Vegas altered its trajectory by feet. It drifted, coughed and spun out, plummeting down hard on the top of the bullpen plate before bouncing off the bullpen catcher’s chest protector and ambling down the right-field line.
“That’s how you do it, men,” said Roachey proudly, as if he’d just taken down a bear with one shot. “I can throw it higher, too, if I need to.”
We were all mesmerized by it. Mesmerized by the simple truth that, at one time in this game a man got on a major league field and threw something that god-awful. In a world where pure velocity and throwing harder—as hard as you could to get drafted, as hard as you could to sign a big contract, as hard as your throbbing elbow would let you before exploding—was the norm, a guy throwing a ball with all the finesse of a wet diaper seemed mad. Insane. Revolutionary. It was anarchy!
“Why throw harder when you could throw slower?” asked Roachey.
“Is that legal?” we asked, looking him over like it was some old man talking about stuff he didn’t really believe, like he was just trying to get us young, eager idiots to fling poo and try and pass it off as genius. “Isn’t there something about arc on the ball when you pitch?”
“Never stopped me,” said Roachey.
One after another all us pitchers scaled the mound to try and throw The Lob. But what looked so easy from the outside was ridiculously difficult.
I’d thrown slow in my life. I’d thrown slow for more than I’d thrown fast. I was a little leaguer once. I was a punk kid. I was once proud of 48 mph at the county fair. But back then I was throwing as hard as my little body would let me. Now, all grown up, my normal pitching speed was in the high 80s. I played catch in the 70s. Winding up and throwing slow just didn’t make sense to our bodies anymore.
We, LaRoche’s pitching staff in 2009, had reached Triple-A by way of throwing hard. Hundreds of thousands of reps had already been logged trying to execute with fast, late-moving, sharp-acting ammo. Even if we rolled out of bed and played catch, we’d still be doing it harder than The Lob’s max velocity.
Our bodies were used to a natural velocity far exceeding the effort the normal human would put into a throw. When we wound up and lobbed the pitch, more than one of us threw the ball completely over the catcher’s head.
“How the hell do you have time to master this without getting your brains beat in? What’s the point?” we’d grumble after lobbing the ball out of the bullpen and into the outfield.
“If it’s that hard for you to adjust” said Roachey, “think of how hard it is for the hitter to adjust.”
And there you have it: the sublime simplicity of pitching and the basic premise of the eephus—if you can get your body to throw it.
Pitching is an exercise in screwing up a hitter’s timing. There are lots of ways to do that. You can overpower a hitter by throwing harder than his natural ability to accelerate the bat. You can change speeds once the hitter starts to time up your natural velocity range so that he never locks you in.
Or, and such is the case with the eephus, you can throw so slow that the hitter’s natural, ingrained sense of bat speed takes over and causes him to fail. A kind of "using his own strength against him tactic," if you will.
Just like how the pitching staff of that Las Vegas team struggled to throw a super-slow pitch for a strike, hitters also have trouble slowing their bodies down to the timed swing required to hit a pitch that could crack the mid-50 mph range. Oh, hitters can make contact. But poor contact is usually an out, which is what the eephus relies on.
A knuckleball works on the same premise, except it layers in an optical illusion on top. The eephus is essentially a knuckleball that doesn’t knuckle. Sounds horrible upfront, but even a knuckleball that doesn’t knuckle can be useful, if you only throw it three or four times a game and sell it like it is part of your normal delivery.
It’s only when you throw at a set speed with set mechanics. If you throw all knucklers, the hitter is going to time up your average knuckleball and, once you throw a dud that doesn’t have any illusion to it, his bat will already be correctly timed. All he needs is that nasty optical illusion to dissipate long enough for him to make good contact.
Conversely, you can throw at all different ranges of speed, but if all the pitches look the same out of your hand (no obvious tells that you’re throwing slower) you’ll be effective until you show your hand.
What makes the eephus one of the gutsiest pitches in baseball is the hitter knows it’s coming. It’s so slow that even if you do sell it out of your hand, when it goes eight feet into the air batters will figure it out. Again, that’s if you sell it. Most pitchers who throw it have to slow down their entire body to let it go, as they too are fighting against their ingrained skills.
But what would cripple another pitch thrown with more regularity works for the eephus as it it relies on the idea that the hitter sees it so well and for so long at an angle so odd, they can’t help but swing. After all, one of hitting’s cardinal truths is “see ball, hit ball.”
The disparity between pitches is a pitcher’s best friend. Roachey challenged us to try and replicate his Lob in 2009, just so we could see what would happen if we threw the ball slower, how hard it was for hitters to really make adjustments. “Hitting is hard, and you give them too much credit,” he’d tell us.
Most of the guys didn’t take Roachey up on the Lob-test idea, but I did. I started working what I called a super changeup into my arsenal. It was the slowest I could throw without looking like I was trying to throw slow and thus broadcasting that I was about to throw something really soft.
Some days it was very successful. I even broke a bat on a 64 mph poo ball some poor batter hit off the end of his bat, cracking it down the center. Other days, I watched it get mashed over the fence as if it were soft-toss batting practice.
But—and this was Roachey’s plan all along—I learned something: Throwing slower didn’t necessarily make a pitch easier to hit. In fact, once I showed I could throw obscenely slow, hitters tried to stay back longer on all my pitches to make sure they didn’t get ensnared by their own aggression.
When that happened, my fastball, though it didn’t change velocity, got faster by way of hitters' reactions. This is something scouts won’t draft you for but is nonetheless true of pitching at any level. Velocity is relative. Mark Buehrle, Jamie Moyer, Greg Maddux, Dave LaRoche...they all proved it for years.
I canned the super changeup a year later and started working in a slower breaking ball. I found that, because of the way I gripped and threw the breaker, I could take more velocity off and still have better control.
Similar effect, but the eephus is on the extreme side of the slow scale. It isn’t meant to strike anyone out but rather work as bait or an at-bat-changer in a key situation against a hitter you need to show something new to. The slow deuce had more utility and also required less relearning. Plus, I could also steal a strike with it since another popular, bitter mantra, “spit on that first-pitch deuce and hunt the fastball,” also worked in my favor.
When I look back at my career and my experimentation with the eephus, it wasn’t so much that I learned a new pitch. It was that I relearned an old concept and how to be brave with it. If you’ve got the guts to take the mound and lob a pitch with an eight-foot arc in the center at an angry hitter, in a stadium where the winds are always blowing out, trusting yourself with a slow, hanging breaking ball seems tame in comparison.
The best pitchers aren’t masters of any particular pitch so much as they are masters of the concepts that make them effective, and there are few pitchers who couldn’t become more effective by studying the eephus.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.