Kyle Crick focuses on air space
My question was simple: where does he look? If Kyle Crick faces a left-handed batter and wants to throw a slider on the outer third of the plate, the pitch needs to start in the opposite batter’s box and break horizontally back into the zone. In these instances, his catcher will set up with their glove in the corner of the zone instead of one to two feet off the plate. The catcher’s target is not actually a target to aim at but rather the intended endpoint of the pitch. If Crick aimed at the catcher’s target, the pitch would end up on the inner third of the plate.
“When I’m throwing [my slider] to a lefty I don’t have a target,” Crick says. “During catch, I’ll work on throwing to spots that aren’t there. I’ll work on focusing on air.” This applies to pitches like the one below.
Crick considers his daily catch integral development time. He’ll look at his partner’s hip, stare about a foot off from that point and focus on that point in the air as his target. That’s where he’ll start his slider and watch it bend back to his partner’s glove. “Going out there and focusing on a little square space prepares me a lot more when I get into a game,” he says.
If other pitchers adopt this practice, they probably aren’t looking as far off the zone as Crick. His slider moves 10.5 more inches horizontally than similar sliders at his 81 mph average velocity, good for the 99th percentile in baseball among qualified pitchers. Crick can’t get away with looking at his catcher’s elbow or something else close to the target like some other pitchers might because of how much his slider moves. This exceptional movement helps him achieve a whiff rate in the 79th percentile among pitchers with at least 50 sliders thrown.
The pitch developed when Crick started throwing his slider from his normal three-quarters arm slot three years ago. “[The Giants] wanted it it to be a 12-6 and I’d never thrown one of those in my life,” Crick says. “So when I said screw all that and threw it from my normal slot, it started running.” Crick had a slider in 2012 with the Giants Low-A affiliate, as he told Fangraphs David Laurila, but his coaching staff didn’t want the pitch to become a crutch so he laid off of it. The pitch progressed into its present state when he started throwing the pitch with added intensity last season. He’s now the set-up man behind all-star Felipe Vazquez.
When Crick is trying to front-door right-handed hitter, he’ll look at a hitter’s hip or the middle of their thigh and start the pitch there. If he wants the pitch to sweep across the plate and end up out of the zone, he’ll look at the center of the plate or the catcher’s glove. But against left-handers on the outer third, he’s staring at a spot that isn’t tangible—it’s air space.
Before Crick started his present targeting of air space, his methods for location were feel based. “I would just spin it, spin it until I felt it,” he says. He admits he hasn’t talked to anybody on the Pirates about breaking ball targets for pitches that move a lot. His common conversations with the Astros pitcher Colin McHugh focus on pitch grips rather than niche topics like focusing on a block of air.
“I like to think,” Crick says. “We all evolve with the game a little bit.”