March 26, 2007

The Eephus Chronicles

"Live by the slow curve, die by the slow curve."

Such were the words of pitcher and raconteur Bill Lee following Game 7 of the 1975 World Series, wherein he gave up a game-losing 2-run homer on the riskiest pitch in baseball: The Eephus. A pitch with nothing on it; no spin, no lack of spin, no motion, no speed.
Since the previously mentioned Top 100 Red Sox blog finally got around to naming Mr. Lee the 35th greatest player in team history, now seems as good a time as any to write about his famed junk pitch.

Despite the outcome of the 1975 WS, the Eephus is probably baseball's most cunning psychological weapon. Other than perhaps the steal of home, there is no more audacious thing to do than to reach back and chuck an arching 40 mph nothing-ball in there. The pitch is both an insult and a dare. Since the Eephus is so wildly off-speed, power hitters swing and miss by a mile. Then, for the rest of the game, all that they and their teammates can think about is the possibility of its re-occurrence. In fact, the success of the pitch is based by the frequency of its use. Throw it too often, and your risk giving up an embarrassing home run; too little and the batter will stop thinking about it. Spaceman Lee's mistake in game 7 was getting greedy. He used it to twice dispatch Tony Perez earlier in the game, but the third time he tried it Perez was unimpressed and launched a towering homer that was gone so fast that Yaz didn't bother to turn around in left field.

Rip Sewell, father of the Eephus, never endured this indignity. Only Ted Williams ever hit a home run off his signature pitch. A bogus home run in the 1946 All-Star game, which Williams later admitted stepping out of the batters box to reach. Sewell is said to have invented the "bloop curve" after an injury restricted his ability to throw hard for extended periods and forced him to resort to mind games. But this never hindered him, as he managed 9 winning seasons out of 13 and nearly 400 games.

Sometimes, the ball dropped down into the strike zone while the suddenly emasculated hitter flailed. More often they managed some kind of contact, yet for some reason (perhaps arc of the pitch was too severe) they couldn’t knock it out of the park. And that’s all they wanted to do. As a hitter, you don’t see an outrageous pitch like the Eephus and think, Single. The Eephus pitch was an insult: they wanted to pulverize it, kill it, crush it. They’d get so worked up waiting for it they couldn’t see it straight, and they’d ground out, or pop out, or miss altogether. They risked injury -- the swings they took where that hard. And then they were embarrassed, angry. Give it to me again, you son-of-a-bitch! But ... no. Probably not, not for you. Not any time soon. Batters would wish for another chance they might not get for a year, but the pitch would be in their minds every time they faced Sewell -- that big looping marshmallow of a pitch. It was galling, an itch they couldn’t reach, an ache. Sewell was careful not to throw the Eephus too much -- he tried to keep it around 10 times per game. He wanted hitters to hope for it, but he wanted its arrival to be unexpected, every time. This made all of Sewell’s other pitches look a little bit better, because any pitch, any pitch at all, looks fantastic when compared to to the Eephus. [Link]
I love baseball oddities, especially those whose practitioners can be counted on both hands. The junk ball is one such oddity. Unfortunately, we haven't seen one thrown since 2004, but I think the Space Ball is poised for a comeback. A slow, galling, unexpected comeback.