Eephus Ain’t Nothin’

Vicente Padilla, trying to talk Jarrod Saltalamacchia into another eephus pitch, probably (via Keith Allison).

Vicente Padilla, trying to talk Jarrod Saltalamacchia into another eephus pitch, probably (via Keith Allison).

There is no pitch in baseball quite like the eephus. Both statistically and aesthetically, the pitch is a complete and utter anomaly. While other pitches are thrown at menacing speeds with pinpoint control and devastating movement, the eephus is the antithesis of modern pitching. A weapon of deception and surprise, the eephus is deployed only by a few men brave enough to face the possible repercussions.

Once released from the captivity of the pitcher’s hand, the eephus floats towards home at speeds as low as 50 mph like a drunken elegant butterfly. When it works, the pitch is absolutely beautiful to watch, but when it fails the pitch can turn into a souvenir pretty damn quick. Used only around 600 times over the past five seasons, the pitch is a rare beast. But as pitcher velocity continues to increase, can the eephus become a legitimate third or fourth pitch for a major league starter? Is the deception effective enough for the eephus to work on a more consistent basis?

With the help of past PITCH/fx data, baseball writers smarter than I, and actual professional baseball players, I hope to determine whether or not this wonder of a pitch can become a more regular part of major league pitchers’ arsenals.

History of the Eephus

While the early days of baseball are a mysterious haze filled with guys named Jocko and Sport and Old Hoss, the origination of the eephus seems to be a fairly well-documented story. The word is that Pirates pitcher Rip Sewell was the first man to throw the eephus on a consistent basis. After his first two seasons, in which he did not have the infamous lob in his arsenal, Sewell was seriously injured in a hunting accident. Reportedly “fourteen pellets of buckshot” were directed right at Rip who took the beat-down like a champ. After an extended period of time in the hospital, Sewell thought his career was over, but thanks to the eephus he was able to get his career back on track.

Sewell introduced the eephus in a spring training game against the Tigers in 1942 against Detroit outfielder Dick Wakefield. Completely dumbfounded by such a unorthodox offering, Wakefield had absolutely no chance and swung through the pitch entirely.

After the game, Sewell’s teammate Maurice Van Robays was approached by Pirates coach Frankie Frisch. Frisch asked Van Robays what in the name of Clete Thomas Sewell had thrown up there.

“Eephus ain’t nothing and that’s a nothing pitch,” Van Robays responded. For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Hebrew language you might be a bit confused about Van Robays’ comments. You see, in Hebrew the word efes translates to “zero” or “nothing,” which Van Robays might have Anglicized into eephus. This connection might just be pure speculation, as Van Robays was not Jewish and probably did not enroll in an Ulpan class to Israel. Had Hank Greenberg been the one to dub Sewell’s pitch, the name would make much more sense…

Rip Sewell was the father of the eephus, but his glorious creation led to variations and offshoots of the pitch. Other pitchers adapted the pitch as fans, broadcasters, and players gave these variations nicknames. Journeyman Dave LaRoche had his LaLob, the forever-mediocre Casey Fossum had “the fossum flip,” and Yankees pitcher Steve Hamilton had the “Folly Floater.” While these brave men and a handful of other pitchers throughout baseball history also used the eephus, no pitcher in the modern era of baseball has shown as much faith in the pitch as the legend known to you mere mortals as Vicente Padilla.

The Magic of Vicente Padilla

There were few things remarkable about the career of Vicente Padilla. His baseball reference page is fairly snoozeworthy. Every day for 14 years Vicente Padilla woke up, went to the ballpark, pitched a few baseballs, sweated like a fire hydrant through his Pajama Sam boxers, showered and went home. Vicente Padilla had crazy hair. Vicente Padilla was relatively ugly. If it weren’t for this article, 48 percent of you would have never thought about Vicente Padilla for the rest of your lives. Well, you should think about Vicente Padilla. You should think about him every day because the man was a baseball legend, a ruler amongst mere peons.

If the eephus pitch is a microphone, then Padilla is its Elvis Andrus… wait that’s not right. From 2008, the beginning of the PITCHf/x era, until his premature retirement in 2012,  Padilla threw 317 pitches classified as eephuses. Allof major league baseball has thrown anywhere from 430 to 450 eephuses from 2008 to the moment you are reading this. That means that  Padilla has thrown around 65 percent of all eephuses thrown since 2008. That is absurd. If you aren’t drinking something and spitting it out of your mouth in a dramatic manner I suggest you do so. He threw 317 eephuses in four years!! That averages out to .67 per inning over that span. That’s two eephuses every three innings. If you are still reading and haven’t abandoned this piece yet, here’s another crazy Padilla eephus stat: In 2010, over seven percent of his pitches were of the eephus variety.

Padilla is important to figuring out whether the eephus can be effective as a consistent pitch at the major league level because his is the largest, most interpretable sample size. Now, I know what you are thinking: “Cool. Padilla threw a lot of eephuses, but what happened to those pitches? Did they work?” Good question my friend. Let’s look at this handy dandy pie chart I made.  (WARNING: Not an actual pie.)

Padilla Eephus Pie Chart

As we can see the biggest problem Padilla had with the pitch was throwing it for strikes. When such a large number of the eephuses are landing outside the strike zone, it is difficult to have sustainable success with the pitch. But when Padilla was  able to throw the eephus over the plate, hitters hit only .259 against him, with an extremely low .359 slugging percentage. Obviously there are small sample size and BABIP issues with such statistics, but the lack of power is certainly an interesting sign.

The single most important statistic to glean from all of this data is that Padilla’s eephuses resulted in a significantly lower swing rate amongst major league hitters. The average swing rate in the majors  is around 46 percent. On eephuses thrown by Padilla that number drops all the way to 25 percent. This confirms my previous suspicion, that the eephus is effective as a sneaky way to steal a strike because the hitter, caught off guard by the slow and loopy offering, is more likely to let the pitch go by.

When the Eephus Goes Wrong

When a major league batter hits a home run off a 90 mph fastball over the plate or a hanging curveball up in the zone it can be assumed that the pitcher made a mistake. A mistake can be one of sequencing or of execution. Either the pitcher threw the wrong pitch at the wrong time in the wrong place or he just failed to throw the pitch effectively. When an eephus gets blasted over the fence for a home run, the mistake lies solely in the planning. The quality of the eephus has no bearing on whether the hitter rips it. It’s not like you can hang an eephus, seeing as an eephus is purposely hung. There are two main ways the pitch can fail: either the eephus is thrown in a count that features high swing rates or it is thrown more than once in an at-bat.

May 28, 2013: Jose Bautista vs. Paul Maholm
What happened: Oh Paul. What are you doing man? Jose Bautista is like really good at hitting home runs. Don’t throw him a 3-2 eephus in a tie game.

What went wrong: On a two-strike count, and especially on a full count, the hitter is going to expand his zone in order to avoid striking out. The major league swing rate is around 45 percent, but with a full count that rate jumps all the way up to 73 percent. Maholm did Bautista a favor by tossing him an eephus in this situation. As I mentioned earlier, the value of the eephus comes in its ability to steal a strike because the batter is less likely to swing. When it thrown in a two-strike count, the batter is more likely to protect the zone and is therefore more likely to make contact with the loopy pitch and is therefore more likely to hit it over the fence. Using the pitch in a count where the batter will probably swing does not capitalize on the pitch’s strengths. It should be used to steal a strike early in the at-bat, not to close one out with a swing and a miss.

Aug. 26, 2002: Alex Rodriguez vs. Orlando Hernandez
What happened: Back before A-Rod was a Yankee and El Duque was just a memory, the two faced off in Yankee Stadium. Let’s just say A-Rod won the showdown.

What went wrong: Hernandez had already thrown A-Rod an eephus to start off the at-bat. The effectiveness of the eephus relies as much on deception as it does on surprise. The pitch should never be thrown more than once per at-bat. Rodriguez recognized the trajectory of the ball from earlier in the at-bat and was able to adjust accordingly. If you watch the video you’ll see A-Rod load and start his stride, but once he realizes he’s getting an eephus he has time to reload and blast a ball that landed somewhere near Yonkers.

Can it Work?

So now that I have shown you the good, the bad, and the Padilla of the eephus, it is time to decide if the pitch really can be used more regularly and maintain its effectiveness. Instead of blabbering about this to myself, I consulted some experts — you know,  people who actually throw baseballs for a living.

I asked Diamondbacks righty Daniel Hudson whether he thought the eephus could be used as a third or fourth pitch in the majors today.

“I’ve never tried to throw it.” he said. “I don’t think it could be a third pitch. to be honest. [You’re] basically putting it on a tee. To major league hitters nowadays, tossing something up there at 50 mph just isn’t smart.”

Huddy’s criticisms of the pitch match up well with the video examples I presented earlier. A pitch thrown that slowly allows a major league hitter to recalibrate his entire system to correctly time the speed of the pitch. PITCHf/x genius Dan Brooks has the same opinion as Hudson: “It’s almost certainly not a legitimate third pitch. If you’re a starting pitcher, don’t have a plus-plus offspeed offering, and need three pitches, generally you need something hard, offspeed and breaking.”

My eephus dream seems to be just that, a dream. It’s all been an unrealistic vision of an unattainable future in which pitchers float baseballs in the air like slowpitch softball. Or has it?

The eephus certainly cannot work successfully as a third or fourth pitch for any major leaguer who wishes to stay in the major leagues for more than a few days; that much is almost indisputable. But there is value in using the eephus  as a way to steal a strike. If used on counts with lower swing rates (for example, the swing rate for 0-0 is around 27 percent), the eephus can be an effective way to get back into the count or to get ahead of the batter.

Hudson concedes that, if used sparingly, the pitch could be a valuable part of an arsenal. “It’s more of a surprise thing,” Hudson explained, “catching a guy off guard because it’s so rare to see something that slow.” This year has seen about one eephus every two weeks or so now that Padilla has moved on. If pitchers started using the pitch slightly more often, to the point that there was an eephus every week, the effectiveness of the pitch would not decline if used in the proper situations.

While an increase in eephuses would be fun to watch, I also fear that such a thing might also take the magic out of the pitch. Seeing an eephus in live action is like seeing a shooting star in the night sky — it streaks beautifully across your consciousness and disappears into nothing. There are times when I lay awake in my room and instead of counting sheep I envision Vicente Padilla tossing eephuses across my bed.

In an era in which velocity is king and radar guns reign supreme over the pitching universe, the eephus is a delicate relic of a forgotten age of baseball. It harkens back to a time where pitching was as much about craft, deception, and trickery as it was about pure speed. When it all comes down to it, the eephus is like your grandparents. Just like the eephus you absolutely love seeing your grandparents every once in a while, but you know that spending time with them every week would drive you nuts. Both are delicate, old-school, and a little bit loopy, but at the end of the day you’d throw them in a 0-0 count every once in a while….

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Comments

  1. hopbitters said...

    “It’s not like you can hang an eephus, seeing as an eephus is purposely hung.”

    I think I have a new motto.

  2. Carl said...

    QQ1) If balls are hit and result in a non-out 4% of the time, does that not translate into a .040 batting average, not a .259?

    QQ2) What qualifies as a Eephus pitch? Is it some arbitrary height, which could also be a ball slipping from the hand, or is it intentionally throwing a ball in the air and letting gravity do its thing?

  3. Don Von Handburger said...

    Is that Maholm pitch really an eephus? It looked like just a really slow curveball.

    • Transmission said...

      I agree, that’s not an eephus. To me, part of the definition is that it has a slow-pitch trajectory, so that the ball is thrown upwards, above the hitter’s head, with gravity, not the ball’s spin, being the main force pulling it back downward. That’s just a slow curve that’s sinking as much due to spin as to gravity, and it never goes above Bautista’s eyeline.

      • Transmission said...

        (That said, I love eephus pitches, enjoyed the article, and learned a lot.)

  4. puddlebyonthemarsh said...

    the eephus is thrown a whole light higher arc than any of the later practicioners have had the nerve or control to try…

    slo pitch softball, twenty five foot arc. you’d think that’d be part of the story as folks go from sewell’s pitch…into the la lob and such incredibly pale comparisons…

  5. gc said...

    I agree the Maholm one might have been called too low in slo-pitch.
    I don’t think “stealing a strike” is a valuable use (esp. if over 1/3 are already balls) as much as a really high one (at least 10′ arc) on 1-2 or something like that where the batter might swing at a ball, and compounding the non-usual swing path with the reduced rebound off the pitch, just fly out.

    • Nick said...

      Greinke loves to throw really slow curveballs. If I remember correctly, he was competing with some other starters to see how slow they could get them.

  6. Doug DeMoss said...

    There are times when I lay awake in my room and instead of counting sheep I envision Vicente Padilla tossing eephuses across my bed.

    I am so, so sorry.

  7. Cliff Blau said...

    Steve Hamilton threw his a lot higher than Hernandez did in that video. As for throwing it multiple times in a plate appearance, Hamilton did get away with it against Tony Horton.

    A 56% strike rate for Padilla on the eephus isn’t that much lower than his overall 64% rate.

  8. LookItUp said...

    Not to split hairs or anything (warning: hair-splitting imminent), Frankie Frisch was the manager of the Pirates in 1942, not a coach.

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