Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Brief History Of Baseball's Eephus Pitch

A Brief History of the Eephus Pitch

On Sunday, Randy Johnson was facing San Francisco outfielder Fred Lewis in the first inning and threw a pitch so slow that it failed to even register on the radar gun. Lewis was obviously expecting something with a little more heat on it and the pitch fluttered in for strike two. Lewis eventually worked a single in the at bat on the way to becoming the first lefty ever to get four hits off Johnson. Arizona went on to win the game, 7-2.

Dramatization of Randy Johnson's Eephus pitch

The slow ball, however, turned out to be inadvertent. A boat horn honked in McCovey cove right as Johnson was delivering the ball distracting the Johnson in the middle of his windup and resulting in the surprising pitch. As my colleague Tyler Kepner can tell you, when he was with the Yankeees, Johnson actually intentionally threw a pitch similar to the one he threw on Sunday. This is from a Yankees game story in 2005, when Johnson was pitching for the Yankees.
Johnson has mostly hidden his sense of humor since spring training. Yesterday’s game, however, was such a laugher that Johnson even smiled after lobbing an Eephus pitch to Sal Fasano in the third inning. Johnson let it go when he noticed catcher John Flaherty was confused about where to set his target. 

The Eephus pitch, popularized in the 1930s and 40s by a Pirates pitcher named Rip Sewell (here’s a cool shot of his grip on the pitch) is basically just a high arcing lob or a “junk ball.” It seems that everyone who throws the pitch (or some version of it) has their own name for it. Dave LaRoche called his “LaLob”. Dave Steib called his the “Dead Fish”. Bill Lee (one of the most colorful figures in the history of the game) called his the “Spaceball” or “Leephus”. Yankee fans will of course remember Steve Hamilton’s “Folly Floater”. Today Orlando Hernandez and Tim Wakefield are among the only players to throw some version of the Eephus.

There are also two famous stories of players missing or fouling off an eephus and asking for it again. In the 1946 All-Star game, Sewell threw one to Ted Williams, who missed it and asked for another. Sewell obliged and Williams hit it out of the park. In 1975 (CORRECTION — the commenters were correct that this incident happened in 1970 not 1975), Hamilton threw one to Cleveland’s Tony Horton who fouled it back behind home plate. Horton asked for another and got it only to pop it up to catcher Thurman Munson. Steeped in shame, Horton crawled back to the dugout. Thanks to YouTube you can watch the footage of this incident above. (Also thanks to YouTube you can watch this bizarro clip from some kind of Japanese television program of a different kind of eephus.)

Also as Lee found out in the 1975 World Series, you can’t get too cute with the pitch. In game 7 of that series, Lee twice retired Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez with his space ball, but went to the well one too many times and in his third at bat Perez hit one out of the park for a 2-run home run to bring the Reds to within a run. That was the beginning of Cincinnati’s comeback and the Reds went on to win the game and the series. — Fred Bierman | The New York Times

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