PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Dan Warthen still winces a bit when he recalls Jeurys Familia's trickery exploited. Familia had just thrown a sinker so devilish to Alex Gordon that the Royals outfielder spun in place while fouling it off. Watching from the Kauffman Stadium visitors' dugout in the ninth inning of World Series Game 1, Warthen, the Mets' pitching coach, wanted Familia to throw the exact same thing again -- same grip, same timing, same location, same everything.
Instead, Familia shook off catcher Travis d'Arnaud once, brought the ball to his waist and did not pause at the set, missing his spot by a matter of inches. It was a sinker, but a quick pitch -- the type Familia had spent years practicing with modest success. This time, it didn't work; Gordon cracked Familia's offering over the center-field wall for a game-tying homer. Warthen cringed.
"I'm not a huge advocate of it," the pitching coach said months later in the Mets' Spring Training clubhouse. "I've seen that Familia had quite a bit of success [with it]. But the time of the pitch in the count, the sequence of the pitch is so important -- and being able to execute it."
Considering how fine a line separates proper execution from the alternative, Warthen believes quick pitches can make the difference between overall success and failure. That's why he has never taught the tactic to any of his pitchers, who instead learned it from a single source: former reliever LaTroy Hawkins.
One of the game's more cerebral pitchers in recent memory, Hawkins incorporated the quick pitch into his arsenal after then-Brewers pitching coach Rick Peterson suggested it to him in 2010. The concept is simple: When pitching out of the stretch, rather than pausing at the set, relievers can "roll through" their deliveries to catch unsuspecting hitters off guard. This works best against batters with exaggerated leg kicks or similar timing mechanisms who might not be prepared to react. On rare occasions, starting pitchers use a similar tactic out of the windup; San Francisco's Johnny Cueto is a master of this, frequently abandoning the second half of his delivery to release the ball quicker.
"Essentially that's all it is, is disrupting that timing, and making them have to make a decision faster than they normally would have to," Hawkins said in a telephone interview. "The key to doing it, and the reason why you do it, is the reason why you throw changeups and curveballs and sliders -- to disrupt the timing of a hitter."
With runners on base, Major League Baseball's rules define such movement as a balk. But with the bases empty, quick pitches are fair game.
Yet that doesn't mean they are always a good idea. While Hawkins used it with consistent success during the latter stage of his career, Warthen worries that less experienced pitchers can rush their deliveries when trying the tactic, sacrificing command and velocity for the element of surprise. And even that element vanishes if the quick pitch is overused. Gordon, for example, said he was waiting to pounce on a quick pitch after watching Familia retire Salvador Perez with one to open the ninth inning of Game 1.
"I wasn't expecting that, so I wanted to make sure when I got in the box I was ready to hit," Gordon said. "He tried to quick pitch me, and left the ball right there to hit. And with a guy like that, you can't miss pitches that he gives you to hit."
Overall, Warthen admits, Familia does utilize the quick pitch effectively enough to derive benefit from it. Not so for teammate Hansel Robles, who famously incited the Phillies' ire after surprising unsuspecting hitter Darin Ruf with a quick pitch last August. Warthen asked him to abandon the method, but Robles later received a two-game suspension for a similar fastball that buzzed Cameron Rupp in Philadelphia.
"Sometimes, your children don't listen," Warthen said.
For Familia, Robles and other Hawkins disciples around baseball, belief in the quick pitch is too strong. While Familia may regret individual ones like the sinker to Gordon, it's almost always more because of pitch type or location. He considers it an important part of his arsenal.
"What's funny about the quick pitch is it never gets talked about when they don't get a hit," Hawkins said. "It only gets talked about when it gets hit."
Added Familia: "I'm going to miss sometimes, yes, because I'm not perfect. But I know how to do it."