An eephus pitch in baseball is a slow curveball thrown at an absurdly low speed, usually 60 miles per hour or less. Since it’s much slower than a typical baseball pitch, slower than even a knuckleball, it can catch a hitter off guard. However, if a major league hitter gets the timing right or the pitch doesn’t move like it should, it can be an easy pitch to hit.
The name eephus comes from a Hebrew word that means “nothing.” It’s a slow, junk pitch, something of a novelty, and generally better liked by fans and broadcasters than hitters.
While coaching in the Kansas City Royals organization, Dave LaRoche taught Zack Greinke how to throw his variant of the eephus pitch, known as “LaLob.” LaRoche advised Greinke not to throw it in a game. The curious Greinke of course did throw it in a major league game as a 20-year-old rookie in 2004 to see what would happen, and the Royals fired LaRoche at the end of the season. Greinke could throw in the mid 90s, so the Royals didn’t want him trying to throw a pitch half that speed.
Later in his career, after he’d lost the ability to throw in the mid 90s, Greinke used his slow curve more frequently, sometimes throwing as many as 12 of them in a game.
LaRoche himself used the pitch as an aging reliever with the California Angels in 1980. The next season, pitching for the New York Yankees, the pitch made him a sensation. Coming out of the same bullpen as the hard-throwing Goose Gossage, LaLob may have made both of them more effective. Allegedly, LaRoche could throw the pitch as slow as 28 miles per hour.
Throwing the eephus pitch
The grip for the eephus pitch is unusual, with all four fingers and the thumb on the ball. You cross your middle and ring fingers, then grip along the seams with your index and pinky fingers, with the thumb on the underside of the ball. Then you throw it with an overhand motion like a curveball, 15-20 feet into the air. The pitch travels very slowly and typically has a fairly sharp break. It’s a hard pitch to master and won’t fool the hitter if you don’t throw it at the same arm and body speed as other pitches.
Hitters not expecting it will often take the pitch, perhaps not expecting it to be called a strike. When they do swing, they’re prone to foul it off if their timing isn’t right. However, if the pitch doesn’t surprise the batter, or if it doesn’t break sharply enough, an eephus pitch is easy to hit, and a power hitter can hit it into the seats for a homer. Ted Williams once said an eephus pitch is extremely easy to hit, but the hitter has to supply all the power.
Famous home runs off the pitch notwithstanding, the eephus pitch, when thrown properly and sparingly, can be effective.
Why is it called an eephus pitch?
Rip Sewell, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s, threw the pitch in an exhibition game in 1942, inducing a swing and a miss from Dick Wakefield, the Tigers’ batter. Sewell’s manager, Frankie Frisch, asked Sewell what he called the pitch. Outfielder Maurice Van Robays chimed in saying, “Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Sewell liked the name, and it stuck.
There is a Hebrew word pronounced “eephus” that means “nothing.”
History of the eephus pitch
Sewell wasn’t the first pitcher to throw a slow lob and call it a pitch, but he was the first to throw one in about 40 years. The first pitcher to use it was Bill Phillips, a right handed pitcher who pitched for seven seasons between 1890 and 1903 for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and Cincinnati Reds.
Sewell first used the pitch in a major league game in July 1943. He was successful, winning 21 games in back to back seasons with it at the age of 36, when most pitchers are declining. He was an All-Star three times in his career, and the only time he ever gave up a home run on an eephus was to Ted Williams in the 1946 All-Star Game. Williams dared Sewell to throw it, and he fouled it off. Sewell then told Williams he was throwing another one. Williams charged toward the mound, swung hard, and hit it into the left field bleachers for a three-run homer. Since he was out of the batters box when he made contact, he would have been called out if an umpire had caught him.
That was the only homer off Sewell on the pitch, though Stan Musial once hit the pitch for a triple.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee infamously threw an eephus pitch in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. Hitting with a runner on base, Tony Perez launched a towering homer over the Green Monster off Lee’s eephus, which he called a Leephus, space ball, or moonball. Perez’s moonshot off the moonball cut the Red Sox lead from 3-0 to 3-2, and the Reds eventually won 4-3, denying the Red Sox their first Series win since 1918. The Sox wouldn’t win one until 2004.
Other eephus pitchers
More than 20 pitchers have thrown the eephus pitch since Rip Sewell, many of them in recent years. The well-traveled Bobo Newsom adopted the pitch late in his career, in the 1940s. Satchel Paige would also occasionally throw the pitch.
During the 1960s, Al McBean and Steve Hamilton used variants of the eephus pitch, calling it the McBean Ball and the Folly Floater, respectively.
In the 70s, besides Spaceman Lee, Pedro Borbón, a pitcher on the opposing Cincinnati Reds, also used the pitch.
In the 1980s, famed knuckleballer Phil Neikro used the pitch near the end of his career, as did Pascual Pérez, a talented but troubled pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. Pérez and Neikro had been teammates, so it’s possible he learned the pitch from Neikro. Of course, at the start of the decade, Dave LaRoche also used the pitch.
Twins pitcher Bob Tewksbury used the pitch in the 1990s, and the pitch started to look like a lost art until a new generation of pitchers started using it after the turn of the century. Maybe it’s LaRoche’s influence.
Modern eephus pitchers include brothers Liván Hernández and Orlando Hernández, Carlos Zambrano, Vicente Padilla, Kazuhito Tadano, Carlos Villanueva, Alfredo Simón, Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Zack Greinke, Fernando Abad, Yu Darvish, and Casey Fossum.