SAN DIEGO — Erick Fedde won’t get too caught up with what to call his pitches, whether one moves like a slider or another drops like a curveball. He will leave that to the rest of us.
“I just call it my breaking ball,” Fedde said of the hybrid pitch he formed out of a curve and slider this season. “If the point was to stop confusing myself, to simplify things so I wasn’t thinking so much on the mound, I don’t have to worry about if it’s a slider or a curve or whatever. It’s my breaking ball. I throw my breaking ball.”
Fedde downsized from five pitches to four in April, settling on a sinker, cutter, change-up and that breaking ball. Yet Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart sees his arsenal a bit differently, saying Fedde still has “two top-spinning breaking balls” in his repertoire and no longer throws his typical cutter. What Fedde calls his cutter, Menhart explains, actually has characteristics of a traditional slider. And what Fedde sometimes calls his slider — rather, what Fedde calls his breaking ball — has characteristics of a traditional curve.
It exemplifies the mental approach that has been key to Fedde’s recent success. He has a 2.93 ERA in nine appearances and a 2.70 mark in four starts. He still throws two distinct breaking balls if you identify a pitch based on how it’s released and how it moves. But he’s more interested in labels that calm him and help him focus on retiring hitters. It doesn’t matter how a baseball’s movement is defined; what matters is streamlining scouting reports, pitch sequences and a selection process that unfolds roughly 100 times per game.
“It’s actually helped him because for me, when you are trying to throw too many pitches, you lose the release point on all of them,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Fedde, 26, slimming his arsenal. “So he found what works for him, and now his release point is consistent.”
Until this spring, Fedde, like many young starters, focused on adding pitches. He turned pro out of UNLV throwing just a sinker and slider before he first added the change-up, a necessity for any big leaguer. The cutter was suggested in 2017 by Mike Maddux, the Nationals’ pitching coach at the time. That was eventually joined by a curveball, another pitch born by tinkering, because someone told Fedde he needed a slower breaking ball.
But he never liked his curveball much, and he felt it was crowding his brain by the end of last year. There is already so much to think about on the mound, and Fedde found it was unproductive to consider a fifth pitch he didn’t want to throw.
While he was thinking about this at spring training, ahead of a season that could decide his place in the franchise, a message arrived from new teammate Patrick Corbin. In one of the Nationals’ first pitchers’ meetings in February, Corbin spoke to the group about focusing on strengths. To illustrate the point, Corbin detailed how he works hard on fastball command and his slider before considering what to add or tinker with.
Corbin knows that is what he’s best at, that it made him a Cy Young candidate in 2018 and earned him a $140 million contract with the Nationals in December. Fedde, listening intently, began considering what was best for him.
“Especially when you’re young, you want to keep building and building and building,” Corbin said this week. “But that’s not always good. It can be bad if you are forcing something that doesn’t work or creating habits because you’re putting pressure on yourself."
The biggest challenge for Fedde is that his cutter, slider and curve were all moving in the same direction — right to left out of his right hand — and he began to get confused about how to locate each pitch. On top of that, his slider and curve had nearly identical grips and were coming out of the same arm slot. There were slight differences in hand placement and how he snapped his wrist, creating separate paths for the slider and curve, but it was still hard to separate the pitches in his mind.
That led Fedde to work with Menhart and Michael Tejera, pitching coach for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. Fedde was called up in late April to join Washington’s bullpen, an unfamiliar role, but was transitioned back to starting once Jeremy Hellickson went to the injured list with a shoulder strain last month. Fedde has since used his scaled-down arsenal to build a case to remain in the rotation for the long term.
It’s nearly impossible to track what he’s throwing from start to start because Major League Baseball’s Statcast records his pitches as four-seam fastballs, sinkers, cutters, curves, sliders and splitters. He doesn’t throw a four-seamer, and the data system confuses his change-up for a splitter, lending him two more pitches than he throws. Beyond that, the lines separating his cutter, slider and curveball are blurred.
He has a hard-breaking pitch that runs in on lefties. (Call it a slider or cutter.) He has a sweeping pitch that falls out of the strike zone and works off his sinker. (Call it a curve or breaking ball.)
Fedde only cares that they are working, and he no longer frets over anything else.
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “If they’re hard to hit, call it whatever you want.”