Honeywell's screwball a 'bloodline deal'

Rays right-hander hoping to ride inheritance to big league career

"I see where people say, 'He throws [the screwball] infrequently,'" Brent Honeywell said. "I throw it all the time." (Bill Setliff)

By Jake Seiner / | March 23, 2015 10:30 AM

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Brent Honeywell wanted to talk about Hector Santiago.

Santiago, a 27-year-old New Jersey native, made 47 starts over the past two seasons with the White Sox and Angels, and his best pitch is a screwball. That made him a rarity. It caught the attention of The New York Times. Honeywell noticed, too. He saw how the pitch floated away from right-handed hitters. He read about Santiago's grip and arm action.

The 19-year-old was skeptical and unimpressed.

"There was a New York Times story saying somebody else threw a screwball in the big leagues," Honeywell said with his northeastern Georgia drawl. "No. Sorry dude. That's not one."

This would be news to Santiago. He calls the pitch a screwball. So does everyone else.

Honeywell wanted to set the record straight.

"That looks like my changeup. It's a good pitch. It's a great pitch. I'm not cutting him down or nothing. It's a great changeup. But it's not a screwball."

Honeywell, the Rays' 2014 second-round pick, knows a screwball when he sees one, and he's only seen a few men throw it. The pitch is a family heirloom, and both men and the women know its legacy and intricacies. Still a teenager, Honeywell already longs to pass the pitch on to his not-yet-realized sons.

Nobody knows screwballs like the Honeywells. If you want to know what one looks like, they're the folks to ask.

"It is a left-handed curveball out of a right-handed arm slot," Honeywell said.

This might sound to you something like a circle changeup. To throw a circle change, you make an "O" with your pointer finger and thumb, then stick the ball in your hand. As a pitcher throws it, he pronates his arm so the "O" points toward the ground. The ball rotates in the opposite direction of a curveball, but when he twists his arm toward his body, it's much tougher to put spin on the ball. To call a circle change a backward-breaking curveball would be dishonest, though.

Asked to clarify, Honeywell was steadfast.

"It's a left-handed breaking pitch," he said of the screwball. "Just like the guy we got. We got Jonny Venters. You seen his curveball-slider? That's what it looks like."

Venters has been one of baseball's most dominant relievers the past few years, and the slider is his best pitch. It's been called the most unhittable pitch in baseball. It dive bombs down and away from left-handed hitters, thanks to the outrageous spin Venters generates by snapping his fingers over the front of the ball while he releases it.

Honeywell said he can make the ball do the exact same thing -- but in reverse.

Here's the crazy thing: He might be right.

"He's a very unique kid," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays director of Minor League operations. "Let's just say that -- in a very good way."

*  *  *

A brief history on the screwball before we continue:

Its first great practitioner was Christy Mathewson, the New York Giants ace from 1900-16. Mathewson wasn't the first to throw the pitch, but at the time he was the best to ever do it. As Ken Burns tells it in Baseball, Giants manager John McGraw arranged for Mathewson to learn the pitch -- then called a "fadeaway" -- from Rube Foster, renowned as one of the first great black pitchers. Baseball historians have doubts Foster actually taught Mathewson, but somehow the Giants right-hander learned it, and it helped propel him to 373 career wins and the Hall of Fame.

The screwball was essential for dozens of effective Major League pitchers during the 20th century. Confirmed users include Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, Tug McGraw, Willie Hernandez and Fernando Valenzuela.

Despite that history, the pitch has fallen out of vogue -- Valenzuela was the last notable starter to use the offering regularly, and he retired in 1997.

As a result, Santiago's career is important for the pitch's legacy. The New York Times devoted nearly 4,000 words to "The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball" last summer. The crux of the piece was this: At this point, nobody throws it. That's largely because nobody teaches it.

One reason is the potential for injury, although there isn't much imperical evidence to support the fears. As the Times' Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:

"Just how a screwball causes injury was open to debate. 'Too hard on the shoulder,' insisted Arizona's manager, Kirk Gibson. 'The elbow,' said the former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. Even Santiago acknowledged the possibility: 'They told me it's bad for my wrist.' He keeps throwing the pitch, he said, 'because you don't hear much about pitchers hurting their wrists.'"

With few pitchers who know the screwball well enough to teach it, it is rapidly becoming baseball's dodo, dwindling to extinction because of isolation.

"It's difficult to learn and difficult to throw," said Rays pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson, who toyed unsuccessfully with the pitch as a Minor Leaguer in the 1970s. "There aren't a lot of guys out there teaching it, either. I know I don't teach it. If you talk to most organizations, they don't have a guy in there doing it."

So rare is the pitch these days, many Major Leaguers doubt it ever existed.

"I don't think it's physically possible," Giants catcher Buster Posey told the New York Times. "I just don't believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don't."

*  *  *

There are still at least two men teaching the screwball.

Mike Marshall is No. 1. In an age where pitcher stamina is on the decline, Marshall is notable historically for his endurance out of the bullpen. During his Cy Young season with the Dodgers in 1974, Marshall set records for games pitched (106), relief innings (208 1/3) and consecutive games pitched (13). He was revered in bullpens across the Majors for his freakish ability to recover. His admirers included Robinson, whose pro pitching career began in 1977 and spanned six seasons.

"He was like the poster child for a reliever," Robinson said.

Marshall's best pitch was a screwball. Like the backward curve that propelled his Major League career, his retirement has followed a different trajectory from those of his peers. He's offbeat, confident, passionate and curious. He owns three college degrees, including a doctorate in kinesiology from Michigan State University.

He blended his experience as a professional pitcher with his understanding of the human body and came up with a whole new throwing motion. Since 1999, he's preached his unique mechanics at his training center in Zephyrhills, Florida.

Jeff Passan chronicled Marshall's methods and experiences for Yahoo! Sports in 2007.

"I'm a researcher," Marshall told Passan. "People forget that about me. That's where my heart is. I pitched baseball, really, as the lab experiment of my research to see if it worked. Turned out it did. I don't need any more validation that I know something about baseball.

"I know what works. That's the greatest truth there is. I have a responsibility to give it back. Nobody wants it? Hey. That's not my problem."

For the most part, baseball hasn't wanted it. Tommy John once called Marshall a "wacko." Passan's story includes labels like "lunatic" and "kook." The reasons vary, but largely, baseball people are skeptical because Marshall's preferred mechanics are highly non-traditional.

"We kind of throw like a girl," one student told Passan.

Before Marshall had settled on teaching this throwing motion, his journey took him through Florida's Saint Leo University, where he coached from 1984-88. There, he expounded his evolving beliefs to his cousin, Brent Lee Honeywell, who was a pitcher on Saint Leo's staff. Honeywell bought in, adopting Marshall's screwball and unique training methods, like lobbing six-pound shot-put balls with a screwball motion. The left-hander signed with the Pirates in 1988 and spent three seasons in the lower levels of Pittsburgh's system.

Even as his own career stalled in the Carolina League, Honeywell maintained faith in Marshall's methods, and thus instructor No. 2 was born. For the past two decades, Honeywell has coached at the youth level, and pitchers either abide by Marshall's methods or they don't pitch. He's confident in the routine, often promising to help pitchers "increase velocity from 7-10 mph."

Now, Honeywell's most advanced student and strictest follower is his son, who also shares his name. Every day, the Rays prospect gets down on one knee to lob six-pound iron balls with a pronated motion. He goes through an intense band workout that the Honeywells call "tubing." And when he was 13, he began to learn Marshall's screwball, via his father.

"People say it's a bloodline deal," Honeywell said.

*  *  *

Having received his inheritance early in his teenage years, Honeywell was effective at Franklin County High School about 90 minutes north and east of Atlanta, but not to the point where professional scouts came crawling. At Perfect Game showcases in 2012, he topped out at 86 mph. After graduating, he went to Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tennessee, to play baseball.

By the spring of 2014, Honeywell's fastball had spiked to the low- to mid-90s. He doesn't know how that happened -- "Dude, I don't know; I don't have a clue," he said -- but it immediately made him a Major League prospect. Armed with a plus fastball and Mike Marshall's screwball, the young right-hander intrigued scouts with his stuff and bewildered them with his workout routine. didn't include him among its Top 200 Draft prospects, but Baseball America ranked him 195th. Signs pointed to Honeywell going in the first five to 10 rounds of the First-Year Player Draft.

The Rays did their homework on Honeywell. They watched him throw. They studied his workout routines. Careful as they are with young pitchers -- and with a limited budget -- Honeywell had too much promise for the team to say no. Tampa Bay surprised him by selecting him in the second round and offering him $800,000.

The Rays assigned him to Class A Short Season Princeton, where his father made his Minor League debut. By mid-August, Honeywell already looked like a steal. His fastball ticked up to 97 mph, his screwball got sharper and his circle change improved, too. He finished the year with a 1.07 ERA.

This spring, Honeywell is preparing to break camp with Class A Bowling Green. He's using the screwball as his out pitch, and even though the Rays are notoriously cautious with young pitchers, they're going to let him throw it as often as he wants.

"Brent's screwball, it's special," said Robinson, who's been with the Rays since 2009. "It's an incredible swing-and-miss pitch. He sells it. The arm speed's there. It's very unique."

They're letting him stick with the iron ball routine, too. The only caveat is this: there's no structure to the Honeywell warmup, and Tampa Bay wants to fix that. Right now, he throws the ball as often as he needs, every day, then moves on to whatever's next.

"I want him to be specific about his warmup routine," Robinson said. "If you can't write it down, it's really not a plan or an approach."

Asked about the routine, Honeywell had trouble going into specifics.

"There are some exercises, but I'm not going to go into the exercises because I can't teach them," Honeywell said. "You have to be certified to teach this stuff."

The Rays don't need to know everything, but they want to at least make sure Honeywell knows what he's doing. The solution: Robinson asked him to write a paper chronicling his routine.

"I can't wait to turn this paper in to Dewey," Honeywell said.

And Robinson can't wait to read it. Honeywell has bowled over the Tampa Bay staff, and not just with his unique arsenal and methods. Despite his firm beliefs, he's immensely coachable, dramatically sharpening his circle change and curveball since joining the organization last June.

The Rays also adore his easy confidence. He speaks like Matthew McConaughey quoting Satchel Paige. He buzzes back opposing hitters during Spring Training games. He compares himself to Venters, eschews established baseball wisdom with aplomb and talks about his Major League career in terms of when, not if.

"I strictly believe I'm going to go a long way in this game," he said. "And this game is going to take me a long way. I've played since I was born. I'm going to get rewarded for some of the stuff I get done."

"He's probably more confident than 95 percent of the players that I've come across in my 40-plus years of Minor League baseball, which is a really good thing," Lukevics said. "You like cocky-confident."

*  *  *

It's been eight years since Passan profiled Marshall and his academy, but the Cy Young Award winner's methods have yet to take hold. His most successful project was Joe Williams, who logged six innings at Double-A with the Cardinals in 2009 and hasn't touched an affiliated mound since. His academy still operates in Florida, and Honeywell says his uncle is as staunch as ever in his belief that his methods will catch on.

"People are going to take bits and pieces," Marshall told Passan in 2007, "and if that's the way this spreads, fine."

Like Marshall, Honeywell's father wants to be a pro pitching coach. Right now, he doesn't even have a high school coaching job -- he was fired from Franklin County after the 2014 season. The school board told the Franklin County Citizen Leader the dismissal was for "repeated violations of standards of good behavior by a coach." Parents and players railed unsuccessfully against the decision.

Screwballs and self-assurance are bequeathed down the Marshall-Honeywell line. If Marshall's methods are to take hold and the screwball is to live on, Honeywell is probably his best chance.

Honeywell is convincing. He won over the Rays and is willing to wager there will be more converts.

"Buster Posey says it hasn't been done?" he asks before pausing, clearly for dramatic effect. Like a batter at the plate, you wait to see which way Honeywell's offering will turn.

He smiles, then continues.

"Give me a couple years."

Jake Seiner is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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