A ritual unfolds 90 minutes before each of Alex Lange’s starts. It’s more crucial than any silly baseball superstition, more vital than game-planning, more critical than a pregame talk.
He clips his fingernails.
“It is,” Lange says, “important.”
LSU’s freshman ace has never timed the ritual, but the entire process — cutting each fingernail — covers more minutes than the normal nail-cutting experience for a 19-year-old college student.
The right-hander devotes the most time to the index finger of his throwing hand, a key ingredient to what this story is all about: his curveball.
The nail of Lange’s index finger must be perfect for the pitch to work, seeing as it rests atop the ball, helping spin the curve toward home plate.
The nail must be cut close, but not too close. It must be clipped down and then rounded. It can’t be uneven or rough, can’t have snags or chips.
“It takes me time,” he said. “I don’t just cut it.”
After all, Lange’s curveball is a big part of why he’s the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, a multiple All-America team member and the first Tigers freshman to strike out 100 batters.
It’s a big reason LSU won the SEC regular-season title and is in the College World Series.
It’s the curveball.
It’s not that 92- to 94-mph fastball, though that helps. It’s not because he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 200 pounds. It’s not because he has long, lanky arms and big, strong hands.
It’s the curveball.
It’s not his intelligence level; he’s a 4.0 student majoring in finance. It’s not poise and determination with runners in scoring position. It’s not the 30 pounds or so that he has lost over the past two years.
It’s the curveball — which will be on display Tuesday in LSU’s CWS elimination game against Cal State Fullerton.
“As a catcher and a hitter, I’ve never seen a breaking ball like that,” LSU catcher Kade Scivicque said.
Of course, without all of the aforementioned qualities — his physique, smarts, fastball, etc. — Lange’s curveball wouldn’t be so dominant. They matter. They make him the ace that he is.
The curveball has made him the best in the nation, though. Teammates, coaches and others around the college baseball community characterize Lange’s curveball by using a plethora of words.
The last is the description given by shortstop Alex Bregman, who championed the term “Rake City” for his hitting prowess.
“It is, now today, a plus major league breaking ball,” said Andy Cannizaro, LSU’s hitting coach and a former major league scout.
For the doubters who don’t believe Lange’s success is rooted in his nasty breaking pitch, check out the numbers from the program’s in-stadium computer tracking system.
Lange has thrown 303 curveballs in LSU’s 39 home games this season. (Road games aren’t tracked by the system.) Of those 303 curveballs, Lange has thrown 188 for strikes. Those strikes break down as follows: 84 swing-and-misses, 58 called strikes and 46 made contact.
How many of those 46 were hits? Seven.
Batters are hitting .081 against Lange’s curveball in 39 home games this season. They’ve struck out 61 times against the pitch; that’s half of Lange’s season strikeout total.
“It’s definitely big league material,” fellow starting pitcher Jared Poché said. “I haven’t seen a team consistently square it up all year.”
But why? What makes Lange’s curveball so different from and better than the rest?
Velocity, deception and spin, most say. But don’t forget those fingernails.
He cuts them just 90 minutes before each start to “make sure they don’t grow back,” he said in what may or may not be a joke.
Throughout Lange’s clipping process, he evaluates his performance by grabbing a nearby baseball and testing the curveball grip. He places his thumb and middle finger on opposite sides and rests that index finger on the top of the ball in what’s called a “spiked” grip.
“It’s really the index finger and the middle finger to get that rotation,” pitching coach Alan Dunn said. “It’s all about how fast you can get the spin of the ball.”
The index finger tip digs into the top of the baseball as the middle finger and thumb hug the sides. It must feel good before he stows the clippers.
“I round it out, grab a ball, make sure it feels good. It’s important,” Lange repeats.
Lange’s curveball success goes well beyond some pregame nail-cutting. Those three things — velocity, deception and spin — set it apart from others.
A good breaking pitch moves at 80 mph, Dunn said. Lange’s curveball can reach upwards of 86 and hovers around 82 to 84. Arm and hand speed are behind his curveball velocity, Cannizaro said.
It’s more than just those things, he says from behind his desk. The hitting guru digs into X’s and O’s, gesturing with his arms. The gist: Most spin-heavy breaking ball pitchers have what Cannizaro calls “stiff wrists.” Their breaking pitches are released when their arms are slowing down, he said.
Lange’s is released at the top of his arm speed. He throws it just like a fastball.
“Same arm slot, same arm speed. I don’t shorten up anything,” Lange said. “I try to keep it as much like the fastball if I can. Try to throw it harder than my fastball sometimes.”
That’s a good segue to deception. To hitters, Lange’s curveball appears to be something else entirely.
“Whenever it leaves his hand, it looks exactly like a fastball,” Scivicque said. “That’s what gets hitters. Hitters swing at his arm motion, and he throws it exactly like he throws his fastball. About halfway, you pick up the spin and notice that it’s not a fastball, but it’s too late. They’re already swinging.”
The bat glides through the hitting plane. The curveball drops toward the dirt, sometimes even hitting home plate.
Enter spin. Lange’s fastball is characterized as “12-to-6.” Spin is defined based on the hands of a clock. It spins toward the hitter from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, rotating furiously before plummeting at the plate.
“It’s like there’s a coffee table in front of home plate,” LSU assistant Will Davis said. “The ball rolls right off the coffee table.”
Scivicque estimates that Lange’s curveball has a drop of 3 feet as it begins its fall just before home plate. In a split second, the pitch tumbles from a batter’s hip to his heels.
That sounds awfully difficult for a catcher to handle.
Scivicque had issues early in the season catching and blocking Lange’s curveball. He admits having to “sell out” over the first few weeks, positioning himself early during the pitch. He’s more used to it now.
And it’s not like Scivicque is digging every one of Lange’s curveballs out of the dirt. Early in counts, Lange can throw the breaker for called strikes — as seen in the aforementioned numbers. One of every five curveballs Lange has thrown in home games has been a called strike.
“That’s the part of it that separates it and makes it special,” Cannizaro said.
“Early in the counts, when it’s not a put-away pitch, when it’s not a strikeout pitch, he throws it for a strike,” Scivicque said. “He can pretty much put it where he wants it.”
Said Poché: “When he throws it in the dirt, they swing, and when he throws it for a strike, they don’t swing.”
Lange’s curveball is almost always on. When it’s not, he struggles. He said it was off in games at Mississippi State and Georgia. He combined for six strikeouts in those games.
Some perspective: Lange has had six or more strikeouts in 11 of his 15 starts this season.
“I’ll stay in the bullpen as long as I have to, to get the breaking ball where it needs to,” Lange said, referring to pregame tossing. “Normally I have a pretty good feel for it on game day, especially with the adrenaline.
“Sometimes in a game, first inning or two, I don’t get all of the way through it,” he continued. “So I take a step back in the dugout, re-evaluate it and throw it a couple of extra times in warmup pitches.”
Before all of this goes down, he cuts those fingernails — especially that pointer finger. After all, it has an important job for an important pitcher in an important pitch during — now — the most important part of the season.
Dunn, mild-mannered and stone-faced, is told of Lange’s pregame, nail-cutting ritual.
There is a pause before he says, “Whatever works.”