It is no secret that the home run ball currently rules baseball. This year’s World Series was a microcosm of that. Launch angle is key. Fly balls are key. On the other hand, pitchers are attempting to combat this new hitting philosophy with a new philosophy in their own right. Can the Pittsburgh Pirates jump in on this trend?
Curveballs have become more and more prevalent as home runs have increased. In this year’s World Series we saw this. Lance McCullers Jr. and Rich Hill both threw an extreme amount of curveballs. They both combined to give up just one home run in this year’s World Series, a series in which a record of 25 home runs were hit.
If an elite curveball is the pitch that can derail or at least offset this current home run friendly environment, do the Pittsburgh Pirates have any pitchers who can adopt this philosophy? Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow come to mind as possible candidates.
Taillon’s curveball has always looked great. It has nice velocity (81.3 mph) and has looked aesthetically pleasing having large, looping movement. In 2017, Taillon’s curveball had a spin rate greater than 2500 rotations per minute 542 times, good for 12th in all of baseball. For reference, McCullers Jr. and Hill finished first and second respectively on that list both recording 900+ pitches of that criteria.
Here’s a look at the deception inherent in Taillon’s bender, in an at-bat against Yasiel Puig:
This past season, opponents slugged .364 against Taillon’s curveball, lowest of any pitch. He also struck out 89 batters on the curve, highest of any pitch. The contact percentage on his curveball was 67.8 percent, lowest of any pitch. Simply put, Taillon’s curveball was his best pitch in 2017.
The problem is that it wasn’t thrown nearly enough. Taillon threw the curveball 26 percent of the time in 2017. He relied on his fastball 64.1 percent of the time. Just for comparison, McCullers Jr threw his curveball 47.4 percent of the time in 2017. Taillon may not want to get that extreme just yet, but the usage for his curveball should rise greatly in 2018. Increasing curveball usage should be a major focus.
One day in late May of 2017, the Pittsburgh Pirates coaches decided that that Kuhl would start throwing a curveball.
What a decision that was. Kuhl’s ERA up to that point in the season was 6.29. Opponents were hitting .300/.368/.519 at the time. He gave up five home runs in 44.1 innings pitched. He was getting wrecked.
From May 31 through the end of the season, we saw a different Kuhl. In that period of time, Kuhl had an ERA of 3.58. Opponents hit .248/.345/.406 off of him. He gave up 12 home runs in 113 innings pitched. The curveball was the difference.
Here’s a look at Kuhl using the curve to induce weak contact:
On the season, Kuhl threw just 164 curveballs. 158 of those pitches had a spin rate greater than 2500 rpm. 40 had an rpm of 3000 or greater. The pitch is downright nasty. On the season, opponents hit .095/.095/.167 against it. The curveball ended in a strikeout 54.8 percent of the time. That rate was the highest of any of his pitches.
Kuhl threw his curveball just 6.3 percent of the time in 2017. That being said, he didn’t throw the pitch for the first two month of the season. If he leans on the curve more in 2018 and learns to command it, he will have a chance to emerge as a star.
We all know the troubles with Glasnow begin and end with his command. His pure stuff is incredible. There’s no denying that to Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Glasnow is currently the king of getting behind in counts therefore forcing his hand to throw meatballs. This isn’t what this article is about though.
Glasnow still has a chance to become an ace. Those chances have diminished greatly over the past two years or so, but the chance is still there. Like said, it’s all about command. Glasnow threw 278 curveballs at the major league level in 2017. 218 of those pitches had a spin rate greater than 2500 rpm. It was his best pitch. Opponents hit .206/.289/.456 against the curve. He walked batters with it just 9.2 percent of the time and struck out batters with it 38.2 percent of the time, such as this one:
Glasnow’s curveball was not really the problem in 2017. Fastball command was the biggest issue by a long shot. The fastball was thrown for a ball the majority of the time. When opponents did get a chance to swing, they didn’t miss hitting .322/.465/.578 against the pitch.
Glasnow threw the fastball 65.2 percent of the time in 2017 while using the curveball just 22.7 percent of the time. Why was that the case? Why not make the curveball your primary pitch? The old philosophy of pitching states that one should establish the fastball and work off of that with secondary pitches. Why not make the fastball the secondary pitch?
Hitters are in a state where they will sit on one exact pitch and hit it 14 miles. The pitch they are usually hunting for is the fastball. A fastball is the hardest pitch to react to if the hitter is looking off speed. In fact, it’s close to impossible. A hitter will always look for the fastball first and react to off speed pitches. That’s how hitting works.
If pitchers are throwing more off speed pitches and curveballs in general, they are taking advantage of a hitter’s reactions rather than what the hitter is looking for or expecting. In today’s boom or bust hitting environment, that is just what the pitcher needs to do. Disrupting timing is crucial in today’s game for pitchers. Throwing more curveballs will counter that.
The Pirates have at least three young pitchers with great curveball potential. They need to harness it. They need to focus on the curve.