Each time the curveball dove, Athletics hitters swung through it. They never spotted the seams, never plotted the plummet. Trevor Bauer’s curveball accounted for most of his fourteen strikeouts last night; it snapped from his fingers with confidence whether darting into the zone from above or dodging the bat down low.
Voracious baseball readers might wonder whether or not Bauer spent the last couple of weeks with his eyes on analysis. On May 22, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs published a piece suggesting that it’s time for a pitcher to rely primarily on the curveball. Then, days later, Sports Illustrated hit the newsstand with a cover piece by Tom Verducci explaining the growing importance of the curveball in the modern game. Both are fantastic articles, and if you know what “the baseball” is you owe it to yourself to read them.
To me, several pieces began to click together after reading each. Perhaps the ball isn’t juiced, as I’ve believed this past two seasons. Maybe hitters realized that sitting fastball against a league of 50% fastballs might yield better results. Bauer might have clicked into this mindset after allowing three runs early last night. In 113 pitches, he deployed his 12-6 hammer 46 times. At one point, seven consecutive strikeouts came on a curveball.
It worked last night for Bauer, but what do the numbers from the rest of the season suggest? According to Fangraphs PitchF/X data, it’s his only above-average pitch this season. Perhaps instead of throwing nearly 60% fastballs, he might increase his curveball rate to take advantage of what the data suggests is the best pitch he’s owned throughout his career: the curveball. With Bauer, one might suggest that location is an issue if he snaps off an inordinate number of breaking balls. In response to that, I simply state that it can’t get a whole lot worse.
Another Indians pitcher who might benefit from this strategy is Josh Tomlin. In many ways he is the anti-Bauer; he’ll never touch 97 on the radar gun, and he’ll never threaten to walk five per nine innings. Hell, if Tomlin walked five in nine starts, it would probably be cause for a trip to team doctor.
Eno Sarris mentioned Tomlin by name in his article as someone who might benefit from a curve-heavy diet. In fact, Tomlin might agree. Until 2017, Tomlin never averaged more than 16% curveballs in a season. He his currently throwing it nearly 22% of the time. Should we be a fan of that? Yes, and it’s not even close to being a discussion. On average for his career, when adjusted to a per-100 pitch rate, the curve is his only above-average pitch. Sound familiar?
If you’re concerned about Josh Tomlin being able to control the ball in and around the zone with the breaking ball.... what are you even doing here? Tomlin’s command is legendary, and it is rivaled only by his control, accuracy, and precision. The key to his new approach would be figuring out how to attack hitters early. He is known for leading with early strikes; would it make sense to throw a curveball to start a count, and to finish it? Tomlin’s sinker isn’t a bad pitch, but where should he work that into the mix with his curveball, curveball, and curveball?
We know that both of these pitchers can be effective under the status quo. However, with hitters keying on the fastball more often, they’ve struggled at times early this season. Why not discover whether an unusual approach can improve their contributions? Pitchers like Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco don’t need to dabble in tomfoolery to remain elite, and the once powerful hatred of “junkballers” doesn’t appear to exist in the game any longer.
Look — someone is going to try it out. It makes intuitive sense. Some might suggest that hitters will simply adjust and start looking for the curveball. My response to that is the overwhelming evidence that baseball takes years to adjust to any strange shift in the game. Actually, THE shift is the best example of that in today’s game. Hitters still won’t bunt toward an open third base even though it is literally a free base if you can bunt and please tell me any Major League Baseball player can bunt because if they can’t why are they making millions of dollars and causing run on sentences? Only now are hitters recognizing how badly they’ve suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous defense. Some now drop bunts against a league of shifters. By opposing, they may one day end them.
It is worth exploring the value of curveball specialization. It’s not as if such a practice is completely unprecedented; this is a league that celebrates Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Mariano Rivera. Men still whisper about Sandy Koufax’s curve, and evidence continues to suggest that it puts less strain on the arm than the fastball.
I don’t expect that pitchers will ever shuffle off of the fastball for good. However, a team like the Indians — already known for upending traditional pitching arrangements — might find an exploitable advantage by asking the backend of its rotation to keep snapping hooks toward home.