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Zach McAllister has lost his curveball

Finding answers for Z-Mac.

Cleveland Indians v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

There was a time not too long ago when Zach McAllister seemed to have turned a page. Pretty much through the All-Star Break, he looked excellent. He was striking out a career-high 29.5 percent of hitters, owned a 2.56 ERA, and was showing renewed command in his curve ball. But since the break he’s been much more like the McAllister of old, It must be wondered what happened to a man who looked to making a case for being the new Bryan Shaw.

Maybe it was a fools’ errand to suddenly believe in McAllister. There comes a point with so much in sports where a player is who they are, and there’s no getting around it. Except when that one little adjustment is made, and suddenly they are great. Andrew Miller comes to mind, or Jose Bautista. McAllister was always interesting because as a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees system, Baseball America said he had the best curveball in the system. That was a pitch we never saw from him when he was a failed starter in Cleveland. But it made sense that it would be the keystone in his leap from garbage man to very good setup guy. But he simply had no nuance in his pitching. Batters were never off balance. You can see on this graph what he was:

The four-seam fastball steadily rose in prominence as he fiddled with some kind of secondary offering. If you go off Baseball Savant, he does throw a two-seamer in addition to the four-seam, but the fact remains he operated at effectively one speed on a pitch with minimal bite.

But towards the end of that graph, the curve shows itself again. In 2017 overall he’s thrown it 19.2 percent of the time, the highest of his career. It tops last season’s 14.9, the previous high. Plainly he was working on it. In 2017, it worked or him and made him look like a legit high-impact reliever on a contending team. Then, suddenly, unaccountably, he stopped throwing it in August:

That dot at the end signifies a 12.8 percent usage of the curve, the lowest of the season. March doesn’t count, since spring training has, like, one park with StatCast. In fact, it's the least he's thrown it since last July. From August 2016 to July 2017, McAllister was striking out 27 percent of batters, owned a 1.88 ERA and 3.23 FIP, and looked like that high impact reliever. Then we saw this August, a month where McAllister has struck out 11.4 percent of batters and allowed 11 hits and seven runs in only 7.2 innings pitched. That's a small sample, but it's also an ugly one.

McAllister stopped throwing the curve, which made him more predictable. Whether a loss of feel on it, a weird curse from an old witch woman, or a bad batch of especially low-seamed baseballs, it wasn't working and he abandoned it. Courtesy of Baseball Savant, here's where he's thrown the curve in each month since the season began:

While there's some that consistently float up to the top of the zone (especially in June, where he just got lucky), that last in August was most terrible. Here it is again, in a still:

When he did throw it, it caught a lot of plate and didn't dive very much. Not nearly enough buried curves. He simply wasn't getting the downward movement that he needed out of it:

The error bars are wider than is generally comfortable (again, small sample size) but he wasn't getting that consistent downward bite. By not being able to keep hitters at all honest, he's simply allowed them to use him for batting practice.

I don't know if he's a bit hurt, or has a small blister or some other hand problem that doesn't allow him to throw the curveball, but McAllister has lost all his effectiveness. Had he maintained, he would still be somewhere like fifth in the bullpen pecking order behind Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Joe Smith and the LOOGY Tyler Olson. He and Bryan Shaw would find themselves in comfortable company. Instead, he's a garbage man again. You can get by in the bigs on luck and bad hitters if you can throw 96 or so, but even then you need a bit of movement. His "two-seamer" such as it is has no bite, so all hitters see is fastballs. He did the right thing, and shied away from it. He probably knows that. He just needs to execute again. Literally, throw that pitch better and more.

McAllister could be a great weapon in the postseason, or he could find himself subverted by a younger pitcher that takes a September call-up and runs with it. It’s up to him and his fingers, if they’re not betraying him.