The skinny on the pitch that's taking baseball by storm.
Would you be surprised if I told you that over a quarter of the curveballs delivered by major league pitchers in 2013 were thrown with a knuckle curve grip? I certainly was. This was one of the results of the first comprehensive study of knuckle curveballs in the major leagues, which I have conducted after months of data collection. It is limited to PITCHf/x data, but the large population sizes give us a good first look at what knuckle curveballs behave like relative to standard curves.
What is a knuckle curveball?
First, let me define clearly what this study entails. A curveball is a pitch that, when thrown from a conventional arm angle, will drop from its normal trajectory due to topspin. It is also typically thrown slower than other pitches, so it drops significantly from the effect of gravity, as well. The two most important fingers in the curveball grip are usually the middle finger and the thumb. The middle finger and thumb rest on or beside seams on opposite sides of the ball, as in this image. At release, the thumb and middle finger spin the ball forward, giving it the desired topspin. The index finger is not needed at all to throw the pitch, and a handful of pitchers even leave it off the ball entirely.
Examining Homer Bailey, Danny Salazar, and Justin Masterson.
Last week we studied a trio of pitchers who have enjoyed breakouts in performance over the first month of the season in order to distinguish legitimate improvement from potential mirage. This week, we examine the other side of the coin. There are a handful of pitchers who entered the season with high expectations yet have been knocked around the yard this April, and the most perplexing of these players are those whose peripheral stats are in line with last season but whose batted-ball profiles have taken a dive. It might be tempting to dismiss any vulnerability due to the vagaries of balls in play over small samples, but in some cases there are functional underpinnings to suggest that something has gone awry.
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The Yankees' new starter appears to have the most important attribute of them all: the ability to make adjustment.
When I wrote about Masahiro Tanakaover the winter, my analysis was limited to the piecemeal footage that could be found across the interwebs, which led to a lot of caveats about what we could expect of his performance in the majors. There were many reasons for caution when projecting the state-side translation of his skill set, ranging from his workloads and pitch selection to his mechanics and statistical profile. With a trio of big-league starts now under his belt, we have a much clearer picture of his talent.
Doug looks for signs of mechanical progress by Yordano Ventura, Trevor Bauer, Chris Archer, and Erasmo Ramirez.
This is my third year writing Raising Aces for Baseball Prospectus, and one of the perks is the dynamic nature of the series (aided by the leniency of our editors). I’m always searching for better ways to communicate ideas about pitching or to broaden the discussion, and transparency has been an integral part of the process.
Looking for evidence of an intentional walk hangover effect.
I missed baseball. It’s like being in a relationship with someone and then having to spend an extended period of time apart from them. Oh sure, you call and Skype and send each other e-mails, but when you are finally back in the same room, you get the joy of re-discovering each other. (And yeah, that’s a Journey reference.) Then there’s the next day after you’ve… ahem… gotten re-acquainted, when you realize that in addition to all of the wonderful things you missed about each other, all of the things that drive you crazy are still, there too.
All of the great holidays are marked by high levels of anticipation. But Opening Day stands out among the more traditional observances because it is merely the beginning of the celebration to follow: seven months of 6-4-3 double plays, exploding sliders, and that sweet sound when lumber meets horsehide. It’s easy to fall pretty to the trap of overweighting observations made at the start of the regular season, and the rational observer will maintain perspective while enjoying the day's festivities. But that doesn't mean that there’s nothing to be learned from the first round of games. Early in the season, many pitchers are making real adjustments to elements of their mechanics, approach, and repertoire, and these alterations can be put under the microscope in order to get an idea of the player's developmental patterns.
New pitches and pitchers we've gotten glimpses of already this season.
Spring: a season of renewal and rebirth. Also a time of new pitches and pitchers. A lack of bona fide new arms in the early going has slowed the usual flurry of new PITCHf/x data to ogle, but some established pitchers have made some notable changes.
Does a starter who goes deep into games really have an effect on days before and after his outings?
The complete game has become an increasingly rare beast. In 2013, there were 124 complete games registered by the 4,862 pitchers who started out on the hill, and Adam Wainwright led all of baseball with five. If a pitcher makes it through nine innings, he’s likely having a very good day, and nine innings of well-pitched baseball is nothing to sneeze at. But a complete game is more than that. It’s a sign of manliness. It’s like shouting, “I don’t need no stinkin’ bullpen!” It’s a cultural touchstone. It’s the guy yelling at his TV, “Finish what you started, you silly overpaid, coddled millionaire. I finish my day of work without calling in a reliever.” A pitcher who completes a game is just getting in touch with the common man.
The challenges of hitting a baseball are many and difficult. Depending on the speed of the pitch, a batter may have something like half a second to 1) locate the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, 2) predict its movement based on the kind of pitch it is (fastball, slider, curve, etc.), 3) decide whether to swing, and potentially 4) adjust mid-swing to the path of the ball or check his swing. All of which is to say, hitting a baseball in MLB may actually be the hardest thing in the galaxy (I’ve never done it, myself).
Arguably the most demanding part of this battle is purely mental (as Hank Aaron noted). Because of how little time there is for a hitter to perform all of the above-mentioned tasks, it is helpful to have some notion ahead of time of what, where, and how the pitcher is going to throw. Conversely, the more uncertainty and confusion a pitcher can create in the hitter, the more chance he has of catching him off guard.
What does Doug see ahead for selected pitchers in 2014?
Along with the rest of the BP staff, I’ve submitted my pre-season predictions for division standings and end-of-season award winners. I tend to stay in the neighborhood of likely outcomes for these picks, resulting in easy answers such as “Mike Trout for AL MVP” or “Tigers win the AL Central,” but I’m more intrigued by the long-shot stories that emerge once the season starts.