An Ode to the Hanging Curve

Oh, hanging curve
Shapely and round, you are
With the touch of a finger and the flick of a wrist,
You’re sent spinning, darting downward,
Destined for Your Leather Sanctuary
Perhaps, first, met with a kiss from the Earth!
But nay
Neither governed by gravity nor man,
You stand tall
Proud – and erect – for the world to see
Fearlessly perpetuating your fleeting, floating existence
For just a moment too long, before:
*thwack!*
A new trajectory is born
At the hands of your nemesis:
That unforgiving maple lumber
Helplessly hurtling,
You shoot scowls toward your maker between rapid rotations
“What have I done to deserve this?”
Before long, you reach Your Leather Sanctuary
But it is not the one you’ve grown to love
No, like a hard bed at the Motel 6: you rest, uneasy
Disappointment looms on the face of many
Josh Beckett seems not to care.

***

Rooting interests aside, a true hanging curveball can make for one of the more pleasurable experiences of taking in a baseball game. There’s just something captivating about that big, looping motion which never quite gets resolved. As soon as a hanger comes out of a pitchers hand, the viewer shares the same excitement and anticipation possessed by the batter, waiting for the right moment to pounce on the pitcher’s mistake and elicit Serious Damage.

The hanging curveball also serves as a necessary reminder of the imperfections of man. Major league baseball pitchers are, presumably, the very best on the entire planet at throwing fast, moving pitches with pinpoint accuracy. But not all pitches are made the same. They don’t always go as fast as you want them to. They don’t always move as much as you’d like them to. And they certainly don’t always end up where you hoped they’d end up.

When someone like Clayton Kershaw, seemingly night in and night out, executes pitch after pitch with robotic consistency and precision, he makes a very hard task look very easy. A reason why we watch sports is because of how hard they are. To marvel, in awe, of the greatness. But to truly understand what greatness looks like, we must first understand failure. This is: An Ode to the Hanging Curve.

I have identified the five major league pitchers who, this season, have thrown the largest percentage of hanging curveballs. None of them should come as a major surprise. I have defined a “hanging curveball” as one that is either thrown a.) in the upper-third of the strike zone or b.) right down the heart of the plate. Different pitchers have different approaches, but guys generally don’t want their curves to wind up high or down the middle. After having identified the five most repeat offenders, I subjectively chose one pitch each that most epitomizes the nature of their curve-hanging tendencies and rendered them into GIF form for your viewing pleasure.

Behold:

5.

Pitcher: Edinson Volquez. Hang percentage: 10.1%.

Date: 6-7-14. Batter: Khris Davis.

volquez

This pitch stands alone as the only to be classified as a “knuckle curve.” This particular knuckle curve doesn’t appear to do much knuckling, or curving. It kind of just floats there over the heart of the plate until Khris Davis crushes it into left field for a ground rule double. This was the first pitch of the at-bat. Khris Davis, like teammates Carlos Gomez and Aramis Ramirez, swings at the first pitch more than nearly any player in baseball. That certainly won’t be any different when you serve up a pitch like Volquez did.

4.

Pitcher: Tom Koehler. Hang percentage: 10.5%.

Date: 4-21-14. Batter: Andrelton Simmons.

koehler

Now we’re talking. This is the kind of thing I picture when I imagine a hanging curveball. Shoulder high, hit a mile with a visible reaction from the pitcher. A no-doubter. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, this dinger would have left all 30 major league stadiums.

Here’s another thing: Koehler’s place on this list is interesting because, at 21%, he throws the fewest number of curveballs of any of these five pitchers. He doesn’t throw as many total hanging pitches as the next three guys on this list, but his curveball does have the highest likelihood of being hung. OK, Tom Koehler facts. Moving on.

3.

Pitcher: Danny Duffy. Hang percentage: 10.7%.

Date: 7-11-14. Batter: Miguel Cabrera.

duffy

If I wanted to, I could probably lie and say that Miguel Cabrera hit a home run on this pitch, because Cabrera hits home runs to the opposite field with swings like the one shown above all the time. But I won’t lie. It was just a sacrifice fly to right field. In that sense, Danny Duffy is like one of the guys from those Final Destination movies, ensuring his (in this case, figurative) death in the very near future by narrowly avoiding it in the present.

Recently, while covering an Indians game against the Royals, I discovered that, at 93.5mph, Danny Duffy possesses the highest average fastball velocity of any left-handed starter. He got shelled for 10 hits and two homers that night, and I wondered why he wasn’t more effective, given his electric fastball. One of every 10 pitches he throws being a hanging curveball is probably one reason why.

2.

Pitcher: Jarred Cosart. Hang percentage: 11.6%.

Date: 7-1-14. Batter: Logan Morrison.

cosart

Jarred Cosart has been something of an enigma through his first two major league seasons.

  • With nearly 10 inches of vertical drop, Cosart has one of the most dramatic breaking balls in the MLB, yet it gets no swings and misses.
  • Last year, as a rookie, Cosart miraculously posted a 1.95 ERA despite owning the highest walk rate in baseball to go along with one of the worst strikeout rates.
  • This year, despite throwing a really hard fastball and hanging more curves than just about anyone, Cosart has one of the best home run rates in baseball.

Thus, his hanging-est curve results in just a mere opposite field single, because Jarred Cosart is an enigma.

1.

Pitcher: Josh Beckett. Hang percentage: 12.4%.

Date: 6-7-14. Batter: Brandon Hicks.

beckett

At last, our hero.

Josh Beckett knows the drill by now. Over 12% of all pitches that Josh Beckett throws are high or hanging curves. This is somewhat intuitive, as Josh Beckett throws more curveballs than any starting pitcher in baseball, but that still means that, in an average inning of 15 pitches, he’s going to throw two that look like this. That’s staggering.

My favorite part about this GIF: look at the cluster of fans in the top-right corner and their reactions compared to Beckett’s. Zero of them were paying any attention when the pitch was thrown. As soon as the bat hit the ball, their necks crane towards the sky at once like they’re watching a space shuttle take off. Every single one of them.

Josh Beckett seems not to care.




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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


9 Responses to “An Ode to the Hanging Curve”

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  1. Eminor3rd says:

    Taking a cue from ol’ Jeff Sullivan. I like it!

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  2. #KeepNotGraphs says:

    With a Notgraphsian lede as well!

    #KeepNotGraphs

    +20 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. That Guy Right There says:

    “This is somewhat intuitive, as Josh Beckett throws more curveballs than any starting pitcher in baseball, but that still means that, in an average inning of 15 pitches, he’s going to throw two that look like this. That’s staggering.”

    Since Beckett throws 31.5% and his hang% is 12.4%, would that not mean in a 15 pitch inning he would throw .59 hanging curveballs? One every two innings is still crazy though.

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    • The 12.4% is of all pitches thrown. I was afraid that wouldn’t come across clearly

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      • Bip says:

        Yeah, I was going to ask if that was what you meant because it wasn’t clear to me. I put it together when you said that Koehler was on the list despite throwing fewer curveballs that the other members of the list.

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  4. AC of DC says:

    I would hazard that those big, looping curves that look like they’re sailing high and then drop into the zone are thrown rarely enough that we needn’t worry about misclassifying their intent. Heck, I think that these days they get their own annual Vicente Padilla-themed Sullivan write-up.

    Still, if one were to further refine the “hanging curve” definition to include (lack of) break, would the results shift at all? Do some “hang” not only by endpoint but further by flight path?

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    • Bip says:

      Well, sometimes a curve that is thrown into the middle-ish part of the zone is considered a good pitch. Often, hitters give up on those and the pitcher gets a free strike. I wonder if break is the primary difference between that pitch and a hanger. If a breaking ball is flat, then it’s basically useless, but if it’s out of the zone at least it won’t get crushed. A sharp breaking ball can be a valuable weapon in the zone though, as it ends up in a different place than the batter expected.

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  5. MikeS says:

    Joakim Soria threw a beautiful hanger to Jose Abreu just last night with predictable results.

    http://m.mlb.com/video/v34910601/cwsdet-abreu-extends-white-sox-lead-with-homer

    I think Gameday classified it as a slider, but it was only 77 MPH and looked more like a curve to me.

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  6. Miles says:

    We should collaborate on a collection of sarcastic sports poetry.

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