By now you might’ve read that, Sunday afternoon, Clayton Kershaw gave up a home run on his curveball. Clayton Kershaw does not often give up a home run on his curveball. According to some sources, it was the first time Kershaw’s curve had been hit out in the regular season, ever. This is a disputed instance, from April 2011. We do know, for certain, Kershaw gave up a playoff dinger on his curve in 2009. Matt Holliday hit it, but unfortunately for him, the same game for Holliday became differently eventful in the later innings. Also, 2009 was before Clayton Kershaw became Clayton Kershaw. But anyway! The point is that Kershaw’s curve doesn’t get taken yard. It got taken yard, so that’s interesting.
Lots of people have come at this from the Kershaw side. Not a lot of attention has been paid to the Brandon Hicks side. Hicks is 28 and a former prospect, and a big reason why he’s never gotten regular big-league playing time is because he hasn’t been able to consistently hit non-fastballs. Since 2002, 1,308 position players have batted in the majors at least 100 times. Hicks has posted the third-lowest contact rate, at 59%. According to PITCHf/x, Hicks has swung at 172 non-fastballs and whiffed at 60% of them. Hicks is an all-or-nothing sort, and maybe that’s precisely the sort that was going to take Kershaw’s curve out. But prior to the homer, it’s not like Hicks looked comfortable against Kershaw breaking balls.
Ultimately, the game got to the seventh, and after striking out the first two times up, Hicks quickly fell behind Kershaw 0-and-2. The first time, at 1-and-2, Kershaw came with a slider. The second time, at 0-and-2, Kershaw came with a curve. This time, Kershaw came with a curve again, but it was a curve in a spot some might describe as “a pretty bad spot”. There are even bad spots for a curve when pitching to Brandon Hicks, and while Kershaw tried to bury the pitch down and a little in, he only got the “in” part right, and even there only barely.
It was a meatball. Let’s just say it.
The first incredible thing you realize is that Brandon Hicks homered off Clayton Kershaw. The second incredible thing you realize is how very notable that is. It’s not like this is the first time Kershaw has missed his spot with his curveball. It didn’t get hit out when it was perfect, and it didn’t get hit out when it was imperfect. Hicks jumped on a mistake, but there have been previous mistakes, and Kershaw has survived them anyway because his curve is so naturally impossibly good. As obvious as this particular mistake was, hitters in the past have failed to drive similar mistakes, and that tells you something.
Thinking about Hicks and Kershaw and the curveball got me thinking about something bigger. So we know that Kershaw’s curveball doesn’t get hit out of the yard very often at all. We have a suspicion that it’s one of the best pitches in baseball, in that regard. But what do the leaderboards actually look like? Which have been the most and least homerable pitches throughout baseball during the PITCHf/x era? Just where does Kershaw’s curve rank?
The research was simple, using the PITCHf/x leaderboards available at Baseball Prospectus. I examined the whole era, 2008-2014, and I kept starters and relievers separate, and I set a minimum of 1,000 pitches of each type thrown. This counts only the regular season, so we’re missing that Holliday homer off Kershaw’s curveball, but it’s not like that should change things very much. Of course, different pitches are used in different situations and put in different places, so this isn’t a true measure of a pitch’s homerability, but the information ought still be useful.
Let’s begin with the least-homerable pitches thrown by starting pitchers.
Well would you look at that? Sure enough, we’ve got Kershaw’s curveball atop the list, or on the bottom of the list, depending on how you like to sort. It’s a list with seven curveballs on it, which isn’t a total shock since curves get a lot of non-swings and also a lot of groundballs. Kershaw shows up having allowed one curveball dinger and more than 2,000 curveball non-dingers. Carpenter’s curve was also magical, and it’s somewhat surprising to see Wade Davis in there, although I suspect there are some difficulties separating sinkers from other fastball types. In any case: that’s the list. About Brett Myers, here are the most-homerable pitches thrown by starting pitchers.
Myers was a man of several extremes. Holland’s breaking ball has proven occasionally problematic in the past, and you can see here one of the reasons why Hunter has taken to the bullpen after not working so great as a starter. When you’re a starter, you don’t want even your sinker to be homer-prone. I also just noticed a second Derek Holland pitch in the top four. That’s two Derek Holland pitches that’ve been more homerable than Hector Noesi’s fastball, which is about the least-flattering way to put anything.
Turning now to the least-homerable pitches thrown by relievers.
Craig Kimbrel. He’s thrown 65% of his breaking balls for strikes. Batters have swung at 41% of them overall. More than half of the swings have missed. Three of every four curves hit in play have been on the ground. Not even 30 Kimbrel curves have been hit in the air, ever, and that makes it tough to hit the pitch out. It’s almost impossible to make contact with the pitch. Then there’s the extra impossible step of hitting it fair. Then there’s the extra impossible step of hitting it fair beyond the infield. It’s just — yeah, so, 0.00%. He’s good. The other pitches have been good, too. They haven’t been Kimbrel-good.
And, the most-homerable pitches thrown by relievers.
There’s not a lot that’s interesting about this table, but you can definitely see why, when the Cardinals picked up Mujica, Yadier Molina was like, yeah, let’s only throw the splitter from now on. You also now remember who Chris Jakubauskas is, or, alternatively, you’ve now learned about Chris Jakubauskas. You wouldn’t expect to see a side-armer like Coleman on here, but Coleman has been an extremely extreme fly-ball pitcher in his time, and his slider is his money pitch. His slider isn’t the pitch on this list.
To wrap it all together: on Sunday, Brandon Hicks became the first player, maybe, to hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw’s curveball in the regular season. Hicks, until then, had been almost entirely hopeless against quality non-fastballs. This Monday through Wednesday, the Giants will coincidentally play host to the visiting Braves. Will Hicks now become the first player ever to hit a home run off Craig Kimbrel’s curveball too? No, almost certainly not.
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