- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Josh Johnson’s Curveball

We’re happy to welcome Albert Lyu back to the FanGraphs team. His work will again appear regularly here on the site.

Before Josh Johnson was lost for the season with shoulder injuries in May, he was ready to dominate the National League yet again as an early 2011 Cy Young Award candidate. He flashed a 1.64 ERA and a 2.64 FIP — and he was whiffing 8.35 batters per nine innings, while allowing 2.98 BB/9 and 0.30 HR/9. While much of his hot start through April and May last year wasn’t sustainable because of  a .239 BABIP and an 82.2% strand rate (LOB%), he did add a curveball to his arsenal that should keep NL hitters on their toes in 2012. Johnson was five outs from a no-hitter against the Braves in April, which left Chipper Jones to comment that Johnson had a new pitch to toy with.

Johnson had shown a curveball during his rookie season in 2005, but he dropped it early on. He thrived as an starter for several seasons with just three pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a high-80s hard slider and a mid-to-high-80s changeup. Mixing and matching three pitches at different speeds brought success — but adding the new curveball now forces Johnson’s opponents to change their approach against him even more. While his power slider can range anywhere between 85 mph and 91 mph, his curveball was in the high-70s.

Here’s an MLB.com video of Johnson’s 12-6 curveball, which appears on the first two pitches (later pitches in the video showcase his high-80s hard slider and his mid-90s fastball):

The PITCHf/x game charts below show how Johnson added his new, distinct pitch last season.

2010:

2011:

In the 2011 plot, you can see a cluster of pitches categorized as curveballs, which have a distinctly lower pitch velocity range than his other pitches (some of the red dots in that range are also curveballs, which have been miscategorized as sliders).

In previous seasons, Johnson went approximately 65% fastball, 25% slider and 10% changeup. In 2010, he achieved career highs in nearly all statistical categories by relying more on his slider and changeup — and dropping his fastball usage closer to 60%. His confidence in his secondary stuff increased even further during his two-month stint in 2011, adding a curveball that he used about 8% of the time.

Let’s take a look at how he’s used his curveball and how his situational pitch selection changed as a result of the additional pitch:

Situation All First Behind Ahead Runners
Batter R L R L R L R L R L
2010 Fastballs 60% 61% 65% 71% 62% 69% 59% 54% 64% 61%
2010 Sliders 33% 20% 32% 15% 32% 10% 34% 27% 28% 20%
2010 Changeups 4% 15% 0% 10% 2% 17% 4% 15% 4% 13%
2010 Curveballs 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
2011 Fastballs 53% 61% 59% 63% 60% 74% 42% 43% 42% 64%
2011 Sliders 37% 16% 33% 5% 28% 6% 45% 32% 46% 18%
2011 Changeups 0% 14% 0% 16% 0% 18% 0% 12% 0% 14%
2011 Curveballs 8% 9% 6% 15% 2% 2% 13% 13% 4% 4%

In 2010, without a curveball, Johnson dominated right-handed batters as much as any starter in baseball — using mostly two pitches. Johnson had, by far, the best FIP of any starter in baseball in 2010. Amazingly, his 25.9 K% and 5.0 BB% against righties produced a 5.16 K/BB ratio that was 5th among all MLB starters in 2010. His changeup was reserved almost exclusively for left-handed batters, which is normal for opposite-handed matchups unless you’re Tim Lincecum or James Shields.

With the new curveball, Johnson now has a third pitch to use against the righties he already dominates, and he’s using it as a complementary out pitch to his slider when he’s ahead in the count. Against lefties, he was just as willing to use the curve and threw even more first-pitch curves than sliders. It’s rare for pitchers to go to a developing secondary pitch when they’re behind in the count, but if Johnson continues to improve his breaking stuff, we could see more curves in all counts as he gains confidence in it.

Johnson’s hot start to 2011 was cut short by setbacks in his right shoulder, which he claims were due to slouching with his 6-foot-7 frame. Hopefully, his right shoulder injuries had little to do with spinning a new breaking ball; and as long as Johnson is healthy for Opening Day, sit tight and enjoy the ride with the new-look Miami Marlins.