Tommy Hunter’s High Curves

Over the weekend R.J. Anderson, Zach Sanders and others tweeted about Tommy Hunter‘s curveball. R.J. noted that Hunter’s curve was way up in the zone during Hunter’s start on Saturday. I was not watching the game, but I thought it was an interesting observation. I pulled up the pitchf/x data for the start and they were right:

His curveballs were very high: most in the upper half of or above the zone. Those curves got him a good number of called strikes, a handful of whiffs, and a couple balls in play (all outs).

Next I wanted to see whether his curves were always that high and how they compared curves as a whole. So I plotted a histogram of the height of all of his curves (his one start in 2010, a couple from 2008 and 19 from last year) and those for all curves in the pitchf/x data.

Hunter’s curves are, on average, a good six inches higher than the average pitcher’s. While curves as a whole peak in the bottom third of the zone and there are a good fraction below the zone, Hunter’s curves peak above the middle of the zone and a good number spill out above the zone.

Do all these high curves hurt Hunter? It doesn’t seem so. He throws the curve a lot, over 25% of the time, and by linear weights the pitch it is a very good pitch. Digging into why that is we can compare some of its components to Harry Pavlidis’ benchmarks for the curve:

Swing = swing rate (swings/pitches)
Whiff = whiff rate (misses/swings), includes foul tips
IWZ = rate of pitches thrown within a “wide” strike zone
Chase = swing rate outside of the wide zone
Watch = take rate inside of the wide zone (inverse of swing rate)
nkSLG = non-K slugging, or SLGCON
GB% = rate of balls in play tagged by MLBAM stringers as grounders
LD% = line drives
FB% = outfield fly balls
PU% = infield fly balls

Swing Whiff IWZ Chase Watch nkSLG GB% LD% FB% PU%
Average Curve 0.373 0.261 0.467 0.254 0.487 0.512 49% 19% 27% 5%
Hunter’s Curve 0.467 0.255 0.535 0.288 0.377 0.368 27% 16% 35% 22%

You can see the big difference here is that Hunter’s curve is in the zone more often, swung at much more often, and not watched (taken in the zone) as much, and, because the pitch is so high in the zone, it gets very few grounders but lots of pop-ups. The result is a much smaller slugging on contacted curves. That is on just 95 curves put in play. I don’t know whether Hunter can maintain such a low slugging on his contacted curves or continue getting one in five to be popped up, but so far his high curve has worked well for him. It is an interesting pitch: while the average curve gets lots of called strikes and grounders, Hunter’s gets many more swings and then flyballs.

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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

8 Responses to “Tommy Hunter’s High Curves”

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  1. trebor says:

    There was some interesting stuff about high curveballs in an article at the Hardball Times a couple years ago.

    According to this study, anyway, they are more effective than normally located curveballs, especially when they follow a high fastball.

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  2. RZ says:

    A lot of his pitches were up in the zone that game.

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  3. The Bunk says:

    Tommy Hunter won’t be ok when Vernon Wells gets to take batting practice off those;)

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  4. philkid3 says:

    Hey, that’s me!

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  5. Daniel says:

    Steve Stone won a Cy Young using high curves and a mid-eighties fastball. Zito used to do it pretty effectively too if I recall.

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  6. frank says:

    You have to look at more than location, you have to look at the break on the ball.

    Many times high curves are high because they don’t have as good a break and that’s a big reason why they get hammered.

    If the break is there, the pitch can be effective (just like a high splitter)… in fact it may even give you more margin because if you roll a curve in, it’s probably so high out of the zone that the batter won’t swing at it.

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    • philkid3 says:

      That last point is an intriguing one to me.

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      • frank says:

        I just meant, if you’re trying to throw a low curveball and you don’t get on top of it, and it gets less break you essentially have something hanging right over the zone, minimal break and very hittable… If you’re throwing a “high” curveball and it slips out, or doesn’t break it may be too high for a batter to crush. (The hitter may also be more likely to give up on it as it’s not in the normal slot coming out of the pitchers hand which would yield a strike)

        That wasn’t my main point – just that if the pitch has good break, it can still be effective. It may not induce as many groundballs (which is the desired sabermetric community outcome), but it will still be difficult to square up. I think people confuse/interchange location and quality of the pitch.

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