Breaking From Breaking Ball Norms

Lance McCullers Jr.¬†threw 24 straight curveballs in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Through his major-league seasons, McCullers has thrown that pitch a mind-numbing 47.4% of the time, a distant first among starters. In that period, Rich Hill is second. But the difference between McCullers’ curveball rate and Hill’s rate is the same as the difference between Hill and Scott Feldman, who has thrown it at the 14th-highest clip. Everybody is aware of McCullers’ crazy curve-balling. However, I think his statistical absurdity is still understated. And under-examined. There are outliers and in every category, but it’d be difficult to find someone who matches his ridiculousness in any stat.

McCullers has been at the forefront of a breaking-ball movement taking place the past few years; 2017 had the lowest rate of fastballs thrown in the Pitch Info era. This past season also had the highest slider rate and second-highest curveball rate in the era. As the run-scoring environment has shifted offensively the last few seasons, pitchers have combated that with off-speed pitches and fewer fastballs, specifically two-seamers/sinkers. That pitch has been increasingly unsuccessful and its usage has declined of late. It seems unnatural to move away from a fastball, but, when healthy, McCullers has thrived off his extreme curveball tendencies.

I would challenge some pitchers to follow in the footsteps of McCullers. I searched for starters who already heavily feature a great breaking ball, but have poor fastballs. I used run value as my evaluator for pitch quality. Not the best statistic, but I set my search to guys who have accumulated 250+ innings in the past three seasons. That should be enough sample to get a good sense of the pitch effectiveness.

Five starters fit the criteria most: Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Charlie Morton, Trevor Bauer, and Patrick Corbin. The first four throw curves as their primary breaking ball, and Corbin throws a slider. Excuse the GIF heaviness of the next part, but here are some clips just to give you an idea of each individuals pitch.

Let’s start with Nola.

Now to another Phillie – Eickhoff

To Morton, the World Series Game 7 star:

And Bauer…

Just two more…Corbin:

(sorry for the GIF exhaustion)

All these pitchers possess devastating breaking balls. It may seem ridiculous to ask these guys to increase their breaking-ball tendencies even more, considering they ranked seventh, sixth, tenth, and ninth in curveball usage this season, respectively. Corbin was third in slider usage. Interestingly, every pitcher except Morton has already dramatically increased the usage of their respective pitch, and all had significantly better results, except for Eickhoff. However, Eickhoff’s drop-off did not come from the curveball, but rather from horrendous fastballs and sliders.

They are all already league extremes with their breaking-ball usage, but I would challenge them to continue moving towards McCullers-esque extremes. Now, going full McCullers is probably too far for most; I would still press them to further increase their breaking-ball usage. They have proven they can locate the pitches, and hitters are yet to prove they can hit it. Additionally, they have not demonstrated consistently effective fastballs.

Besides McCullers and Hill, no starting pitcher has quite tested the boundaries of pitch distribution. It’s always started with the fastball. A balanced approach with three or four effective pitches is expected. Obviously, there is plenty of truth to that. No one will make it six innings with just two pitch types, regardless of each one’s effectiveness. But McCullers and Hill have proven that a breaking-ball-centric repertoire can be quite successful, given that pitch is exceptional. Nola, Eickhoff, Morton, Bauer, and Corbin all have those exceptional breaking balls. I would encourage them to build their pitching around those breaking balls.



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