Bob Melvin Talks Curveballs, Both Past and Present

Bob Melvin
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Melvin is more than a little familiar with curveballs. Now in his 19th season at the helm of a big-league club, the 60-year-old San Diego Padres manager logged over 2,000 plate appearances and was behind the dish for more than 4,600 innings during his playing career. Seeing action with seven different teams from 1985 to ’94, he caught numerous hurlers whose repertoires included plus benders.

Which pitchers have featured the most-impressive curveballs Melvin caught, attempted to hit, and that he’s viewed from his vantage point in the dugout? Moreover, how do the shapes and velocities of present-day curveballs compare to those of his playing days? Melvin did his best to answer those questions when the Padres visited Pittsburgh’s PNC Park over the weekend.


David Laurila: Who had the best curveball you caught?

Bob Melvin: “I caught many guys with good curveballs, but none were better than Gregg Olson’s. I caught him a lot, and there were times you could literally hear it spinning coming to the plate. It was as 12–6 of a curveball that you could possibly see. He was able to throw it up top if he needed to, for a strike, but the big thing for him was the chase. Nowadays, you’re seeing a little different… a little tighter breaking ball, sometimes at the top of the zone by design. That’s one that’s really tough to lay off, especially if you’re trying to lay off the the high fastball.

“There are certain guys now that pitch strictly north-south. You see the catcher right in the middle of the plate. It’s a high fastball at the top of the zone, and then it’s either a curveball where they’re trying to nip the top or one where they’re trying to get the chase. It’s maybe a little different than back in the day, where there were more sweepers and everything was more down in the zone, unless it was for a first-pitch strike. If you look at Pierce Johnson, with us, his curveball is one of those that you think is going to break a little bit more, but it kind of stays at the top of the zone and you end up taking it for a strike.”

Laurila: Whereas Gregg Olson’s was more of a big bender.

Melvin: “I think Olson’s broke as hard and as much in 60 feet as it possibly could. I remember one time I was watching the video board between innings, and I could see his finger fly a little bit. Hitters could not, obviously. But he threw it with one finger, and that finger kind of flew off.”

Laurila: Why do you think we’re not seeing as many pitches like that in today’s game?

Melvin: “I think we are starting to see more now, although it might be with a little bit of sweep. But it’s tough to throw it like that and control it, especially throwing it hard, with that kind of break. And very few guys can create that absolute 12–6 spin where it still looks like it’s coming out of your hand as a fastball. Hitters are taught to look for it jumping out of your hand, right? But there are some guys… at times, you’re looking for it, and it’s still tough to track. For me, the guys with the really good curveballs were the ones where I would look for it and still had a tough time tracking it.”

Laurila: Who did you catch that threw the shorter, sharper curveball we’re seeing a lot of in today’s game?

Melvin: “I’d have to think about it a little bit more, but off the top of my head, I recall that Mike Krukow had one of those. Ben McDonald had a really good curveball, too. He and Olson used to talk about it quite a bit. His was a big one. It was similar to Olson’s, but with a little more sweep to it. He would try to sweep one and then try to throw one a little bit more 12–6. You’re going to be throwing over the top to get that 12–6.

Bert Blyleven wasn’t really 12–6, but he could spin it as well as anybody. He was a little bit more to the side, and he could throw one like a slider and one like a curveball. But he never really did the 12–6 because of his arm slot.”

Laurila: Who else stands out from back in the day?

Melvin:Jimmy Key varied the shape of his pretty well. He had the touch to throw it for a strike. He had the touch to throw it to the ground. He knew how to set up a higher fastball off of it. The guys that ended up being really effective were the ones who were able to tunnel their fastball off the shape of their breaking ball. A lot of time, that’s what makes the breaking ball better.”

Laurila: What about hardest breaking balls?

Melvin: “Well, Blyleven was always the guy, although I don’t know if it was necessarily the hardest breaking ball. Olson’s was really hard. Do you mean just the actual velocity, or the spin rate?”

Laurila: I was thinking velocity, but I’m obviously interested in spin as well.

Melvin: “Right now, there’s Pierce Johnson. If you look at not only his spin rate but also the velocity on it, it’s almost a curveball at slider speed. Typically, those will be ones that are more strike-driven; they look like they might be coming down but don’t as much. Joe Musgrove has a really good curveball. Clev [Mike Clevinger] has got a good one, although his is maybe a little more slider. Yu Darvish’s curveball is really good. His slider… I don’t know what you want to classify it as.

“Sometimes the trick is trying to identify which is a slider and which is a curve based on the fact that velocity won’t necessarily always tell you that. For me, it’s more of a shape that ends up being the difference between curve and slider.”

Laurila: Let’s jump to your time in in Oakland. Who really stood out there?

Melvin:Chris Bassitt isn’t going to give you the best spin rate, but his was a really slow pitch that accentuated everything else. He would throw his all the way down into the upper 60s. What that did was made his fastball play better — it made his high fastball play better — because they came out of the same plane. If you look at the numbers from last year, his curveball was a really effective pitch for him. And again, it was a much slower pitch that made a gap to where it was tough to get on him. He would be anywhere from 95–96 [mph] to 69.

“We did a study way back in 1999 when I was a bench coach for Milwaukee. Don Rowe was the pitching coach, and he did his own little study throughout the course of the year. What he looked at was, ‘What is the hard-hit rate after two slow pitches in a row?’ And it was very tough to barrel up a fastball — any fastball, no matter where it was — after two slow pitches in a row. I haven’t followed it since, but that has always kind of resonated with me. When I see two slow pitches in a row, I always see what the reaction to a fastball is after that.”

Laurila: That’s a perfect segue to something else I was planning to ask you. Some pitchers utilize their curveballs almost as a changeup; it’s what they primarily change speeds with. Now we have the emphasis on harder breaking balls, with the idea being that the harder the pitch is, the harder it is to hit. Your thoughts on that?

Melvin: “I feel you still need a gap. You need to create at least a 10–12 mph gap between your pitches to kind of get that uncomfortable feeling for the hitter. If you’re looking at a 94 fastball and an 87 slider, and that’s all you have, it just doesn’t seem like it gets you off balance as much.”

Laurila: That said, if you also have a good changeup, a harder breaking ball is a really effective pitch.

Mevin: “For sure.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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9 months ago

Who has the best curveball on the Padres?