David Price’s Curveball Experiments

Last week, I explored the rumor of Matt Harvey’s new curveball, and what it might mean in the future given his curve’s effectiveness in 2013. Despite the lowest movement in the league — both horizontally and vertically — Harvey had the 12th-most successful curveball in baseball by pitch run value that year, pointing to the incredible strength of his other pitches (especially his fastball) in setting up his curve. Today, we’re going to focus on more curveball news, this time coming from the man who opposed Harvey on Friday in the Grapefruit League.

That Friday Tigers-Mets game, packed to the rafters with Harvey-hungry fans, didn’t disappoint in the starting pitching department: Harvey proclaimed his return by firing two perfect innings and touching 99 MPH, while David Price wasn’t too bad either, not allowing a hit in his own two frames despite a bit of uncharacteristic wildness. Given the gaudy velocity numbers, it was easy to overlook the fact that Price was trying out a new curveball grip, learned during the offseason from fellow Vanderbilt alum and curveball master Sonny Gray. That offseason work led to this 2-2, 79 MPH strikeout pitch to Curtis Granderson in the first inning:

2015_Curve

Much like Harvey, Price hasn’t used his curveball very often in his career. With his overall career usage sitting at 10%, and coming in at 8.9% in 2014, it’s fair to say that the curve has generally been further down on his list of available weapons. When a pitcher has pinpoint control with a fastball and changeup that generate above-average whiffs, it’s easy to see how effective that pitcher can be without other pitches.

However, as is the case with many high-level pursuits, pitching requires continuous adjustment and improvement, and so Price has decided to attempt to revamp his curveball. Why might he be doing this? Let’s find out by looking at some examples of his curve in the past — when it worked, when it didn’t, and how he might approach getting it right this time around.

This has happened before: Price started throwing the curve in place of his slider more in 2010, when he threw it 16% of the time, but he backed off it in 2011, and every year since has thrown it between nine to 11% of the time. Let’s take a look at his overall pitch usage by year:

Season FB% SL% CT% CB% CH%
2009 73.5% 16.4% 3.7% 6.4%
2010 74.0% 4.9% 15.6% 5.5%
2011 70.5% 9.6% 9.1% 10.8%
2012 60.6% 15.7% 11.3% 12.3%
2013 54.0% 17.8% 11.3% 16.8%
2014 57.0% 14.4% 8.9% 19.7%

It’s not too difficult to see what happened: the slider was never a great pitch (it had a run value of -2.29 wSL/C in 2009, leading to its hasty decline), and Price replaced it with his curveball before developing his cutter and changeup. 2012 was the first year of his cutter, leading to his most balanced arsenal of four elite pitches and a Cy Young award.

Let’s focus just on his curve for a moment, because there’s a pretty stark change in its movement and velocity profile over time. Here’s the change in the vertical movement, horizontal movement, and velocity of his curveball between 2009 and 2014 (courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

2009-2014_Movement

Again, not hard to see what has happened: Price has thrown his curveball harder and with less movement over time. The change is most apparent between 2012 and 2013, when Price lost over two inches of vertical movement and added a mile per hour. This is a little puzzling, as his curveball was nothing short of dominant in 2012, with a 40% whiff rate and 67% ground ball rate.

Those marks were good for the 4th-best curveball by run value in the league (1.84 wCB/C) in 2012, which exemplifies how improvements in other pitches — namely the addition of one MPH to Price’s fastball velocity during that year — can help lift secondary offerings. Price decided to continue to tinker with the curve after 2012, however, so let’s continue by looking at whiff and ground ball rates for each year in our study (I’ve also included benchmarks for whiff and ground ball rates) to chart how they responded to the overall trend of movement and velocity changes:

Season Whiff/Swing% – CB GB/Ball in Play – CB
Benchmark 28.0% 50.0%
2009 11.5% 57.1%
2010 19.2% 56.7%
2011 20.6% 52.5%
2012 40.6% 67.4%
2013 22.4% 49.1%
2014 24.2% 33.3%

2012 is an outlier when viewed like this, and points toward just how fantastic Price was during that year. Many pitchers use their curve mainly as a ground ball pitch, so Price’s below-average whiff rates were redeemed in some way by his good ground ball rate up until 2013. As soon as the ground ball rate fell below the benchmark, however, it became a below-average pitch. 2014 was especially bad in both whiffs per swing and ground balls per ball in play, which is troubling, considering the continuation of the dip in vertical and horizontal movement on Price’s curveball.

To aid us in visualizing how Price’s curve has changed over time, let’s move onto the GIF portion of our show.

Behold 2012, when times were high for Price and his curveball:

2012_Curve

Good, late bite, and perfectly located. Kendrick gives up on it immediately. Now let’s compare it to a 2014 example, when it was far less effective by whiff and ground ball rate:

2014_Curve

This second pitch is more like a bad slider, or whatever one might call a cutter that’s only thrown 78 miles per hour. Bottom line, it’s not a well-thrown curveball – it sort of pops out of his hand and floats. There is a reason I chose this particular pitch for the 2014 example, of course — it represents one final wrinkle that I want to bring in, and that is Price’s location for the pitch in question. I’ve pulled heatmaps for the locations of all of Price’s curveballs for 2012 to 2014 from Baseball Savant – take a look:

2012-2014_Heat

One way to prevent batters from hitting ground balls is to pitch further up in the zone, which is exactly what Price did with his curveball in 2014. The example I chose is indicative of the way he threw the pitch in 2014. As a result, he posted a career-worst ground ball rate, which is not the sort of thing you want to do when your curveball has a below-average whiff rate. When a curve doesn’t get whiffs and doesn’t get ground balls, it turns into a pumpkin, and gets hit for line drives and home runs.

What do we take from all of this? That David Price is almost back to square one with his curveball. We know he has the ability to throw an incredible curve: he needs to locate it down in the zone and hopefully pair it with an arsenal of other great pitches. That’s obviously easier said than done, and the 2014 loss of two MPH off of Price’s career high fastball velocity of 95.5 MPH in 2012 didn’t help the curve’s effectiveness. Still, as a pitcher who has shown himself to be willing to change, to learn new things, and to adapt to what works and what doesn’t, I’m not going to count an effective David Price curveball out, especially with Sonny Gray on his side.

We’ve already seen one of Price’s new curveballs this year: it struck someone out. I can’t wait to see what the second one does.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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