Grading the Pitches: 2016 NL Starters’ Curveballs

Changeup: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveball: AL Starters.

We’re almost three weeks into the regular season, with sample sizes mounting but still not to a level worthy of significant analysis, Eric Thames notwithstanding. We’ll take the opportunity to continue our look back at 2016 pitch quality. We looked at AL ERA qualifiers’ curveballs earlier this week; today, we turn our attention to the senior circuit.

For those who haven’t seen the earlier installments, we’re giving letter grades to the individual pitches, based on a 50-50 split between bat-missing ability and contact-management performance. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness. Oh, and Clayton Kershaw wasn’t an ERA qualifier, so he won’t be poking his head into these analyses.

Let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – NL Qualifiers’ Curveballs
Bumgarner 54 18.9% A 15.3%
Eickhoff 75 15.4% B+ 24.0%
Arrieta 76 17.2% B+ 12.3%
Fernandez, J. 91 24.1% B+ 33.2%
Martinez, C. 80 14.9% B+ 23.3%
Davies 73 9.6% B 10.9%
Teheran 79 9.3% B 10.1%
Gonzalez, G. 92 14.5% B 19.7%
Wainwright 95 12.8% B 26.6%
Roark 98 12.3% B 12.3%
Bettis 98 16.1% B 10.3%
Koehler (KC) 122 9.4% B 22.4%
Hellickson 110 12.0% C+ 15.1%
Maeda 143 5.1% C 17.9%
Lackey 150 10.1% C 13.2%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting some hairs very tightly in some cases.

One other thing… Tom Koehler’s knucklecurve is lumped in with this group, as it has nowhere else to go. It’s color-coding might seem out of whack, but a 9.3% whiff rate is actually fairly good for a knuckle curve.

As I stated in the AL piece, I’m almost as big a fan of the curve as I am of the changeup. Its 13.5% whiff rate across both leagues is above average and only slightly behind the changeup’s 15.3% mark. The curve also was an above-average contact-management offering. NL qualifiers compiled an overall 93.9 Adjusted Contact Score on the pitch, somewhat higher than the AL’s 87.1 mark. The color-coding above is based upon that NL average.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the changeups thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above.

Grade A – Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Bumgarner’s curve stands alone in the NL as the only offering of its type to receive an A grade in that league. It was the foremost contact-management pitch of its type, earning a 54 Adjusted Contact Score, and its 18.9% whiff rate ranked second. Both marks were over a full standard deviation better than league average.

He throttled contact of all types with the pitch, especially fly balls (35 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (64). His curve was a fairly extreme ground-ball inducer, much more so than the typical curve.

The pitch doesn’t stand out stylistically. He threw it an average of 74.6 mph, seventh slowest among NL qualifiers, and both its average horizontal (5.6 inches) and vertical (5.2 inches) movement ranked in the middle of the pack.

FanGraphs’ pitch values also peg Bumgarner’s curve as one of the NL’s best, ranking it second overall and fourth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jerad Eickhoff, Phils
While Eickhoff’s contact-management (75 Adjusted Contact Score) and bat-missing ability (15.4%, average range) with his curve were solid, they weren’t in Bumgarner’s league. The Phillies’ righty did throw his curve almost twice as often (24.0%) as the Giants’ southpaw.

Eickhoff was somewhat unlucky with the pitch, compiling a high 117 Unadjusted Contact Score, driven by 137 and 170 marks on flies and liners, respectively, marked down to 83 and 91 once exit speed was taken into consideration. Hitters batted an unrealistic .824 AVG-1.176 SLG on liners off of his curve. He shut down grounder contact: his grounder Adjusted Contact Score was a puny 56. His grounder rate was solid for its pitch type, though not nearly as high as a couple other pitchers we’ll discuss today.

His curve arguably had the greatest resemblance to the traditional 12-6 shape of those discussed today. Its average velocity of 75.0 mph ranked in the middle of the pack, while its average horizontal movement (4.3 inches, tied for fourth least among NL qualifiers) was well below average, and its average vertical movement (7.7 inches, seventh most) was above.

FanGraphs’ pitch values rank Eickhoff’s curve third overall, in large part to its heavy usage, and ninth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jake Arrieta, Cubs
There’s one large discrepancy between these grades and FanGraphs’ pitch values among the NL starters’ top curveballs, and here it is. FanGraphs ranked Arrieta’s curve 14th in overall pitch value, and 15th in value per 100 pitches.

The pitch ranked solidly above average in both contact management (76 Adjusted Contact Score) and bat-missing (17.2%). Those marks ranked fourth and third on the above list. Arrieta did throw his curve much less (12.3%) than the other pitchers we’ll discuss today, which hampered his FanGraphs rankings.

Like Bumgarner’s, Arrieta’s curve was a significant ground-ball inducer, especially for its pitch type. He was a bit unfortunate on all three major BIP types against the pitch (86 Unadjusted vs. 68 Adjusted Contact Score on flies, 105 vs. 90 on liners, 103 vs. 74 on grounders, 93 vs. 76 overall).

The rest of the pitchers we’ll discuss today throw their curves much harder than the first two. Arrieta’s was thrown at an average of 80.6 mph in 2016, fourth hardest among NL qualifiers. Its 5.8 inches of average horizontal movement rated in the middle of the pack, while its 8.6 inches of average vertical movement was the fourth most.

Grade B+ – Jose Fernandez, Marlins
It’s always difficult to discuss the departed, doubly so this year with the loss of both Fernandez and Yordano Ventura in recent months. It’s a little easier when we’re paying tribute to their strengths, however. Fernandez’ curve stood out in so many ways, from its incredible whiff rate (24.1%) to its ultra-frequent usage (33.2%) and beyond. Those two marks easily led the NL.

Its contact-management performance was solidly in the average range (91 Adjusted Contact Score), narrowly preventing the pitch from earning an A grade. He was actually quite unlucky with the pitch, posting a 120 Unadjusted Contact Score. Based on exit speed allowed, his Unadjusted Contact Scores by BIP type were ratcheted downward across the board (129 to 105 on flies, 137 to 98 on liners, 83 to 66 on grounders). Unlike the pitchers already discussed, Fernandez’ curve was more of a fly-ball-inducing pitch.

Stylistically, Fernandez’ curve operated more like a slider, with the second-hardest average velocity (83.7 mph), the fourth-most average horizontal movement (6.8 inches), and the least average vertical movement (0.4 inches) among NL qualifiers.

FanGraphs ranked Fernandez’ curve first in overall value and third in value per 100 pitches, so these two evaluation methods are essentially in agreement.

Grade B+ – Carlos Martinez, Cards
Martinez narrowly snuck into the B+ group on the strength of average bat-missing and solidly above-average contact-management performance with his curve. He yielded a high number of fly balls with the pitch but shut down their authority (50 Adjusted Contact Score). He was extremely unlucky on grounders, with his unsightly 186 Unadjusted Contact Score marked down significantly to 73 for context.

He threw his curve harder than any other NL qualifier (average of 84.8 mph), and its average horizontal (5.3 inches, tied for seventh least among NL qualifiers) and vertical (1.0 inches, third least) movement were both well below average.

FanGraphs also rated the pitch highly: fourth in overall value, driven by its high (23.3%) usage, and 12th on value per 100 pitches.

Next week, we’ll get into the four-seam fastballs, beginning with the AL.

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7 years ago

Would love an article on pitch types for non-qualifiers just to give these guys some context vs Kershaw

7 years ago
Reply to  jkuhlen

And Rich Hill too.

Pirates Hurdles
7 years ago
Reply to  oldschoolways

and Taillon

7 years ago
Reply to  jkuhlen

Yeah, it definitely needs more Kershaw, stupid injury.

7 years ago
Reply to  jkuhlen

Nola too would get into the mix