Lance McCullers Curveballs Like Nobody Curveballs

David Laurila published an interview with Lance McCullers last Friday. On Sunday, McCullers made his latest start, and here is about 1% of it:

Here is a view of the same thing happening, only taking place over a greater amount of time:

Good result. Good curveball! Nothing new there — McCullers tends to get good results, mostly because he throws a good curveball. His curveball bears a strong resemblance to that thrown by Craig Kimbrel, the difference being that McCullers is a starting pitcher, which is nuts. He’s not a two-pitch guy, but everyone knows the curveball is his weapon; as a rookie, his curve was worth about 18 runs better than average, while his fastball and change combined to be worth about -7.

You can’t learn a lot from one video clip. It’s always helpful to establish context. So, here’s the whole point of this. Last season, among starters, McCullers threw baseball’s hardest average curveball, by 0.1 miles per hour. In curveball rate, he ranked sixth. Good curveball, hard curveball, used it a lot. Moving on.

This season, among starters, McCullers has thrown baseball’s hardest average curveball, by 2.0 miles per hour. In curveball rate, he ranks first. He ranks first by more than seven percentage points. McCullers has thrown a curveball 49% of the time, and out of his five starts, his lowest rate is 42%. You think Rich Hill curveballs a lot? You think Drew Pomeranz curveballs a lot? They most certainly do, sure, but not like McCullers. No starter throws curves as often as he does, and no starter throws curves as hard as he does.

For what it’s worth, we have pitch-type information stretching back to 2002. The highest curveball rates on record for starters:

  1. Lance McCullers, 2016, 48.5%
  2. John Stephens, 2002, 46.0%
  3. Phil Irwin, 2013, 41.9%
  4. Pat Mahomes, 2003, 41.7%
  5. Rich Hill, 2015, 41.5%

McCullers also ranks first in velocity, assuming this is a data glitch:


Compared to last year, McCullers has thrown plenty more curves. Statistically, that’s sensible, because the curve is his best pitch. Even now, the curve still has a strongly positive run value, while the other pitches don’t. It’s interesting to observe that the whiff rate at his curveball has only gone up, and rather substantially so. His fastball is like a secondary pitch at this point. Speaking of which — he’s throwing his fastball a little slower. He’s throwing his changeup a little slower. The curveball is harder. Part of this is probably just having a harder curveball, and another part is probably favoring the sharper curve over the loopier curve, as McCullers discussed with Laurila. He says he’s got two varieties of the breaking ball, and evidence suggests he’s been using more of the hard one.

So Lance McCullers is highly atypical. Or, he’s been so, so far. It’s worth noting it hasn’t all been good news — his ERA is over 4, in part because his walk rate has almost doubled. The strikeouts are up, and the grounders are up, but McCullers is searching for a groove. If and when he finds one, maybe it’ll feature fewer curves. Maybe the curves will be slower. I can’t tell you exactly where Lance McCullers is going to settle.

But the version we’ve seen this season? Haven’t seen a starter quite like this. Not, at least, for a long, long time.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

I can’t help but wonder with a pitch like this, what percentage of the time could he throw it before seriously diminished results?