Jon Gray’s Curveball Didn’t Work

Last night, the Rockies got let down by most of their pitching staff. Unlikely heroes Scott Oberg and Chris Rusin came in and shut the door, but the guys the Rockies were really counting on — particularly starter Jon Gray — just couldn’t keep the Diamondbacks from putting runs on the board.

Gray, coming off a pretty great season, gave up four runs while recording just four outs. And while Bud Black correctly noted that he just threw some pitches in some bad locations, I think it’s also fair to question some of the pitches themselves.

In particular, Gray decided last night to use his curveball more often than his slider. As Jeff noted a few weeks ago, Gray’s curveball has gotten better and given him a legitimate third pitch, but it was always his third pitch, with his slider as his primary off-speed offering. In the biggest start in his career, though, he threw nine curveballs and eight sliders. And those nine curveballs resulted mostly in disaster.

Here’s a full accounting of Gray’s curveballs from last night.

1st inning, vs David Peralta, 2-0 count:

Hanging curve, but off the plate, taken for ball three. Peralta would go on to get a base hit in this at-bat.

1st inning, vs Paul Goldschmidt, 0-0 count:

Welp. Hanging curve, down the middle, and Goldschmidt crushed it. And now Arizona was up three before Gray recorded an out.

1st inning, vs J.D. Martinez, 0-2 count:

This is a spot where he could have put Martinez away with a well located breaking ball, but he threw a slow breaking ball in the zone, and Martinez hit it just foul down the third base line.

1st inning, vs J.D. Martinez, 0-2 count:

The very next pitch, he spots one out of the zone going for the chase, but Martinez lays off.

1st inning, vs J.D. Martinez, 1-2 count:

Gray got a foul with a fastball following the last two curves, then went back to another one for the last pitch here. This might have been his best curve of the night, just off the plate, though it still didn’t have a ton of bite to it, and Martinez put it in play. But he didn’t hit it that well, and it went for a harmless out.

1st inning, vs Jake Lamb, 0-1 count:

Probably Gray’s best located curve on the night, this one drops out of the zone, and Lamb is out in front, fouling it off for strike two.

1st inning, vs A.J. Pollock, 0-0 count:

Hanging curve, middle of the zone, and Pollock rips it for a double. Not quite as bad as the one to Goldschmidt, but this is not where you want a first pitch curveball, especially for a team that was aggressively going after the first pitch.

1st inning, vs Jeff Mathis, 2-2 count:

Hanging curve, middle of the zone. If a better hitter than Jeff Mathis was up there, this one might have gotten crushed too. He got lucky this was just a harmless foul ball.

2nd inning, vs David Peralta, 0-0 count:

Another first pitch curve in the zone, another Arizona batter not fooled. The vertical location is okay, but it’s over the heart of the plate, so Peralta just drove it into center field for a base hit. That was the last curveball Gray would throw, as he was removed after one more batter.

The final tally? Nine curves, two taken for balls, three balls hit foul, and four put in play. Here are the exit velocities of the four balls the Diamondbacks hit off Gray’s curve.

Goldschmidt HR: 99.8 mph
Martinez F7: 77.3 mph
Pollock 2B: 95.6 mph
Peralta 1B: 109.2 mph

The average EV off Gray’s curve was 95.5 mph. It generated zero swinging strikes, and of the three fouls it got, two came when there were already two strikes, meaning it didn’t put him in a better count.

Gray didn’t exactly dominate with his fastball or slider, and he knows better than we do why he went to his curve so frequently last night, but based on what the pitch was doing, I’m not exactly sure why he featured his third-best pitch so often. It didn’t bite, it mostly wasn’t located well, it wasn’t catching the Diamondbacks hitters by surprise, and when it got hit, it got really hit.

Given that the pitchers after him gave up seven more runs, we can’t exactly lay this one entirely on Jon Gray. But the Rockies certainly hoped for more from their best starter last night, and part of the reason he only got four outs is that he relied pretty heavily on a pretty awful curveball, and the D’Backs made him pay for it.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Considering we’re only discussing 9 curves in a short outing, couldn’t this just been a batter matchup thing?

6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

9 pitches out of 41 though. That’s pretty high usage for your third best pitch in such an important game. Especially considering the lack of movement and generally poor location. I would think Lucroy would go out there and say, “hey man, no mas.”

6 years ago
Reply to  zmo

I was trying to point out that, considering the sample size, we’re talking about 3 or 4 extra curves above his normal usage rate (14%).

On the other hand, as YKnotDisco pointed out, the Diamondbacks have been better at hitting curves than sliders. And looking at JD Martinez (the only guy who saw more than 1 in an at-bat), the curveball looks like his best pitch to hit.

So, yeah, definitely an odd decision.

AJ pro-Preller
6 years ago
Reply to  zmo

He only used 9 because he was always behind in the count. HOLY FUCK does anyone here watch the game before uttering stupid BS like this. He recently face the D-backs twice late in the season and used his fast-ball A LOT! WATCH THE GAMES!!!!

6 years ago
Reply to  AJ pro-Preller

Can’t even tell what your point is, but you sound like a Rockies fan.

6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Maybe partially, but it’s mostly because those curveballs were poorly located, didn’t break sharply or late, and weren’t well sequenced.